Experimental thoughts concerning General Synods and the theology of councils

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.

For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.

For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.

A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.

As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.

Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
  2. Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
  6. Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)

The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.

The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.

But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in  Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.

Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?

By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?

What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:

  • The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
  • The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
  • In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
  • In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.

If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.

So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?

Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.

Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.

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