The smaller Eastern Churches

W e have repeatedly noticed the existence of churches which had broken away from the Catholic Church and had ceased to be in communion with it. Until well after the year 950, indeed until the sixteenth century, many more of these were to be found in the East than in the West. Some of these bodies completely died out and we have only fragmentary information about them. Most of that which has reached us has come down from their critics. Such were the Paulicians. Some of the movements which have disappeared differed radically from the Catholic Church not only in doctrine but also in forms of worship and in organization. However, several of the dissident bodies have survived into our own day, although with greatly diminished numbers. As we have suggested, they separated from the Catholic Church ostensibly on questions of doctrine but in reality as much from regional, national, or racial opposition to the dominance of the Byzantine Empire and the Greeks as on creedal grounds. At the outset they were larger than the more drastic dissenters. Beginning with the seventh century, all had to face Islam. Sooner or later, although for some not until after 950, almost all the territories in which they existed were subjugated by Moslems. Identified with national or racial units, they held out against the politically dominant Islam. However, eventually all dwindled in numbers and today none is as strong as it was in the era with which this chapter deals. All that have survived have preserved, with variations, the structure and forms of worship which were theirs before they separated from the Catholic Church. All have a distinct clergy with the main orders of priests and bishops. All have monks and monasteries. All have baptism and the Eucharist, and the latter is usually observed with an elaborate liturgy. Each has its creed. Each regards itself as preserving the Gospel in its purity and looks upon other churches as heretical.

In several of the lands in which these bodies enrolled the majority of those bearing the Christian name, the Catholics were to be found under their own clergy but as minorities for whom a customary designation was Melchite. There were, as we have seen, "Mel-chite" or Catholic Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria.

It was a divided Church which faced the expanding and dominant Islam and the common danger from that rival faith did not bring its severed branches together. Indeed, by removing the common bond of political unity under a professedly Christian state, the Byzantine continuation of the Roman Empire, the Arab conquests led to an accentuation of the gulfs which kept the bodies apart. In Baghdad, for instance, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphs, there were Nestorian, Jacobite, and Melchite communities. There resided the Catholicos or Patriarch of the Nestorians. On at least one occasion when the Melchite Patriarch of Antioch appointed a metropolitan for the Melchites in Baghdad, the Nestorian Catholicos strongly objected to the action as an infringement on his see. But the Jacobites also had a bishop there.

During the earlier centuries of the period from A.D. 500 to A.D. 950, even after the Arab conquests, several of these churches displayed geographic expansion. By A.D. 950, however, and this becomes one reason for fixing that year as the terminal date of the era of the great recession, almost all and perhaps all were losing ground.

We must now take up the chief of these churches one by one and say something of their history. At best we can give them only brief mention. That is partly because the records of some of them are not available to us, but chiefly because, even as early as this period, the main stream of Christianity as measured by inner vitality and the effect upon mankind as a whole did not flow through them. We will begin in the south-west of the areas in which they were present and move northward and eastward.

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