In England we have the three main Christian faiths.
- Protestant (Mainly Anglican in England)
- Roman Catholic
- Greek or Eastern Orthodox (Mainly immigrants from Cyprus, Greece, the Balkans and Russia)
The English perspective
The Reformation and the split from the Roman Church by the English.
We have seen how the English broke away from the Roman Catholic Church some 500 years ago under King Henry 8th and Queen Elizabeth 1st to create an Anglican version of the new Church started by the German Luther. Luther’s main problems with the Catholic Church in the 15th century were two fold.
- The leaders of Rome Church were corrupt. A good example of this was the sale of indulgencies as a way of increasing Church revenue. (An indulgence is a penalty levelled on Catholics for sins already confessed and forgiven by God for which an unscrupulous priest could demand cash from the unfortunate sinner.) The Roman Church had become very wealthy through moral blackmail of this type.
- A number of theological points which could not be accepted by the more scientific age of the time. The best example is probably the belief by Catholics that during Mass (Eucharist or Communion) the wine and bread literally turns into the blood and flesh of Jesus. Another worth noting here is the Lutheran problem with the Catholic concept of Purgatory that is the limbo state between death and heaven where some people can get stuck for ever.
The creation of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church (1054) predates the Lutheran/ Protestant movement by 500 years. The background must go back a further 1000 years to the Roman Empire and St Peter who became the first Bishop of Rome (later, in 1073, the Bishop of Rome would be called the Pope). The key events during the years from about 200 to 1000 AD were as follows.
2000 years ago
The Decline of the Roman Empire
- 235- 284 (AD) The political, moral and military decline of the Roman Empire had commenced and it was under attack on all fronts, East, West, North and South. The Romans soon left England and lost all countries south of the Rhine including Gaul (France) and Spain. In the East they lost the whole of the Levant and Holy Land and 1/3 of Turkey in the East
The Roman nation adopts Christianity as its official religion
- 312 (AD) Roman Emperor Constantine is converted to Christianity.
- 330 Byzantium, the headquarters of the east arm of the Roman Empire becomes Emperor Constantine’s favourite city, which he renames Constantinople. (Modern day Istanbul)
- 325 Date of the important theological conference just out side Constantinople at Nicea. The Roman influence on the rules of Christianity are discussed and written down. It is significant that even though the Pope (though still called the Bishop of Rome) is headquartered in Rome this vital conference is taking place in the Byzantium East (Constantinople). Examples of milestones reached are. The creation of the Nicene Creed. (What Christians should believe in) and the documented beginning of the persecution of Jews who from thence forth Christians are told to treat as second class citizens. (Jews were to be persecuted by Christians for the next 1500 years, eventually to be freed firstly by Oliver Cromwell in England 1657 and then in mainland Europe by Napoleon 1800-1815.)
- 395 The Roman Empire is officially divided into East and West.
- 410 Rome is sacked by a German tribe. (Visigoths)
Extermination of the Western Roman Empire
- 476 The Western Roman Empire ceased to exist. Strangely the Roman senate still sat and Latin remained the official language but German Ostrogoths now ruled Italy.
- 482-565 The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian re-conquered Italy and fought back the Persians in the east. Jerusalem came under Roman control once more but both conquests were short lived. Justinian, a Christian built the famous Church of St Sophia in Constantinople.
- 325-870 The Christian theological centre was certainly Constantinople and not Rome. During this period there were four Councils of Constantinople (Inc Nicea) discussing and ruling on vital issues like the Trinity (God Jesus and Holy Spirit). As had occurred some 700 years earlier with Jews in Jerusalem, Byzantium Theologians were much influenced by classical Greek thinking. Indeed the official language throughout the Byzantium Empire was Greek not Latin. Justinian on his return to Italy found he was introducing a Greek Culture into a Latin society. The Bishops of Rome (Popes) were not inactive during this period, for at least they held the Western Church (Roman) together in the face of Pagan domination. Centres of religion in the west were in places like Milan (Bishop Ambrose 374-397), Hippo (Augustine 354-430, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa about 100 miles west of Carthage Tunisia. Converted by Ambrose and teacher of St Patrick and writer of more than 20 theological papers). Indeed while theologians in Constantinople were debating Christian theology is was not Rome but Englishman St Patrick working in Ireland with his faithful army of Irishmen who were holding the Theology of the Roman Catholic Church together. Ireland was probably the only place in Western Europe where the German pagan tribes were not burning all the Christian scriptures they could find.
The Birth of Islam
- 622 The 16th July to be precise marks the birth of Islam. This is not Mohammed’s birthday but the day he was forced to migrate from Mecca to Medina. Mohammed died in 632 by which time he had formed a new religion and a book of rules. (The Koran) The morals of the new this new faith were much the same as Judaism and Christianity; love your neighbough, look after the poor- (indeed at Medina he lived amongst Jews). At the time of his death almost all in (Saudi) Arabia were converted to Islam. In terms of the spread of Islam his successor Abu Bakr was even more successful.
- 638-800 In 638 he took Jerusalem from the Byzantium Empire and by 711 the whole of Mediterranean North Africa and north into Spain was Islamic. Muslim armies were soon in France but were stropped by the then most powerful nation in Western Europe and the recent converts to Christianity, the Franks. (The Muslims claimed the weather in France was so inclement that it was not worth fighting for.) This victory over the Muslims (732) by the Christian and Latin speaking Franks and the subsequent expansion of the Frankish Empire into northern Italy under Charlemagne triggered the concept, in the eyes of the Pope, of a belated replacement to the armies of the Western Roman Empire. In 800 Pope Leo 3rd crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire” which in a stroke gave the Pope the military muscle the Roman Catholic Church had lost to the German pagans.
Back in the East
- 988 With influence from Constantinople the Russian (Orthodox) Christian Church is founded.
1000 years ago
The formation of the Greek/Eastern Orthodox Christian Church
- 1054 The Eastern Christian Church headquartered in Constantinople split from the Western Church headquartered in Rome creating what we now know as The Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church. Why? It was mutual. The Pope in Rome triggered it by excommunicating the Patriarch in Constantinople for many minor theological issues which the Eastern Church were concerned about. (The type of bread used at Mass-Eucharist). The main issue was the so called “filioque” clause seen by Rome as a necessary modification to the Nicene Creed, as follows; Original and Orthodox version, “The Holy Spirit…… who proceedeth from the Father”. The Pope wanted it changed to “who proceedeth from the Father and the Son” Clearly since Emperor Constantine Constantinople, more secure within the Byzantium Empire, had been more active than Rome in theological issues and resented Rome’s interference and assumption of primacy. Constantinople was also nervous about the extreme and unchecked power the Pope had acquired through the formidable armies of the Holy Roman Empire. The Eastern authorities favoured their religious leader to report to a Christian head of State. This schism was expected to be temporary but lasted until 1960 when the mutual excommunications of 1054 were lifted.
- 1095 The first Crusade. This was triggered by attacks on Christian Byzantium territories by Muslim armies. In Arabia the Arabs were no longer the threat, as they had been invaded by a formidable fighting force from what is now called Turkmenistan who had been converted to Islam by the Arabs (then called Seljuk Turks). Constantinople through their ambassador in Rome asked the Pope for help. They knew he could call on the most formidable army in Western Europe through the Holy Roman Emperor. Surprisingly even though he had been snubbed by Constantinople the Pope agreed but equally surprisingly he waged a religious war with volunteer Crusaders rather than using the military might under his effective command. The Crusades from Western Europe designed initially to help the Eastern Christians in the Byzantium territories against the Muslim armies lased until 1444. As we have seen Western Christian Crusaders or religious fanatics were pretty barbaric and murdered anyone not purporting to be a Christian en route to the east, particularly the Jews. During the forth Crusade even the headquarters of the breakaway Eastern Church in Constantinople was attacked by these barbaric western Crusaders. This did nothing to mend the differences between Rome and Constantinople. The English were not regularly involved with crusading. The exception was English/Norman King Richard, who did a deal with the Muslim Turk, Saladin and gained passage for Christian pilgrims into Jerusalem. Richard was thus heralded by early historians as a great king. Unfortunately the opposite is the case. During his reign of England he was, as most Norman Kings were, also ruling some 50% of modern day France. He spent more time on Crusades and living in France than he did in ruling England and this contributed to the later demise and eventual elimination of English/Norman power in France.
- 1204 The rise of the Venetians. The main beneficiary after the 4th Crusade was certainly not Byzantium or the Eastern Church but Venice whose growing fleets carried the Crusaders to their war targets. Indeed Byzantium was loosing territory both east and west as for example in 1261 when the Greek Empire was re-established under Latin and Roman Papal control.
The fall of the centre of Eastern Christianity to the Muslims
- 1206- 1453 The final extermination of Constantinople as the headquarters of the Eastern Christian Church by Islamic forces started in Mongolia in 1206 when Genghis Khan united all the Mongolian tribes by using similar battle tactics to the Seljuk Turks (both operating at the same time but in different territories) that is a light, fast moving cavalry where the horsemen were not only skilled riders but also could fire arrows accurately from a galloping horse. (Hit and run). In the west the Mongol armies devastated Poland in 1241 and flattened Baghdad in 1258. In 1281 Osman, a descendent of Genghis Khan ruled all the eastern part of present day Turkey and with his exceptional military tactics swept through the rest of the Byzantium Empire though not the headquarters in Constantinople which was almost an impenetrable fortress because of its location on the Bosporus. It was not until 1453 when under the Ottoman Muslim leader Mehmed 2nd Constantinople was finally taken. Although the Muslims were much kinder to the Christians than the Christians were to Muslims it was necessary for the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church to find a more appropriate location as Churches were rapidly being converted into Mosques. Russia became the caretaker host.
The Last 500 Years
Eastern Orthodox Christians live as minorities in an Islamic World
From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 until 1800 when the English (The British Empire) as the most powerful nation on Earth were strong enough the start chipping away at the Ottoman Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church lived as an oppressed minority group amongst Muslims. The English motive was not religious but commercial, to free the Mediterranean from the Islamic Ottoman blockade for shipping to India. Remember Christian Europeans only discovered the Americas in the West as the Ottomans had blocked their quick trade routes to the East via the Mediterranean. Clearly as an oppressed minority, the Eastern Christians had had some 400 years for reflection and consolidation. Indeed similar to the Jews who had lived as an oppressed minority race for at least 1500 years until Napoleon freed them in 1800.
Meanwhile in Western Europe during this period the Roman Catholic Christian Church maintained their ruthless oppression of any competing faiths and continued their appallingly corrupt methods of collecting funds. Ironically it was the fall of Constantinople in the east and the subsequent mass emigration of Greek inspired philosophers, theologians and artists from Constantinople to Northern Italy that fuelled the Renaissance in the west. This was followed by the Reformation and then the Enlightenment. It was left to the French Revolution and Napoleon to finally free Western Europe from Roman Catholic oppression and corruption. Remember the English had seen the light some 300 years earlier and had come the greatest nation on earth partly as a result of it. The Eastern Orthodox Church neither had the need, the will or the opportunity for such radical cultural or theological changes.
The British finally conquered the Islamic Ottomans as part of their victories in World War One, 1914-1918. However the main territories of the Eastern Orthodox Church still boarder Muslim areas. Turkey once proudly Christian as the rich empire of Byzantium, is now Islamic and poor. In The Balkans we have an unhappy mix of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Christian and Muslims. A recipe for disaster resulting in the recent Balkan blood bath. In 1974 Islamic Turkey invaded the small Greek island of Cyprus still under British military protection. Unfortunately at the time, England was governed not by Margaret Thatcher but by ineffective Harold Wilson and English troops were ordered to “Return to Barracks”. Cyprus remains divided into two to this day, with wealthy Greek Orthodox Christians in the south and poor Islamic Cypriots and Turks in the north partitioned by a Berlin style wall. Even before 1974 the majority of Islamic Cypriots lived in poor ghettoes as the rules of their faith, particularly restrictions on women being gainfully employed, precluded their families from a modern society. (Exactly as Senior Berlusconi the Italian PM has recently remarked.)
Theologically each country has a leader for their own Orthodox community. This includes England where the majority of Greek Orthodox Christians have fully integrated with their more secular English neighbours and live peacefully mainly in and around Harringay in North London. Religious authority comes from their Patriarch in Oxford not as the minority English Roman Catholics whose ultimate authority is still the Pope in Rome.