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.

Sir Bors and the Host: The Orthopraxy of Transubstantiation

Campin-mass-of-saint-gregory-1440
Robert Campin, ‘The Mass of St Gregory’, 1515
When I came across the following passage in P M Matarasso’s translation of The Quest of the Holy Grail (my review here), all I really thought at first was, ‘Look! Sir Bors believes in transubstantiation!’ The book being from 1225ish, that’s no big surprise — this is a decade after its official promulgation as dogma at Lateran IV. It’s what follows that interests me, though.

First, the text. Bors is spending some time with a hermit, as Knights of the Round Table do:

So the good man began mattins; and having sung that office he robed and commenced the mass. After the blessing he took the Lord’s Body and beckoned to Bors to come forward. He obeyed, and knelt before the priest, who said to him:

‘Bors, do you see what I am holding?’

‘Yes indeed, Sir. I see that you are holding my Saviour and Redeemer under the guise of bread. I should not be looking on Him in this wise were it not that my eyes, being mortal clay, and thus unapt to discern the things of the spirit, do not permit my seeing Him any other way, but rather cloak His true appearance. For I have no doubt that what I look on now is truly flesh and truly man and wholly god.’

At these words he was overmastered by weeping, and the good man said to him:

‘You would surely be insensate if you received so holy a thing as you describe, without manifesting your love and loyalty all the rest of your living days.’

‘Sir,’ affirmed Bors, ‘while I live He shall have my whole allegiance, and I will ever do as He commands.’ (The Quest of the Holy Grail 9, trans. P. M. Matarasso, p. 180)

Sir Bors demonstrates here his great faith — the faith that will sustain him to the very end of his journey to and then with the Holy Grail. He believes the faith handed on to him from Mother Church. What he sees is not what the truth. Transubstantiation is an almost Platonic thing, isn’t it? This is not the reality, the reality is something other.

‘Do not mistake what something is made of with what it is,’ as famously stated by a character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

But whether we believe in transubstantiation or not, it is Bors’ chivalrous response to the Eucharist that should humble us all:

while I live He shall have my whole allegiance, and I will ever do as He commands

We should, ourselves, give our whole allegiance to Christ the King, should we not? But do we? Where do our real allegiances lie? With our family? With our nation? With a political party? With a social movement? With a business organisation? With a cause? With our job? Any of these may be worth supporting, but always second to the Kingdom of God:

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Mt 6:33)

Bors beheld a miracle at the Mass. Bread and wine become Body and Blood. Who would not pledge allegiance to a God who worked such wonders?

Shouldn’t we?

Saint of the Week: Saint Dominic

St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, that is Black Friars or Dominicans (natch). He was born in Caleruega, Spain, near the Benedictine abbey of St. Dominic of Silos. His parents wished to dedicate his life to the Church, and he studied theology at Palencia University around age 14.

A hard-working student, he actually owned his own books as a demonstration of his commitment to his studies, given the vast expense of books in a world of manuscripts and copyists. However, he demonstrated an even greater commitment in his life, a commitment to the ‘book of charity’, when he sold these books amongst other possessions in order to help the needy during a famine in Palencia.

In part due to this charitable activity, he was made canon of Osma Cathedral while still a student and took on his duties enthusiastically, living a communal life under the Rule of St. Augustine, which was later to form the backbone of the Order of Preachers he was to found. In 1201, Dominic became prior of the chapter when his friend Diego de Azevedo become bishop of Osma.

On embassies for Alfonso VIII of Castile, Dominic became aware of the spiritual danger of the Cathars, or Albigensians, as well as the need for evangelising the pagan Cuman peoples. As part of his desire to evangelise the lost and reform the heretics, he visited Citeaux, home of St. Bernard, which had been a centre of anti-Albigensian activity.

Dominic and his friend Diego were in contact with various Albigensians and, while noting the spiritual danger of their teachings, were also aware of the sincerity of the followers of this syncretistic religious group with roots in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean lands. Since the Albigensians lived lives of strict poverty, Diego and Dominic arranged the missions of those they sent to live a similar lifestyle and to seek to convert the Albigensians to the Catholic faith through reasoned discussion, not coercion.

Diego and Dominic spent several years in southern France preaching amongst the Albigensians, and won a number of converts to orthodox Christianity, including several who chose to enter the religious life. Yet the Albigensians were numerous, and the workers were few. Soon, after an Albigensian assassinated a papal legate, an all-out ‘crusade’ was launched against the French Albigensians, and Dominic’s approach of reasoned evangelism came into peril as the Catholic forces sought to exterminate Albigensianism by exterminating Albigensians.

In 1215, Dominic went to the Fourth Lateran Council, which sought to organise the Church in a manner conducive to the propagation of the Gospel through the preaching of the Word and the reasoned battle against heresy. The fruit of Dominic and his companions’ activities in the midst of the energetic Pope Innocent III was the establishment in 1216 of the Order of Preachers which took the Rule of St. Augustine as its own along with Constitutions appended by Dominic.

The Order of Preachers is technically not a monastic order but an order of mendicant friars. Mendicant is a fancy word for beggar. Like the Franciscans, Dominicans were meant to be dependent not on their own or worldly resources but on the charity of those around them and of the Church. They were to move from place to place on foot (sometimes they would acquire horses and nowadays have been seen in all sorts of newfangled technologies) and to preach in the towns of Europe and dispute with the heretics, especially the Albigensians. They followed the call to ‘evangelical poverty’, taking seriously Jesus’ commands to sell everything and give to the poor.

This wandering, begging lifestyle of shabby clothing and sleeping on the floor is the one Dominic had as his own from before the establishment of the Order. Combined with his charismatic personality, his mode of life as well as personal virtues made him the sort of person the Albigensians, who sought purity and perfection, would listen to. His ascetic lifestyle made inroads for the Gospel.

The Order spread rapidly during Dominic’s lifetime and now stretches around the world, seeking to bring the light of the Gospel of Jesus with it through preaching as well as through theological education to save people from the pitfalls of heresy.

His feast is August 8.

Most of this information came from Butler’s Lives of the Saints: August.

More on Dominicans

Flirting with Monasticism. This highly readable book (recommended here) gives an introduction to the spiritual life of the Dominican order and how you, too can benefit from monastic spiritual practices.

Famous Dominicans

St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Fra Angelico (there are others, but I’m not really familiar with them at all)