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One reason for the theological and liturgical conservatism of Orthodoxy is simply that there is no body that has the authority to impose change. There is no equivalent of the papacy, or of the Synod of the Church of England which, in Orthodox eyes can look like a logical development of the principle of the papacy, based on a confusion between the work and authority of the Holy Spirit and the administrative structure of the Church.

The question of authority was the basic question that divided the Western and Eastern churches. Both 'Roman Catholicism' and 'Orthodoxy' are descended from the church of the Roman Empire which was organised in five patriarchates - Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople, also known as 'New Rome'. New Rome was built on or near the site of a town called Byzantium but, although citizens of Constantinople called themselves 'Byzantines' in much the same way that people in Birmingham call themselves 'Brummies', the use of the term 'Byzantine' (developed I think by Western historians in the eighteenth century) gives a misleading impression of a society that saw itself as 'Roman' - Greek speaking inheritors of classical Greece and Rome. (9) The Seljuks called the territory they conquered from the Empire in Anatolia 'Rum'.

(9)   The point is made forcefully by the Greek theologian John S. Romanides in eg Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine - an interplay between theology and society, Brookline, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981. Also in articles (including Franks, Romans etc) on the website devoted to him - 

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, leaving the Patriarch of Old Rome ('the Pope') at the mercy of various peoples who had not been part of the Empire, what might be called a new church emerged in the courts of the Germanic Kings in the West, acknowledging the Pope as its titular head but developing an impressive intellectual life of its own. It was in these circles that around the eighth century the 'filioque' came into use, originally, it seems, in Visigothic Spain. This was an addition to the creed agreed by the united church in Constantinople in 382 (called the 'Nicene creed' though it was actually devised as a clarification of the creed agreed at Nicaea in 325). The creed of Nicaea-Constantinople said of the Holy Spirit simply that He 'proceeds from the Father'. The German-Visigothic version read 'proceeds from the Father and the Son' (filioque). I don't intend here to go into the theological implications of this. The main point is that it was only in the eleventh century, when the papacy fell into German hands, that it was formally adopted by the Pope.

The convenient date ascribed to the East/West schism was in the eleventh century, 1054, when the two sides exchanged anathemas. The immediate point at issue was not, as it happens, the filioque but the apparently innocuous question of whether leavened (the Eastern practise) or unleavened (the Western practise) bread should be used in Communion. But actually the issue was authority. The Eastern side thought they were about to engage in a discussion on the matter but found themselves confronted with the statement that since the Pope had pronounced in favour of unleavened bread there was nothing to discuss. (10) Similarly with the filioque. The Eastern church had always been opposed to any change in the Creed while the Popes, reliant as they were on German support, had tolerated the innovation. But now the papacy had formally adopted it and was claiming the right unilaterally to impose it on the whole Church.

(10)  Mahlon H.Smith III: 'And Taking Bread - Cerularius and the Azyme controversy of 1054', Théologie Historique 47, Paris 1978.

The system for authoritative decision-making on important matters favoured in the East was a council summoned by the Emperor in which all five of the historic imperial patriarchates would be represented - an 'Ecumenical Council'. This, however, had become impossible. The highly prestigious Patriarchate of Alexandria - a major power behind the 'Orthodoxy' of the first three councils still recognised nowadays as 'ecumenical' and therefore authoritative - had split off in the fifth century through disagreements with what the mainstream imperial church (still uniting Old and New Rome) regarded as the Fourth Ecumenical Council. This was the origin of the Egyptian 'Coptic' church ('Copt' is derived from the Arabic version of the Greek word for 'Egyptian'). A rival 'Orthodox' (I sometimes put the word in inverted commas because of course everyone regards themselves as 'Orthodox') patriarchate was established but Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch all fell to Islam and could not identify too closely with the old Empire without offending their new masters.

Meanwhile Constantinople, like Old Rome, had its own 'barbarians' - peoples who had developed politically outside the Empire but accepted the imperial Church - to deal with. Unlike the Germans, the Slavs, so far as I know, did not try to develop an intellectual life independent of their Roman mentors, but they were still problematic, posing a series of political challenges. As a result new patriarchates and new 'autocephalous' (self-governing) churches were created, none of which could aspire to make decisions on behalf of the church as a whole. Eventually they all fell under Muslim domination as did Constantinople itself in the fifteenth century, just at the moment when Russia, under Mongol-Tartar domination since the thirteenth century, broke free. Once New Rome fell, it is easy to see how Old Rome could believe that its position - its conviction that it alone possessed the plenitude of authority in the Christian Church - had been vindicated, especially since there was an influx into its jurisdiction of some of the most intellectually lively elements of the Eastern Christian culture, sometimes seen as one of the factors contributing to the Western 'Renaissance'. (11)

(11)  See eg Philip Sherrard: The Greek East and the Latin West, Limni, Greece (Denise Harvey) 1995 (first published OUP 1959).

It is also easy to see how Moscow, now the main bastion of independent Orthodoxy, could see itself as the 'Third Rome' (after the first Rome had gone heretic and the second had fallen into the hands of the Muslims). But Orthodoxy has never had much success in making claims of this kind. In the early eighteenth century, under Peter called 'the Great', the patriarchate of the Third Rome, the patriarchate of Moscow, was suppressed and the church administration became a department of government, - all this at about the same time that the convocations of Canterbury and York were suppressed in England and sovereignty in church affairs handed over to the Parliament. It was only with the collapse of the Tsarist system in the very unfortunate circumstances of 1917 that the Moscow patriarchate was restored, though it could hardly be claimed that the Church recovered its institutional independence. (12)

(12)  See eg Dimitry Pospielovsky: The Orthodox Church in the History of Russia, Crestwood NY, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998.