And who declared those first four Councils to have been "ecumenical"? The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, that's who, with the cooperation of the bishops at Rome. The Western branch of the Church had accepted the decrees of the four councils as binding through Pope Hormisdas (514-523), but it was only after Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) compared them to the Four Gospels that their universal character was fully acknowledged in both the West as well as the East. (For political reasons, however, the Roman Church refused to accept the canons adopted at Constantinople in 381 until the Second Council of Lyons, in 1274.)
So what business did the Emperor have deciding exactly which earlier councils of the Church deserved the term "ecumenical"? Ah, therein lies quite a tale, to which I shall return, in a moment.
The depressing part of the past fortnight has come from my reading of a recently published book entitled "The Developing Schism within the Episcopal Church, 1960-2010", written by the Rev. Dr. Nancy Carol James, who currently assists at Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. It is not that the book's thesis itself is so depressing, although it documents a schism -- which must always wound and grieve the legacy Christ left us. (Schisms in the Church are a betrayal of Christ's mandate delivered to His disciples at the Last Supper: "A new commandment I give unto you -- that ye love one another as I have loved you.") Indeed, the book strives for an objectively neutral, bird's-eye view of the dispute, which allows the partisans on each side of the current divide to speak in their own voices. It is the sheer size of the chasm, rather, which the book in all innocence exposes between those two different factions, which makes for a very depressing read.
(I am still undecided, however, as to the degree to which the author achieved her objective, since by adopting uncritically each side's official statements, she ends up repeating ridiculous -- as of May 2010! -- "official" statistics such as that there are only "about 16" pending lawsuits in which ECUSA itself is involved, plus another "forty-one that the individual dioceses are fighting." See this earlier post for details and a catalogue of the many lawsuits to which ECUSA is a party, mostly as a plaintiff; and see this updated report by the American Anglican Council for the latest statistics -- which are now out of date as I write. ECUSA has most recently decided to intervene -- as a plaintiff, again! -- in the nine pending additional lawsuits against the incorporated parishes of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. That will bring the total number of ECUSA-involved lawsuits to just shy of seventy.)
To contrast the early history of the Church -- before there was any schism between West and East, Orthodox and Catholic, or Catholic and Protestant -- with the most recent history of the Anglican Communion, as disturbed by the actions of the Episcopal Church (USA) and of the Anglican Church of Canada, is indeed enlightening, and helps to put matters into perspective. In sum: we in the Anglican Communion appear to be following the same course which the Church experienced in the fourth and fifth centuries.
For the truth is that the first four councils of the Church were not "ecumenical", in the sense that they were a universal consensus achieved on the spot by a representative gathering of all the branches of the Church as it then existed. The first Council of Nicaea, in 325, was convened by order of the Roman Emperor Constantine, at a place of his choosing, and the bishops who attended came in response to the imperial summons. Constantine -- not yet baptized as a Christian -- opened the ceremonies, and applied the pressure which only an emperor can to "encourage" the assembled bishops to come to a consensus about a theological dispute over Christ's nature (Arianism), with the details of which Constantine did not concern himself. The result was a first prototype of what eventually became our "Nicene Creed" -- but to claim that the prototype achieved an early consensus is to ignore an entire chapter of early division between East and West, and within the East itself.
That division was not so much theological, as linguistic. The terms of the debate at Nicaea, and later in the same century at Constantinople, were entirely cast in the well-developed vocabulary of Greek philosophy, terms which were absent from both the Septuagint and from the emerging New Testament. (E.g., "homooúsious" -- "of the same substance", or "consubstantial", as used in the Nicene Creed, is a term taken from the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus. It had been adapted to their use by the second-century Gnostics, and was then co-opted by the Eastern bishops at Nicaea. The early Church fathers outside of Alexandria were extremely reluctant to adopt such a term, which had no antecedents in Holy Scripture, and the text adopted by the first Council in 325 had by no means achieved a consensus in the years between that event and the second Council in 381, let alone in the Latin-speaking West, which had no words in which even to express the dispute.) Meanwhile, the converts to Arianism -- especially the Goths to the north -- began to overrun the boundaries of the Empire, such that in 365 Jerome complained: "The whole world groaned to find itself Arian."
There are no records of the Council at Constantinople in 381; we supposedly know what happened there as a result of descriptions of its acta (decrees) in the accounts of subsequent Councils. Thus, the Council in 381 is credited with adopting the Nicene Creed as we know it today (without, however, the filioque -- the clause that asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from "the Father and the Son" [Latin: "ex patro filioque"], added by the Western Church in the eighth century as a result of St. Augustine's Trinitarian theology, which it by then had come to adopt as definitional). Recent scholarship, however, has shown that the text of what we call the Nicene Creed was not based in 381 on what had been first adopted in 325, but most likely derived from a different version which had evolved and been much debated (in the Greek-speaking East, and again not at all in the Latin-speaking West!) during the intervening years.
The ironical fact is that the Nicene Creed, the talisman of the Christian faith, supposedly adopted at the second "Ecumenical" Council of Constantinople in 381, was virtually unknown as such to both the Eastern and Western branches of the Church before the fourth Council, at Chalcedon in 451, when it was read and described to the assembled bishops as having been officially adopted in 381. Thus it did not represent a consensus between East and West in 381; apart from a papal vicar who himself was Eastern (Acholius of Thessalonika), there were no representatives of Western Christendom even in attendance at Constantinople in 381.
The third so-called "ecumenical" Council, at Ephesus in 431, was also highly questionable in its character. It is notorious for having been convened first by the Emperor Theodosius II, who did not recognize the Bishop of Rome's (Pope Celestine's) attempt to anathematize the Bishop of the Imperial see at Constantinople (Nestorius) for heretical teachings regarding his denial of the Virgin Mary as theotokos ("God-bearer"), especially since Celestine had "delegated" authority to excommunicate Nestorius to the Bishop of Alexandria (Cyril), who was to conduct an inquiry before finally acting. Obviously, Celestine's attempt to assert his see's primacy was not yet accepted throughout the Church, although he had the willing support of Cyril of Alexandria, who deplored an earlier decree of Theodosius which had declared that the see of Constantinople would rank ahead of his own, and behind only the see of Rome.
Cyril, fifty of his Egyptian bishops, and a band of Egyptian monks arrived early at Ephesus, to find Nestorius already present with just sixteen of his bishops, but protected by a large armed bodyguard. The host bishop, Memnon of Ephesus, who had rankled at Nestorius' earlier attempts to enforce his jurisdiction over Memnon's own see, had closed the churches of Ephesus to Nestorius and his followers. Other bishops from Jerusalem and Macedonia, sympathetic to Cyril, also arrived, but the rest of the invitees were delayed by various troubles with Persians and barbarians.
It must be borne in mind, when studying the background of this third Council, that the western Roman Empire at this point was on the verge of collapse. Rome itself had been sacked by Alaric in 410, and the Visigoths had invaded northern Africa, where St. Augustine of Hippo died just before they entered his city in 431. Everywhere in the West and its dependencies were pandemonium and chaos; only the eastern empire, under the vigorous rule of Theodosius II, managed for the most part to maintain its borders.
On June 21, 431 Cyril, brandishing his commission from Pope Celestine, announced that he was convening the Council on the next day, despite the failure of most of the other contingents to arrive. Nestorius and his followers protested, and declined to attend, despite being summoned to answer charges of heresy. After debating his views, the "Council" then present voted to depose him, and sent him this harsh notification of its action:
To Nestorius, new Judas. Know that by reason of your impious preachings and of your disobedience to the canons, on the twenty-second of this month of June, in conformity with the rules of the Church, you have been deposed by the Holy Synod, and that you now no longer have any rank in the Church.
Nestorius responded in kind:
I was summoned by Cyril who assembled the Council, by Cyril who presided. Who was judge? Cyril. Who was accuser? Cyril. Who was bishop of Rome? Cyril. Cyril was everything.
Now Bishop John of Antioch arrived in Ephesus, with his bishops, clergy and followers. Having been briefed on what had occurred, before they even entered the city, they indignantly invoked their own "Council" at John's hotel. There they received a report from the Emperor's legate, who had observed the earlier proceedings without interfering, but who had written urgently to Theodosius to ask for instructions as to how to protect the bishop of Constantinople from this unruly gathering. Seeking the backing of the Emperor, John, his subordinate bishops and assembled clergy proceeded to excommunicate Cyril, Memnon of Ephesus, and all their adherents.
These decrees were promptly dispatched to the Emperor, who replied with a decree rescinding all the actions of Cyril and his followers, and ordering all bishops to remain at Ephesus until his deputy could arrive to restore order. (Notice how the imperial authority was simply accepted by all the bishops in the early Church, although the Pope in Rome did not officially recognize the jurisdiction of the Eastern Emperor. There was still a Western Emperor in 431 [Valentinian III], even though he was so weak that his generals engaged in civil wars against each other, and no one in the Church saw any point in appealing to him. In the resulting vacuum of power, the bishop of Rome began to assert ever more the authority which eventually would lead to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.)
Before Theodosius' deputy could arrive at Ephesus, the delegates to the Council sent by Pope Celestine arrived. They immediately allied themselves with Cyril, reaffirmed his excommunication of Nestorius, and produced (in Celestine's name) a new excommunication of John of Antioch and his bishops. All factions now appealed to the Emperor for a definitive resolution of the stalemate, and tried to sway his opinion with extensive bribes to officials at the court. (Cyril's own Egyptian bishops would later complain that his gifts from the patriarchy's accumulated treasures -- rich cloth, tapestries, carved ivory chairs, ostriches(!), and "a million in hard cash" had impoverished their Church, for no good result.)
Theodosius announced that he would hold a conference to decide the matter, with just eight delegates from each faction to attend and make their case. Before that could occur, however, Nestorius agreed on a formula using "theotokos" in a sense which he could accept, and offered to resign his see in a gesture to restore peace in the Church. To his dismay, his own Emperor accepted his resignation, appointed Maximian as his successor, and then simply ordered the Council dissolved and the bishops to go to their respective homes.
It was not until the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, accepted certain (but not all) of the enactments by Cyril's "Council" of 431 that anyone could say with certainty what had emerged out of the chaos of Ephesus. And it was, as already noted, only at Chalcedon that our Nicene Creed -- seventy years after it had first been proposed -- was definitively adopted. By then the linguistic disputes it had been intended to settle were distant relics of the past, and the Church accepted its similarity with the original creed adopted at Nicaea as proof of its veracity and authenticity.
The foregoing history of the Nicene Creed demonstrates the only real way that the Church arrives at a true consensus on any point of doctrine. Proposals are put forth, are reflected on and debated for years, and consensus arrives only when everyone finally realizes that actual agreement was reached long before. The Church is not The Jesus Seminar, and cannot decide points of doctrine by majority vote -- unless the majority continues to prevail on the same point for a long, long time, and after much debate and consideration of alternatives. Even then, the willfulness of dissenters can still result in a schism, as the history of the Church in the fifth century demonstrates.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 marked the first definitive schism in the Christian Church, in which the Alexandrian, Syrian and Armenian Christians, who believed that Christ had brought a single, unified, fully human and fully divine nature to his life on earth (the doctrine of "monophysitism"; or actually, a more limited category thereof called "miaphysitism", as a commenter points out below)), split off from the Council and, despite persecution from Marcian and subsequent emperors, maintained their separate existences thereafter, down to this very day. Miaphysitism took hold originally in the eastern Churches as a counter to the dyophysitism of Nestorius, the rival bishop of Constantinople. Both doctrines were rejected at Chalcedon, as noted above, but their adherents simply would not yield in the interest of Church unity, and chose to walk apart.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church was an established Church -- the official and only Church of the Roman Empire. Its branches extended both East and West, throughout the civilized world. Theodosius II had intervened in 380 to decree that everyone must subscribe to its Nicene theology on pain of loss of Roman citizenship and privileges, and thus had attempted to use the power of the State to settle a theological controversy. The result was nearly two centuries more of religious strife, political intrigue, and of rival factions jockeying for position, until another powerful emperor, Justinian, convened the second Council of Constantinople in 553 to settle definitively the issue of Jesus' two natures united hypostatically in one person. By this time, however, the seeds of what would become the Great Schism had been sown, as the Church in Rome increasingly began to assert its primacy based on its archiepiscopal reading of Jesus' words to Peter ("On this rock I shall found my Church").
From the sixteenth century to the present, England has had an established Church, whose Anglican branches have extended throughout the civilized world. As in the fourth and fifth centuries, now a major theological dispute has arisen which threatens the shared communion of those branches. ECUSA and the ACoC are fighting for their independence and autonomy within the Communion with no less vigor than Nestorius and John of Antioch fought long ago for theirs. In so fighting, each of them -- ECUSA and ACoC, as well as Nestorius and John -- were going against the consensus Scriptural views of the Church's bishops assembled in Council, and arguing for their own unique interpretations of Scripture as authoritative. When they failed to bring their episcopal colleagues around to their views, they insisted on their autonomous right to maintain and teach them, nonetheless.
Even Nestorius' resignation did not halt the disagreements, as the history traced above shows. What Chalcedon and its background demonstrate is that a Church cannot remain stable with two opposing views contending for supremacy -- one consensus eventually must prevail. When one or more of its members begins teaching and following a doctrine which the rest do not accept as Scriptural, then ultimately schism must result if the dissenter will not yield.
Today, the Anglican Communion is held together by a bare thread of pretense, maintained by the Anglican Communion Office and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In reality, however, as the Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll so saliently demonstrates in this and similar analyses, it has already split into two communions of churches, neither one of which wants anything to do with the other, unless that other will come around to its way of thinking, teaching, and acting. That will never happen, given the tenacity with which each group clings to its current views. There is no overall counterpart to the Roman emperor, with authority to summon councils of the Church to resolve the differences.
The one remaining such authority in the Communion today -- that of the Archbishop of Canterbury to call the Lambeth Conferences -- was frittered away on indaba-style chatter at the 2008 session. ("Indaba-style", because there was insufficient time for real indaba to be practiced, and none of the bishops present changed any firmly-held views as a result of the exercise.) The Communion thereby lost its last and best chance to survive intact -- ironically, because the Archbishop and the ACO did not want any authoritative interpretations of Scripture to come from the assembled bishops. By the time of the next Lambeth Conference, if indeed there is one, the Anglican Communion, Covenant or no Covenant, will be but a shadow of its former self.
As a lifelong Anglican, I of course regret the schismatic actions taken by the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada. And by "schismatic actions", I do not refer just to the consecrations of openly same-sex-partnered bishops, or the endorsements of rites for the blessing and celebration of same-sex unions. Those, I submit, are more the symptoms than the cause of the schism -- every bit as much as the often-maligned "border-crossings" are symptoms. The root cause of the schism goes back well before 2000 or 2003, because if the forces which are now dividing the Communion had not already manifested themselves by then, the border-crossings would not have begun at that time.
No, the book mentioned earlier -- "The Developing Schism within the Episcopal Church, 1960-2010" -- which depicts a schism within a single Church, is at the same time a chronicle of the schism which was then occurring in the Anglican Communion as a whole. The events it describes -- starting with the heresies of Bishop Pike, the new theology of the 1979 Prayer Book and its much-touted baptismal covenant "to strive for justice and peace among all peoples", the concomitant emphasis on "civil rights", which was subsequently expanded to include women's and gays' so-called "rights" to ordination -- are the story of a Church that was walking apart from the other members of the Communion long before the turn of the century.
And not only apart from the other member churches of the Anglican Communion -- ECUSA was at the same time walking apart from all the churches in the historic apostolic succession, as well. Its unilateral decisions to ordain women and openly partnered gays to the episcopate meant that there was no longer any common ground for ecumenical talks with the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox, since the apostolic succession as recognized by those churches could thenceforth no longer be maintained in ECUSA. And what is the point of debating theological topics with others if one church has made it impossible for the other church ever to recognize the first one's orders? The only kind of ecumenical agreement possible after that action is a meaningless resolve to "respect" the other's dignity -- but since such respect goes hand-in-hand with being a professed Christian, why bother with the obvious?
Ephesus and Chalcedon teach us that the councils of the Church will become increasingly divisive and dysfunctional until the final recognition of the schism permits each faction to separate into its own camp, lick its wounds, and continue on its now single way, apart from its former co-communicants. As with the Copts and the Syrian Orthodox, so with ECUSA and the ACoC. Whether the Church of England can avoid a similar schism is, unfortunately, not within the leadership capabilities of the current Archbishop to prevent.
The Anglican Communion will go the way of the Church in the fifth century, and the body of Christ suffer yet more wounds.