Monday, August 27, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Nine: The Final Years

Emperor Andronicus II Palaiologos

Note:  This is the last part of the series.

Church-State relations improved during the thirty-nine-year reign of Michael’s son Andronicus (II). Andronicus gained initial popularity by repudiating the Union of Lyons. But the hardline followers of Arsenius remained opposed to Andronicus, despite the many gestures he made to reach out to them. Andronicus struggled with his Patriarchs, of whom there were no fewer than nine during his reign. Due in part to the political meddling of the Patriarch Athanasius, Andronicus often left the see of Constantinople vacant. This enabled him to have a freer hand in appointing and deposing bishops and reorganizing the Church, an effort made essential by the Empire’s extensive loss of territory to the Turks.

After Andronicus’ death, the Empire was plagued by continual political instability. Various individuals, including one Patriarch, vied for control of the government. The Hesychast controversy of the mid-fourteenth century provided another source of internal disunity, although the majority of Church officials supported the Emperor John Cantcuzenus’ decision to accept the doctrine. Toward the end of the pro-Roman Emperor John V’s reign, the Emperor issued a statement that affirmed his absolute authority over the Church and its hierarchy. John’s successors exercised this authority in a variety of ways without opposition. His grandson John VIII, however, discovered the limits of imperial power when, accompanied a group of mostly reluctant bishops, he attended the Council of Ferrara-Florence. There John and his bishops submitted to a series of Roman demands, including the rule of the Pope over all Christians. When they returned home, however, the Byzantines encountered violent opposition to their action. Despite being Emperor, John was unable to implement the Council’s decision, and the Eastern Church remained in schism with the West. Events again showed that although the Emperor’s authority over the Church was theoretically absolute, in practice it had limits.

In The Byzantine Theocracy, Steven Runciman clearly shows how many scholars’ characterization of Church-State relations in the Byzantine Empire as “Caesaropapism,” or total subordination of the Church to the State, is far from accurate. Runciman argues that the upper hand between Church and Emperor repeatedly passed back and forth, even if it usually rested with the Emperor. Throughout most of its history, most Byzantines viewed the Emperor as the senior partner in the Church-State marriage. But as Runciman demonstrates time and again, the Church was not always willing to be totally submissive to every wish and act of an Emperor. When Emperors acted immorally or lawlessly, the Church was not shy to rebuke him or even to work for his removal.

Runciman has masterfully condensed over one thousand years of Church-State relations into a work of only 164 pages, making many extremely complex issues and events to be highly accessible to the average reader. His writing style is clear and engaging. Like nearly any historical writer, he commits a few minor errors, such as stating that the Emperor Theodore II died in 1268 rather than 1258. But such errors are understandable, inevitable, and forgivable. Perhaps the most glaring flaw of the book is Runciman’s continual use of the word “worship” to describe the iconodules’ treatment of icons. Runciman surely knew that the Orthodox Church has always made a distinction between worship (Greek latreia) and veneration (Greek proskynesis). Orthodox Christians are forbidden to give latreia to anyone or anything but God, while they are encouraged to give proskynesis to icons, crosses, Gospel books, relics, and other things. Runciman’s repeated claim that Orthodox Christians “worship” icons reveals a major misunderstanding of Orthodox faith and praxis. Despite these flaws, The Byzantine Theocracy is an outstanding book that should be read by everyone who wants to understand the history of Eastern Christianity and the Byzantine Empire.

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