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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • The Conversion of the Slavs
      • Cyril and Methodius
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Cyril and Methodius

  For Constantinople the middle of the ninth century was a period of intensive missionary ac-

tivity. The Byzantine Church, freed at last from the long struggle against the Iconoclasts, turned

its energies to the conversion of the pagan Slavs who lay beyond the frontiers of the Empire, to

the north and the northwest . Moravians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians. Photius was the first

Patriarch of Constantinople to initiate missionary work on a large scale among these Slavs. He

selected for the task two brothers, Greeks from Thessalonica, Constantine (826-869) and Metho-

dius (815?-885). In the Orthodox Church Constantine is usually called by the name Cyril which

he took on becoming a monk. Known in earlier life as .Constantine the Philosopher,. he was the

ablest among the pupils of Photius, and was familiar with a wide range of languages, including

Hebrew, Arabic, and even the Samaritan dialect. But the special qualification which he and his

brother enjoyed was their knowledge of Slavonic: in childhood they had learnt the dialect of the

Slavs around Thessalonica, and they could speak it fluently.

  The first missionary journey of Cyril and Methodius was a short visit  around 860 to the

Khazars, who lived north of the Caucasus region. This expedition had no permanent results, and

some years later the Khazars adopted Judaism. The brothers. real work began in 863 when they

set out for Moravia (roughly equivalent to the modern Czechoslovakia). They went in answer to

an appeal from the Prince of the land, Rostislav, who asked that Christian missionaries be sent,

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capable of preaching to the people in their own tongue and of taking services in Slavonic. Sla-

vonic services required a Slavonic Bible and Slavonic service books. Before they set out for Mo-

ravia the brothers had already set to work on this enormous task of translation. They had first to

invent a suitable Slavonic alphabet.  In their translation the brothers used  the form of Slavonic

familiar to them from childhood, the Macedonian dialect spoken by the Slavs around Thessalo-

nica. In this way the dialect of the Macedonian Slavs became Church Slavonic, which remains to

the present day the liturgical language of the  Russian and certain other Slavonic Orthodox

Churches.

  One cannot overestimate the significance, for the future of Orthodoxy, of the Slavonic trans-

lations which Cyril and  Methodius carried  with them as they left Byzantium for the unknown

north. Few events have been so important in the missionary history of the Church. From the start

the Slav Christians enjoyed a precious privilege, such as none of the peoples of western Europe

shared at this time: they heard the Gospel and the services of the Church in a tongue which they

could understand. Unlike the Church of Rome in the west with its insistence on Latin, the Ortho-

dox Church has never been rigid in the matter of languages; its normal policy is to hold services

in the language of the people.

  In Moravia, as in Bulgaria, the  Greek mission soon clashed with German missionaries at

work in the same area. The two missions not  only depended on different Patriarchates, but

worked on different principles. Cyril and Methodius used Slavonic in their services, the Germans

Latin; Cyril and Methodius recited the Creed in its original form, the Germans inserted the filio-

que. To free his mission from German interference, Cyril decided to place it under the immediate

protection of the Pope. Cyril.s action in appealing to Rome shows that he did not take the quarrel

between  Photius  and  Nicholas  too  seriously;  for  him  east  and  west  were  still  united  as  one

Church, and it was not a matter of primary importance whether he depended on Constantinople

or Rome, so long as he could continue to use Slavonic in Church services. The brothers traveled

to Rome in person in 868 and were  entirely successful in the appealHadrian  II, Nicholas  I.s

successor at Rome, received them favorably and gave full support to the Greek mission, confirm-

ing the use of Slavonic as the liturgical language of Moravia. He approved the brothers. transla-

tions, and laid copies of their Slavonic service books on the altars of the principal churches in the

city.

  Cyril died at Rome (869), but Methodius returned to Moravia. Sad to say, the Germans ig-

nored the Pope.s decision and obstructed Methodius in every possible way, even putting him in

prison for more than a year. When Methodius died in 885, the Germans expelled his followers

from the country, selling a number of them into slavery. Traces of the Slavonic mission lingered

on  in  Moravia  for  two  centuries  more,  but  were  eventually  eradicated;  and  Christianity  in  its

western  form,  with  Latin  culture  and  the  Latin  language  (and  of  course  the  filioque), became

universal. The attempt to found a Slavonic national Church in Moravia came to nothing. The

work of Cyril and Methodius, so it seemed, had ended in failure.

  Yet in fact this was not so. Other countries, where the brothers had not themselves

preached, benefited from their work, most notably Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. Boris, Khan of

Bulgaria, as we have seen, wavered for a time between east and west, but finally accepted the

jurisdiction of Constantinople. The Byzantine missionaries in Bulgaria, however, lacking the vi-

sion of Cyril and Methodius, at first used Greek in Church services, a language as unintelligible

as Latin to the ordinary Bulgar. But after their expulsion from Moravia, the disciples of Metho-

dius turned naturally to Bulgaria, and here introduced the principles employed in the Moravian

mission. Greek was replaced by Slavonic, and the Christian culture of Byzantium was presented

 39

to the Bulgars in a Slavonic form which they could assimilate. The Bulgarian Church grew rap-

idly. Around 926, during the reign of Tsar Symeon the Great (reigned 893-927), an independent

Bulgarian Patriarchate was  created,  and  this  was  recognized  by  the Patriarchate  of Constantin-

ople in 927. The dream  of Boris .  an autocephalous Church of his own . became a  reality

within half a century of his death. Bulgaria was the first national Church of the Slavs.

  Byzantine missionaries went likewise to Serbia, which accepted Christianity in the second

half of the ninth century, around 867-874. Serbia also lay on the dividing line between eastern

and western Christendom, but after a period of uncertainty it followed the example of Bulgaria,

not of Moravia, and came under Constantinople. Here too the Slavonic service books were intro-

duced and a Slavonic-Byzantine culture grew up. The Serbian Church gained a partial independ-

ence under Saint Sava (1176-1235), the greatest of Serbian national saints, who in 1219 was con-

secrated at Nicaea as Archbishop of Serbia.  In 1346 a Serbian Patriarchate was created, which

was recognized by the Church of Constantinople in 1375.

  The conversion of Russia was also due indirectly to the work of Cyril and Methodius; but of

this we shall speak further in the next section. With Bulgars, Serbs, and Russians as their .spiri-

tual children,. the two Greeks from Thessalonica abundantly deserve their title, .Apostles of the

Slavs..

  Another Orthodox nation in the Balkans, Romania, has a more complex history. The Roma-

nians, though influenced by  their Slav neighbors, are primarily  Latin in language and ethnic

character. Dacia, corresponding to part of modern Romania, was a Roman province during 106-

271; but the Christian communities founded there in this period seem to have disappeared after

the Romans withdrew. Part of the Romanian people was apparently converted to Christianity by

the Bulgarians in the late ninth or early tenth century, but the full conversion of the two Roma-

nian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia did not occur until the fourteenth century. Those

who think of Orthodoxy as being exclusively .eastern,. as Greek and Slav in character, should

not overlook the fact that the Church of Romania, the second largest Orthodox Church today, is

predominantly Latin.

 

  Byzantium conferred two gifts upon the Slavs: a fully articulated system of Christian doc-

trine and a fully developed Christian civilization. When the conversion of the Slavs began in the

ninth century, the great period of doctrinal controversies, the age of the Seven Councils, was at

an end; the main outlines of the faith . the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation -had al-

ready been worked out, and were delivered to the Slavs in their definitive form. Perhaps this is

why the Slavonic Churches have produced few original theologians, while the religious disputes

which have arisen in Slavonic lands have usually not been dogmatic in character. But this faith in

the Trinity and the Incarnation did not exist in a vacuum; with it went a whole Christian culture

and  civilization,  and  this  too  the  Greek  missionaries  brought  with  them  from Byzantium.  The

Slavs were Christianized and civilized at the same time.

  The Greeks communicated this faith and civilization not in an alien but in a Slavonic garb

(here the translations of Cyril and Methodius were of capital importance); what the Slavs bor-

rowed from Byzantium they were able to make their own. Byzantine culture and the Orthodox

faith, if at first limited mainly to the ruling classes, became in time an integral part of the daily

life of the Slavonic peoples as  a whole. The link between Church and people was made even

firmer by the system of creating independent national Churches.

  Certainly this close identification of Orthodoxy with the life of the people, and in particular

the system of national Churches, have had unfortunate consequences. Because Church and nation

 40

were so closely associated, the Orthodox Slavs have often confused the two and have made the

Church serve the ends of national politics; they have sometimes tended to think of their faith as

primarily Serb, Russian, or Bulgar, and to forget that it is primarily Orthodox and Catholic. Na-

tionalism has been the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries. Yet the integration of Church

and people has in the end proved immensely beneficial. Christianity among the Slavs became in

very truth the religion of the  whole people, a  popular religion in the best sense.  In 1949 the

Communists of Bulgaria published a law stating: .The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is in form,

substance, and spirit a People.s Democratic Church.. Strip the words of their political associa-

tions, and behind them there lies an important truth.

 




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