The structure and internal organization of Byzantine Christianity is complex and at times unwieldy. It combines a degree of autocephaly with an adherence to the concept of Ecumenical Councils which, in theory at least, drew on all parties within Christendom in deciding on agreed doctrine and practice within the Church. The councils were instrumental in agreeing the Christian creeds, but sometimes through the negative process of anathematizing perceived heretics rather than by a positive consensus of opinion. Their canons often trespassed on secular concerns (see further below).
The New Testament gives the prototype for faith leaders competing for status as organizers of their church, and this practice continued to dog the Church well into our era. The division of the Christian world into dioceses, geographical areas each 'overseen' by an episcopos, was not limited to the Byzantine period or territory. However, the issue of supremacy of one patriarchate over another characterizes Byzantine Christianity. The secular counterpart to this structure may be seen in the imperial organization which demonstrates well how power-sharing and delegation become essential as a state expands beyond the control of one individual. The term 'autocephalous' is derived from canon law, and denotes the right of each diocese to choose its own bishop. In the modern Eastern Christian churches this seems to be synonymous with ethnic boundaries, hence Armenian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox and so on. Byzantine times saw the gradual evolution of this system. Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea (325) established three separate dioceses of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. The Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century confirmed five major sees, with an implicit hierarchy. His decree affirmed the division made at Chalcedon (451) into Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. By the ninth century the theory of pentarchy theoretically ensured the equality of the five patriarchates.
The rivalry between patriarchates predates Chalcedon. In Canon 3 of the Council of Constantinople I (381) the Emperor Theodosius (in addition to refining significant aspects of Christological teaching) suggested that the patriarch of Constantinople be second only to the pope in Rome. The concept of Byzantium as the 'new Rome' was spawned, and the bishop began to be known as the 'patriarch' of Constantinople. The title 'ecumenical patriarch' was first used by John the Faster (d. 595), and he was rebuked for doing so by Pope Gregory (590-604), who thought he was claiming universal authority. Some of the friction between sees stemmed from theological divides and some from insensitive incursions into neighbours' jurisdictions. The five different locations for periods of exile of the anti-Arian Athanasius (c.296-373) indicate how the geography of heresy transcends that of the geographical patriarchates.
Whilst the day-to-day supervision and administration of worship and matters of faith were carried out within each autocephalous district, major doctrinal decisions were discussed at gatherings of the wider Church. Ecumenical Councils sought ostensibly to consult representatives from all different areas of the Church, to establish common doctrines and practices. In summoning bishops to his first Council in 325, the Emperor Constantine echoed an existing practice in the Roman Senate. Seven of these Councils were agreed to be ecumenical; numerous others were too selective or partial to count as articulating the will of the universal Christian Church. The Ecumenical Councils are, interestingly, known not only by their date but also by the location of the discussions, which were often politically motivated. All seven Ecumenical Councils accepted by the main Latin and Greek churches took place in the East, as that is where the imperial power resided. Although usually initiated by some theological debate, the canons of these councils often include major statements of ecclesiastical and political significance. Despite the enormous significance attached to their findings, the Council of Ephesus (431) was the first general council to have extant original records of proceedings.
The Council of Nicaea I (325) was called primarily to name and shame Arianism, a significant and enduring Christological heresy concerning the natures of the Son and the Father, which flourished in Alexandria. Arianism was one of the most divisive issues in the early Byzantine Church: Palestinian bishops supported Arius (d. 336); those in Jerusalem and Antioch opposed him. Constantinople I (381) attempted to resolve details of Christological divides, focusing on the issue of the term homoousios (of the same or of one substance). The Bishop of Antioch presided and there were no western representatives. Apollinarius (c.310-c.390) was condemned, and, as noted above, the status of Constantinople was elevated. The Council of Ephesus (431) focused on the debate between Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Nestorius (d. 452), Bishop of Constantinople (an Antiochene), to do partly with the title 'Theotokos' for Mary the Mother of God. There is no doubt that the political and ecclesiastical rivalry between the two patriarchal sees of Constantinople and Alexandria complicated the opposing theologies of the two schools of Alexandria and Antioch.
The Council of Chalcedon (451) was preceded by the aptly named 'Robber Council' of Ephesus (449), which exhibited a shameful degree of violence and extortion. The bishops again were predominantly from the east of the empire, and the rejection by Chalcedon of the teachings of Nestorius and Eutyches (c.378-454) alienated the Miaphysites, and engendered deep divisions within eastern Christendom. The allocation of the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace to Constantinople conferred patriarchal status upon the city. The somewhat ambiguously worded Canon 28 confirmed its honorary primacy after Rome, building on the situation begun at Ephesus. Other important canons affecting the organization of Byzantine Christianity were Canon 4, which brought monasticism (an increasingly urban phenomenon) for the first time under the jurisdiction of a local bishop, and Canons 9 and 17, which gave Constantinople the power to conduct appeals from regional metropolitans. The Council of Constantinople II (553) saw an attempt by Emperor Justinian I to appease the Miaphysites or anti-Chalcedonians, and the anathematization of Origen (c.185-c.254). This constituted an attack on the Egyptian and Palestinian parties, exacerbating the rift between monks and the imperial court, and between different geographical factions. The Council of Constantinople III (681) concerned itself with the doctrine of Monotheletism, an attempt to further appease the anti-Chalcedonians, and the anathematization of Pope Honorius I (d. 638) and four patriarchs of Constantinople who had given approval to this doctrine. The Council of Nicaea II (787) met originally in Constantinople, where its final session was also heard. It affirmed the proper veneration of icons, but this was not fully accepted as an ecumenical council in the West until 880. Pope Hadrian I (d. 795) had accepted it, but Charlemagne condemned it in 794.
This brief synopsis of those Councils accepted as ecumenical shows both the doctrinal issues with which they were concerned, and also the constant entanglement of Church and state, which is a dominant feature of how Byzantine Christianity organized itself.
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