A Summary of the So-Called Photian Schism
From the Notes of Lay-Brother Michael
(The Initial Event Leading to the Official Split
Between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox)


Western historians have long termed the controversy between Patriarch St. Photius and Rome the 'Photian Schism'. It is claimed that the Eastern Church, with Photius, through his selfish ambition and wanting to revolt from the universally acknowledged authority of Rome, which he saw a yoke to their independence, trumped up the charge of the Filioque as heresy, even though the addition had been around for 400 years.

And he did this only as an excuse to counter Rome and engineer a 'split' which would grant his Church independence. Then, after the Photian controversy, the 'history' of the Great Schism continues, and these charges were renewed and the split finalized by Michael Cerularius in 1054, granting the Eastern church its autonomy.

But the Eastern Church has a very different reading of these events, all of which depends on how one understands the actual place of the Roman See in the Church, and the political situation of the East and West Romans and the Franks.

In 847 was the repose of St. Methodius, patriarch of Constantinople, appointed by Empress Theodora and one of the restorers of the Icons. Ignatios, a monk, and son of the former Emperor Michael I Rhangabe, was appointed Patriarch by Theodora without an ecclesiastical election.

In 856 Emperor Michael III, the son of Theodora, left the government mostly in the charge of his uncle Bardas, brother to Theodora.

Ignatios was part of the extreme monastic party left over from iconoclastic times, and had little of the diplomacy of St. Methodius, and so he engendered splits within the ranks of the clergy.

Also, the young Emperor and Bardas conspired to totally control the government, had his Mother Theodora and sisters put in monasteries, and her chief advisor Theocristus killed. Ignatios refused to tonsure them nuns against their will, so in 858 Ignatios was arrested for treason and exiled to the island of Terebinthos, where he later submitted his voluntary resignation.

For almost a year the patriarchal throne was vacant, then in 858 Photius, a learned and respected professor of philosophy and dialectics at the Imperial University, and holder of various other high civil offices, as well as ambassador, was requested by Bardas to accept the patriarchate.

He was the nephew of patriarch Tarasios, who presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the most distinguished scholar of his time. Photius did not want to serve in such a high office, but rather to pray and study in peace, but he reluctantly agreed to become patriarch. He was canonically elected by clergy and laymen in 858 as Patriarch, and in 6 days was elevated through the ranks of clergy to the highest office.

However, by 859 fanatic followers of Ignatios resolved to dethrone Photius. Ignatios did not act in any way to stop them. They decided to appeal to Rome, despite the already poor relations between them. Their petition was signed by only six metropolitans and fifteen bishops.

In 859-860 some of those dissident monks arrived in Rome from Constantinople, and, as followers of Ignatios, told pope Nicholas that they refused to recognize Photius as the lawful patriarch.

Pope Nicholas, learning that Photius, being a layman, was made patriarch, which in his eyes was uncanonical, (canons in the West forbade hasty ordinations, whereas there were no such canons in the East; and it is interesting to note that St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, living in the 4th century in the West, was elevated from lay-man to bishop in just 8 days, just as St. Photius was) saw his opportunity to interfere in the affairs of the Church of Constantinople. He was an exponent of the idea of the 'universal jurisdiction' papacy and had written extensively on this, and had brought the Western hierarchy under him.

He intended not only to subject the Eastern Church to the papacy, but also to wrest control of the whole Balkan peninsula, southern Italy, Sicily, and all the new Slavic lands which had just begun to accept the Christian faith from Constantinople.

However, Nicholas was to find that although he was able to subject an illiterate West, with little knowledge of councils past, the Easterners viewed with scorn and contempt his quest for supremacy over them.

In 859 Photius held a council in the Church of the Holy Apostles to counter the rebellious bishops. The council ratified Photius’s election. But the Ignatians protested and the emperor stepped in and persecuted them, which the patriarch Photius denounced, and said if they did not stop he would abdicate. Through his efforts the persecution was checked, and Bardas allowed Ignatios to return to Constantinople. But Ignatios still refused to accept Photius.

In 859, still not yet receiving Photius’s enthronement letter, or aware of the Photian council, pope Nicholas wrote to Photius and the Emperor- he questioned and discredited the election of Photius. In his view all controversies need to be appealed to Rome, thus he attacked the election of Photius while there was still dissention over Ignatios' deposition and resignation.

In 861 Emperor Michael III, with approval of Photius ordered a general council to discuss the question. This has come to be known as the First-Second Council. He invited all the patriarchs including that of Rome. Nicholas sent legates to the council to approve Photius if they found his election to be canonical, but only if Rome got Illyricum and South Italy. The Council ratified Photius' patriarchate, but the conditions made by pope Nicholas were ignored.

Photius, after the council, wrote a letter to Nicholas outlining his view of his election to the episcopate, the importance of adhering to Tradition, and that the Christian Faith is the foundation of Christian unity, not secondary issues such as the shaving of clergy, different prayers and rules of fasting.

Instead of softening the heart of Nicholas, his anger increased. In 863 Nicholas convoked a council in the Lateran, unjustly deposed and excommunicated Photius, and recognized Ignatios as Patriarch. He wrote letters to Michael II and Photius, and to the Eastern Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, commanding them to be made known to their faithful the decisions of Rome.

This action of Nicholas is considered by some historians to be the first major breach between the Eastern and Western church.

This initiated Photius' challenge of the right of the papacy to rule on matters of the Eastern Church, over the new assertions of the pope of Rome, and the use of the Filioque in the Western Nicean Creed.

Emperor Michael replied to the pope that the papal decisions had no validity. No one had appointed the pope to pass judgement on Photius and the Eastern Church.

The Pope replied in even louder terms based on the 'Donation of Constantine' and the "Isidorian Decretals", and the "Peter/Rock" exegesis of Scripture.

The Pope then ordered Photius and Ignatios to be sent to Rome to be judged by him. Photius was silent, and gave no reply. The Byzantine Emperor then terminated further contact with the pope.

In 860 came the Russian attack of Byzantium. The people called the 'Rus' came in a surprise attack upon Byzantium when the Emperor and army were away, and ravaged the countryside. St. Photius prayed with the people for God to be their shield and general, and when the Russians departed almost all their ships were destroyed by a storm. Later these same people were to be converted to Christianity.

In 863 brothers Cyril and Methodius were sent by Photius to preach the Gospel to the Slavonic people in their own tongue. They invented a new alphabet for Slavonic, and then translated the Bible and the Liturgy.

It was at this time when, seeing the success and purpose of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Frankish clergy made the declaration that the only languages permissible to serve the Eucharist were the three written by Pilate above the Cross of Christ: Hebrew, Greek, Latin.

Cyril and Methodius went to Rome in regard to this dispute with the Western bishops. Pope Hadrian II, not wanting to offend the Franks, agreed with the brothers, and approved their translated service books. Although St. Cyril died in 869, St. Methodius was elevated by the pope to a bishopric in Illyricum, an area he claimed was in his jurisdiction.

The Germans, infuriated, imprisoned Methodius for over two years until the pope secured his release, by agreeing he could not use Slavonic in Church services. He visited St. Photius in 882 and was received cordially. St. Methodius reposed in 885. His work was continued by others among the Slavonic people, and firmly established Orthodox Christianity on Slavonic soil, in Moravia, Bulgaria and later to Russia.

In 864, during this time there began the struggle between Constantinople and Rome over the new Bulgarian Church. King Boris, jealous of the alliance between the Moravians and Byzantium, sent an embassy to the Franks. However, the Byzantine army showed up on Boris' frontiers, and the imperial navy off his coast, and so induced him to listen to Byzantium.

The last thing Byzantium wanted was a Bulgarian alliance with the Franks and Rome, and asked Boris to forgo a Frankish alliance and receive Orthodoxy form Constantinople. Boris, then converted to Orthodoxy, and was catechized and baptized by Photius, and Emperor Michael was his godfather.

But soon Boris, impressed by Photius and the Office of Patriarch, wanted to have his own Patriarch and an independent Bulgarian Church. Photius however, considering them new in the Faith, wanted to only send them missionaries.

Boris then turned hastily again to the Franks and Rome in the hope of getting from them an independent church. Pope Nicholas persuaded Boris to separate from the Church of Constantinople and to receive clergy that Nicholas sent to Bulgaria. He tried to convince Boris that Rome as the heir of the chair of St. Peter was the very source of the episcopate itself, and therefore Boris could not receive any bishop but from Rome.

Nicholas sent many clergy and bishops, who impressed Boris. They also persecuted and drove out the Eastern bishops who were already there.

In 865, meanwhile, in Constantinople, Basil, the friend of Emperor Michael, came into conflict with the ambitious and powerful Bardas, influenced Michael against him, and slew him. Then he was made his co-emperor by Michael.

In 867 Photius wrote to Pope Nicholas, declaring the belief in the independence of the Eastern Church. He demanded as an ultimatum that the papal decision against Photius be withdrawn. He also wrote declaring that the East Romans reject Rome's claim to supremacy.

He had also sent a circular letter to the other patriarchates regarding the intrusion of Rome into Bulgaria and the crimes of the papal clergy, and requested that the patriarchs to come or send deputies to a council to discuss this. Photius also knew that the fate of the Balkan peninsula was a matter of life or death for Byzantium. (i.e. the Byzantine Commonwealth).

So in response to his summons a great council was convoked in Constantinople, with one thousand monks, bishops and clerics in attendance.

At this council Pope Nicholas was excommunicated for these reasons: His claim for primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church, his insulting actions against the Eastern Church, the papal invasion into Bulgaria, the heretical teaching of the Frankish missionaries and the Filioque addition to the Creed. His letters were read at the council, and by a unanimous vote Nicholas was held to be unworthy of the episcopate and was excommunicated (note that he was not deposed- to have deposed him would have meant a certain claim of jurisdiction over Rome, something which the Byzantines themselves rejected from the pope! However, any Church has the right to separate themselves from communion with clerics She finds guilty, and no longer considers them bishops).

The council also rejected the Frankish doctrine of the Flioque as heretical. Latin interference in the affairs of the Byzantine Church were declared unlawful.

The German Emperor Louis II, recognized as Emperor of the West, was asked by the council, with the consent of Emperor Michael and Co-Emperor Basil to depose Nicholas. However, before this could be responded to or done, pope Nicholas died, and there was a new pope Hadrian II.

Soon after there was also a radical change of government in Byzantium.

At the end of 867 the new Emperor Basil I, in the midst of political intrigue, ascended the throne through the murder of Michael III, and was refused communion by Photius. Basil then deposed Photius and reinstated Ignatios on the patriarchal throne.

Basil, seemingly recognizing the authority of Rome in Byzantine Church affairs, sent representatives to Rome, and in 869 a council was held there in which Photius (and his associates) was anathematized for his 'unexampled impudence.'

Hadrian said at that council, 'The Pope judges all bishops, but we do not read that any have judged him'. He then wrote a letter to Basil, carried back by Basil's representatives, which told him to hold a council at Constantinople, at which his legates would preside and judge Photius.

In 869-870 Basil held this council in Constantinople. It is considered by the Roman Catholics to be the 8th Ecumenical Council, but regarded as a robber council by the Orthodox. Pope Hadrian II sent his representatives to this council on Basil's agreement to hold it.

Only 110 bishops attended, stacked by the emperor against Photius. This may seem like a lot of bishops, but is really a fraction if one considers that the patriarchate of Constantinople alone consisted of 600 bishops. This Council condemned Photius and acquitted Ignatios and the reposed pope Nicholas I. Ignatios, although present, remained silent through the council. Photius was exiled by Basil to the Monastery of the Holy Protection on the Bosporos. Although wrongly deposed, he did not excite his followers to rebellion, but entreated them to bear the events without protest.

How did this council became recognized as the 8th Ecumenical Council? When Latin canonists in the 11th century, during the investiture controversy, found in the acts of this council a decision forbidding the laity to interfere with the election of a bishop, they were so delighted and pleased that they not only forgot this council was later condemned, and even condemned by a pope, but promoted it to be one of the greatest councils of the Church.

But then something unexpected occurred at this council. Three days after the last session concluded, a Bulgarian embassy arrived in Constantinople seeking to establish an independent Church. The council convened again to consider the question of whether the Bulgarians belonged to Rome or Constantinople. Boris had become disillusioned with Rome when they had rejected his candidates for the archbishopric, so he decided to turn to Constantinople again.

Despite vehement protests from the Roman legates, the council decided in favor of Byzantium. Emperor Basil permitted patriarch Ignatios to consecrate Joseph as Archbishop and several other bishops for the Bulgars. The Bulgarian Church in turn, recognized the supremacy of Constantinople, but they still had some measure of autonomy.

When pope Hadrian heard of the decision about Bulgaria, he threatened Ignatios and Joseph with excommunication. But Ignatios refused to submit to the pope.

Finally the new pope John VIII (872-882), waiting to pass the sentence of Hadrian, gave Ignatios an ultimatum- he would be excommunicated if he did not recall his bishops from Bulgaria in 30 days. However, this never passed, as Rome instead concentrated on missionary work in Moravia (Czechoslovakia) and the East with Methodius in Macedonia and Bulgaria, and the situation resolved itself.

In 875 Photius was recalled to Constantinople by Emperor Basil, feeling bad over how he had treated such a great man. Patriarch Ignatios also asked for his return.

In 879-880 Patriarch Ignatios, realizing he was close to death, advised emperor Basil to restore Photius as Patriarch.

In 879 a new council was held in Constantinople, which was formed as an Ecumenical Council at the time, though no longer recognized as such by either East or West, restored Photius to the patriarchate. In his letter to the council, pope John VII recognized Photius as the legitimate patriarch, and condemned the two earlier councils that had censured Photius.

However, he also took the opportunity to put forth claims of papal primacy, and acted as though Constantinople had required his approval of the return of Photius, and made many demands of Photius.

At this council it was stated in reply that the pope is a patriarch like any other patriarch, and that he possessed no authority over the whole church.

Hence it was not critical for the patriarch of Constantinople to receive confirmation from the pope. The council enacted a canon which said the bishop of Rome could only enjoy those privileges which he canonically possessed up to that time, which was his own jurisdiction in the West and the patriarchal primacy of honor.

The council in this way forbade Rome from extending her prerogatives in any way. The robber council of 869-870 in Constantinople was rejected.

Also, the theology of the Frankish councils of 1) Frankfort, which condemned the 7th Ecumenical Council, and 2) Aachen, which promoted the Filioque, were condemned, without mentioning their name or the exact doctrines involved. It simply condemned those who added or subtracted from the Creed, and did not accept the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

This was the first time in history that an ecumenical council did not mention a heresy or heretics by name - and here the Franks are clearly the heretics.

The Roman pope, represented at this council by his legates, and knowing it would be published and known in the West, could not afford to openly condemn the Franks, for they were essentially in control of Rome, and they had to be handled with great care and tact.

Despite his reservation, pope John VIII accepted the Photian council of 879-880. He also rejected the Filioque saying: '..we know the severe punishment he would deserve who would dare tamper with it (the Creed) ..we condemn those who, in their folly, have had the audacity to act otherwise from the beginning, as violators of the divine word. They are falsifiers of the doctrine of Christ, of the Apostles, and of the Fathers who have transmitted their Creed to us through the Councils.'

Yet he did say that he would not force those who already said the Creed this way to change.

Basil and Photius remained steadfast in their refusal to accept papal claims and in their overseeing of the Church and State affairs of Bulgaria.

Relations at this time between Rome and the East were reestablished due to this council, though they were casual and indefinite.

After the council Photius and Basil worked on the Epanagogue - the document of the policy of how Church and state, Patriarch and Emperor, the Sacerdotal and Secular, were to work together.

In 883 Photius sent a letter to the metropolitan of Aquileia in Italy defending the orthodox position of the procession of the Holy Spirit. This long epistle has come to be known by the title of 'The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit.'

Unfortunately, with another change of government in Constantinople, Photius was again deposed and died soon afterwards.