Meet the People: The Orthodox Church

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The God-Protected Empire

The adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion in the 4th Century AD transformed both the Empire and the Christian Church.

Christians were no longer members of a minority sect, persecuted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by Roman authorities. Instead they found themselves the subject of official favour - The Emperor Constantine I was convinced the Christian god had promoted him in his rise to power and was determined to ensure on-going divine protection for his empire.

Constantine ensured that the interests of Church and State were closely identified with each other, in a symbiotic relationship that remained a defining characteristic of the Byzantine Empire. The church received numerous legal and financial dispensations and was permitted to play an active role in the Byzantine political and administrative framework. In return the Church was able to confer spiritual authority upon the Emperor and his government: No longer regarded as a demi-God himself, as in the old pagan Empire, the Emperor instead became Godís chosen representative on earth, guiding his people according to divine will.

The special metaphysical status of Byzantium, as part of of Godís overall design for humanity, was a vital component of the ideological glue which held the Empire together, sometimes in the face of extreme adversity. The special status of Christianity in the Empire also placed a premium upon the importance of "right" belief. Byzantines passionately debated the dual, human and divine, nature of Christ, the procession of the Holy Spirit, the status of religious icons as objects of devotion or worship, or whether it was possible achieve direct communion with God through meditation. Beginning with the Council of Nicaea, Ecumenical Church Councils were convened to pronounce upon such matters of religious controversy. Orthodoxy was defined according to the decisions and religious formulations made by these councils.

The Orthodox Church imitated early the organisation of the secular Empire. The Patriarch of Constantinople was the Churchís formal leader. He was also quite literally the Emperorís next door neighbour - the Patriarchal residence was situated near the Great Palace. Throughout the Empire every provincial city or town possessed a bishop who was ultimately answerable to the Patriarch and who ran an adminstrative and judicial framework which paralleled the state bureaucracy.

Significant numbers of Byzantine men and women became monks and nuns, either as a lifetime vocation, as a retirement option, or as a sometimes forced refuge from political disgrace. Monasteries became powerful institutions in their own right, with significant land holdings and social prestige. Leading monks, such as Theodore of Studios, were sometimes able to organise resistance against the Imperial Government on political or religious matters. Although Byzantium maintained a strong secular educational tradition, some monks and nuns were also noted for their devotion to learning - monasteries maintained "Scriptoria", where skilled writers and copyists produced books, the most precious of all medieval commodities.

From a late twentieth-century perspective it is difficult to fully understand the pervasive influence of religion upon the Byzantine thought-world. Byzantines did not conceive of God and the supernatural world as something remote or unreal: the reality of God and His intercessors, Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Archangels, the Saints, was taken for granted and readily assimilated by even the most worldly and rational members of Byzantine society. Byzantine religious devotion consequently placed a premium upon direct personal contact with the supernatural world and possessed a mystical, meditative quality that set it apart from Western forms of worship.

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