Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Churches Together in King’s Lynn

Service at St Felix Orthodox Church, Babingley, Norfolk.

1 June 2013

‘Nicaea Revisited’

+In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.

I was surprised, and most grateful to Abba Seraphim, when he invited me to give the address for this service, but, at the same time, far from sure that I had the necessary qualifications for such a task. My feelings of inadequacy were only heightened when he most helpfully sent me the list of speakers at this service in earlier years, all of whom were patently far better equipped than I for fulfilling the role! Then, a certain panic set in when I began to reflect on what I might say that could be remotely of interest to you all, for I realised that for all of my Christian life, I had never made any attempt to take part in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Having spent my formative years at a school in the evangelical Anglican tradition, to which the then Bishop of Norwich, Maurice Wood, sent his sons, and later in the Christian Union movement of what was then the IVF, I had been carefully tutored to view the World Council of Churches as either, at best an irrelevance or, at worst a papal plot for world dominance! But I am also aware that Episcopal ‘invitations’ are not to be lightly treated! So I have attempted to honour the invitation and I hope the result is not too inadequate for the occasion.

Given that the words ’Christian’ and ‘Unity’ have historically very often not been close companions, it seemed to me that we should first ask the question, ‘How did it come about that there is any need to consider unity among Christians?’ ‘How is it that those who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and doubtless very familiar with St John’s Gospel chapter 17, come to be so divided? The historical record of the attitude of Church leaders towards those who differ from them theologically makes at times painful reading. Two tendencies can be discerned, first the tendency for theological disputes to trigger splits or schisms and to spawn separate Churches, each denying the other to be the ‘true’ Church. The second, perhaps more worrying, and difficult to explain let alone justify, is the trend towards levels of abuse, persecution and even brutality towards those on the other side of a theological dispute. Christianity has a history of violence being perpetrated amongst those who claim to be its adherents (and I am not including here attitudes to Judaism or Islam) that is shocking, not just to us as Christians today but perhaps more seriously to ordinary people with no meaningful Church connection and whom we may wish to draw into our fellowship as disciples of Jesus Christ. Things have been done which today would see those responsible put on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. Clearly, this is not the place for a detailed study of heresy and schism, but looking at a few examples from the earliest Christian centuries may be instructive, as it is then that the pattern of attitudes to theological deviancy developed.

As the Gospel spread in the first centuries it quickly met different languages, Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and later Armenian and Georgian to name but the main ones. This inevitably gave rise to problems in translation and potential differences of meaning, but, perhaps strangely, there is no serious record of strife within the Christian Churches in these years based purely on linguistic or indeed ethnic lines. As the Gospel spread east and north of Palestine, it spilled over the often fluctuating boundary of the Roman Empire, with the groupings of Christian converts in separate political entities, which later become independent Churches, eg. in Persia, Armenia and Georgia. But they see themselves as part of one universal Church.  They are not at loggerheads with one another despite the rival political ambitions of the ruling elites, who may or may not have accepted Christianity. Even when the Armenian Church splits from communion with Rome and Constantinople in the mid 6th century it does so because of the theological disputes arising from the Council of Chalcedon a century earlier, not because of politics or language.

Christian leaders in the earliest centuries produced a huge quantity of written material, a great deal of which has come down to us. A lot is devoted to combating the views of others with which the writers disagree. Though this process the fundamentals of our Faith were established and defended. Much is careful, detailed theological argument, sometimes forcefully presented.  But other, more dubious, techniques soon become evident, aimed at the person rather than the ideas. At a whiff of heresy, pens begin to be dipped not in ink but vitriol, and the consequences of condemnation as a heretic become, as the centuries roll on, ever heavier.

Thus Tertullian, who died around 225, and who wrote a series of tracts and books against a variety of heretical views, begins the first chapter of his first book ‘Against Marcion’ by describing as most disagreeable the geography and climate around the Black Sea and attributing some revolting practices to the barbarian inhabitants, only to conclude Nothing, however, in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there, fouler than any Scythian!’  That’s an interesting way of engaging the sympathy of your reader, perhaps, but it’s neither logical nor objective!

Some, of course, were content with merely condemning the person’s ideas. Thus St Anthony in his Letters (Letter 4) refers to Arius, the early 4th century deacon at Alexandria who famously argued that Jesus Christ did not share the same attributes as God the Father and was not therefore equal to Him, and comments as follows: ‘As for Arius… he spoke strange words about the Only-Begotten; to Him who has no beginning, he gave a beginning…That man has begun a great task, an unhealable wound. If he had known himself, his tongue would not have spoken about what he did not know. It is however manifest that he did not know himself.’  They are remarkable for their restraint and lack of abuse. The intellectual put-down is simple, but devastating: if Arius does not understand himself, how on earth can he be expected to understand anything else!

Eusebius when he describes (History of the Church Book 7, 27 – 30) the doctrinal deviations of Paul of Samosata, the 3rd century Bishop of Antioch takes matters a little further by linking his heresy to a deviant lifestyle, which is set out in detail as proof of the error of his doctrines. When dealing with the Manichees, he says they are ‘demonic, manic’ and ‘infecting the world with a dangerous poison’(ibid. Book 7, 31) . But the penalties and the consequences are mild – Excommunication. The deviant is declared ejected and simply thrown out of the community. But Eusebius gives an important detail and one prefiguring a closer involvement of some Churches with the political authorities, which in turn would coincide with the penalties for theological deviancy increasing markedly. When Paul of Samosata refuses to leave his church building, Christians appeal to the civil authority in the form of the Emperor Aurelian (c. 270AD) who is praised by Eusebius for ordering him out. The possibility of seeking and using secular orders with state penalties for non-compliance to enforce the rulings of Councils or Bishops was clearly approved by some at least within the Church of the Roman Empire decades before Constantine’s involvement with it.

For it is with Constantine that the boundaries of church and state become blurred. When Arius loses the argument at Nicaea in 325 not only does he lose his membership of the Alexandrian Church and his ecclesiastical position, but he suffers an imperial punishment: banishment (albeit for only 2 years till he persuades a further session of the Council and the Emperor that he should be allowed back.)

Under Theodosius I in the late 4th century the state is enshrining in law which form of Christian theology is the correct one (the formulary agreed at Nicaea) and providing state penalties for heretics: the Edict of Salonika (380) states,They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which, in accordance with the will of Heaven, we shall decide to inflict.’ (The full meaning of this was confirmed with the execution of a man called Priscillian in Trier in 385.) But while it no doubt seemed good at the time, this imperial attempt at forced unity was to disintegrate in the next century. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the theological arguments, and for the present purposes I am not taking sides, the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) were a disaster in terms of ‘Christian Unity’. They spawned a whole new batch of ‘heretics’ all duly condemned by imperial edict, deprived of their ecclesiastical positions within the Roman Empire and harassed so that they tended to edge eastwards beyond the reach of the authorities in Constantinople and even finding sanctuary in the Persian Empire.

By the time we get to the early 7th century attitudes towards heresy have found their way into stories circulating among ordinary Christians, and particularly the monks and ascetics. Some of you will know William Dalrymple’s book ‘From the Holy Mountain’ in which he follows the journey of two monks, John Moschos and Sophronius (who was to become Patriarch of Jerusalem in the time of the Arab conquest), that they took through Syria, Palestine and Egypt around the year 600.  On their travels they recorded the stories they heard from the holy men they met. Thus in one story (‘The Spiritual Meadow’, no. 26) a monk is shown a dark, disagreeable place with a fire in which he sees amongst others Nestorius, Eutyches, Arius, Severus and Origen (all regarded in Rome and Constantinople at this stage as responsible for particularly bad heresies.) He is told, ‘This place is prepared for heretics…for if a man practise every virtue and yet not glorify God correctly, to this place he will come!’ In another (ibid., no. 188), one brother is told in a dream that another brother has been having sex with a tavern-keeper’s wife. When he asks the other brother about this, he of course denies it firmly. They talk and it transpires that the other brother had had communion in a church holding to Severus’s doctrines, and the explanation of the dream is clear: consorting with heretics is akin to elicit sex, for Severus had been a tavern-keeper before becoming Patriarch of Antioch!  And so we find heretics not just excommunicated and persecuted, but lampooned, demonised, worthy of the worst that hell can do and woven into moral tales rather like the Big Bad Wolf for the edification of younger Christians.

At this point however, it is perhaps worth noting that the Greek word ‘hairesis’ originally meant ‘choice’ and was the process by which a person was expected to examine different philosophies to see which he felt was the best guide for his future life: it had more to do with conduct than belief, religious or otherwise.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Bishops and other Church leaders do not have a duty to teach the doctrines of the Faith correctly and ensure that theological ideas that damage its essentials are opposed. They do, it’s their most important function. But to state that begs immediately the fundamental question, ‘What is an essential theological doctrine?’ And that, of course, has been the problem down the centuries. But, with all humility and some trepidation, I am going to offer a tentative answer!

For having looked at some attitudes towards theological deviancy in the earlier Christian centuries, which essentially repeats itself successively through the later history of western Europe, I wondered whether there was anything that emerged in that period that may help us see beyond what divides Churches today, for we have inherited the divisions of the past, we did not create them.

In pondering this I found myself asking what is, perhaps, an unusual question: what is it, in the eyes of those who look at those who claim to be Christians from outside, that in their view separates us off from the devotees of other religions or those who have none? It is of course the doctrine of the Trinity and the status that we accord to Jesus Christ. That status comes from the position that we believe He has in relation to God. We believe He shares all the attributes of divinity with God, that He is God, but in a fully human form. That simple belief is the principle cause of persecution by outsiders against Christians down the ages. The early Church struggled and argued with this concept for centuries, and it is the cause of the schisms in the 5th century over the Councils at Ephesus and Chalcedon. But there is one event that appears to me to have been remarkably successful in terms of the subsequent acceptance of its theological decisions. And that is the meeting of Church leaders held in the summer of the year 325 in the town in the west of Turkey called Iznik, famous for its porcelain tiles in Ottoman times.

In 2006 my wife was teaching in Bursa, which is a town on the Silk Road and a short ferry crossing and then a bus ride south of Istanbul. A signpost to the left indicates the road to Iznik, and one day I took it. It was a beautifully quiet, sunny day in June and I followed the road through the countryside and two lines of low hills with a placid blue lake dividing them, until I came to the end of the lake and the town, still girded by its double line of walls and with its aqueduct still remarkably well preserved, for it had been part of the town’s water supply until the 20th century. For Iznik is not a Turkish town, but the ancient Greek polis of Nicaea, and it was to this beautifully situated place that the amazed bishops of the Christian Church found themselves ‘invited’ by the Emperor Constantine to attend a conference, an invitation even less to be resisted than an Episcopal one! It matters little whether it was about 250 bishops (which seems historically more likely) who attended, or the 318 of Orthodox tradition, though interestingly Bede gives the same number (History of the English Church Bk. 4 ch .17). (In fact, with each bishop being allowed to bring additional priests and deacons, the total number of attendees was closer to 2000, and must have seemed like an invasion to local residents!) But it was the breadth geographically that they represented that is important, coming from within and outside the Roman Empire, a point Eusebius is keen to make, recording the presence of ‘a Persian bishop too…and even a Scythian’ (which is tantamount to saying even an barbarian! Not much had changed since Tertullian’s day, it seems!). They were representatives of the entire Christian community, a global church, transcending political boundaries. (Eusebius in fact draws an interesting parallel with Acts chapter 2 and the groups listed as present at the first Pentecost.) The ‘summit communiqué’ at the end of several weeks of deliberations was commendably short: Jesus is fully divine, fully God, nothing less. Taking a baptismal creed in use one of the dioceses those few, but famous, words were inserted into the second paragraph to create what became the ‘gateway’ to the Church: assent to the Creed of Nicaea and you are ‘in’, do not do so and you are ‘out’. It is a decision that has stuck, and never seriously been contested since. It was expressly accepted by the Protestant Reformers and is a basic tenet of all Protestant theologies, Episcopalian and non-conformist. It is a basic text of all Orthodox Churches, Eastern, Oriental and the Church of the East, as it is of course of the Roman Catholic Church. Further it was effectively re-issued in the year 381, at a Council held in Constantinople (the Council of the so-called 150, a figure also mentioned by Bede (ibid.)), when additional words were added to the third paragraph concerning the equality and work of the Holy Spirit, to create what in the west is called the ‘Nicene’ Creed, but more accurately in Orthodox Churches the ‘Nicene-Constantinopolitan’ Creed.

I have not, of course, overlooked a certain eight letter Latin word that was to appear in the west later in the text of the third paragraph! What should one do about ‘filioque’? Clearly it’s a problem, but not one that in my view is particularly important. It is quite clear it is a later addition by only one of the Patriarchal Churches, that in Rome, and not part of the original text. Secondly, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son is not to deny that He proceeds from the Father. The word ‘alone’ is not there in the original. This was not an issue that the Protestant Reformers considered as they had rather more important problems with the then Roman Catholic Church with which to deal. To revert to the original text in the west would not deny a double procession, but merely not assert it as part of this Creed. It becomes a matter for theological discussion and resolution at a later date, with both sides being able for the present to keep their own interpretation. For my part, I am happy to accept the original, and I do not repeat aloud that phrase when we read the Creed during the Anglican communion service that I attend.

Sadly, in Nicaea today the building in which the Council sat is no more, though the church in which a later Council sat does still exist as a shell, but the grid of streets is much the same as then, and to wander round the walls or along the shore of the lake is undoubtedly to walk in the footsteps of those bishops of old as they took time out from their deliberations. Rarely visited, it should be a place of pilgrimage for every Christian church.

The importance of Nicaea from the view point of the 21st century, which is inevitably the one we must adopt, since we cannot undo the historical fact of the splits and schisms that have occurred subsequently, is that it does not impose a unifying concept; it reveals one. We only have to see and acknowledge this unifying belief that we already have, we do not have to create anything! When the evangelical pastor preaches that ‘Jesus is fully God and fully human’, and the Orthodox monk confesses to ‘the faith of the 318 of Nicaea’ they mean the same thing, though both would probably be very surprised to be told so. Instead of treating it as an ancient text repeated in some liturgies of some churches, why do we not bring it to the fore-front and acknowledge it as something that already exists as the basis of that essential unity for which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane? For it is without question one of the greatest Christian texts, arguably the most influential one in the history of Christianity since the Apostolic era, of which we should be supremely proud to be the inheritors. Is part of the problem, dare one say, that we are all rather frightened of moving out from our accepted forms of Christian belief and worship? Should we not have the courage to accept all those who acknowledge Jesus as ‘fully God and fully human’ as ‘Christians’, even if their additional beliefs or forms of worship may be difficult, or impossible, for us to accept?

But Nicaea has the potential to be even more revolutionary. It not only reveals the basic propositions that unite Christians, it also opens the door to that which is, for many western Christians, a world of churches and historical figures of which they have never heard, religious practices of which they may be suspicious and forms of worship that they do not understand, but which is our priceless heritage. There will then dawn the deeply unsettling realisation that Christianity is not a product of western European religious thought and experience, but that it came to us from further east.

Whilst we in Britain have all heard of St. Patrick and St David, St Columba and Iona, and are aware of what is called Celtic Christianity, their connection with Eastern Christianity and especially Egypt is only recently coming to light with new research. Our knowledge of the early history of Christianity in our island comes largely from Bede, writing around 730. He does not mention these figures and is clearly writing from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, solidly loyal to the ‘Church of the West’, ie. Rome. This has left many with the false understanding that Christianity in Britain has foundations not much earlier than the late 6th and 7th centuries with the coming of Augustine (597) and the Synod of Whitby (664). But Bede does record in detail an interesting synodical letter written after a Synod held at Hatfield in 680, over which ‘Theodore Archbishop of the island of Britain and the City of Canterbury’ presided, and at which the ‘venerable bishops of the island of Britain…having the most holy Gospels before us, hereby unite to proclaim the true and orthodox faith..’ The Synod then formally endorsed the 5 Ecumenical Councils that had sat by that date(ibid.). Bede wants to make it clear that ‘his’ Church is utterly loyal to and theologically part of a world wide church which extends, he says, into ‘Africa, Asia, Egypt and Greece’(ibid. Bk.3 ch.25).

I fear that too many in Europe and the West still see Christianity through the prism of the splendid Gothic churches and wealthy monasteries of the Roman Catholicism of the Middle Ages or its 16th century Protestant offshoots. The reality is that it was formed largely in caves and deserts, in central Turkey, Egypt and Syria, with most of its bishops in cities east of Istanbul. How many church-goers in Europe, I wonder, know of the Church based in Baghdad which had a geographical area of successful missionary operations from India via the Turks of Central Asia to China? There is a whole history of Christianity of which western Christians are appallingly ignorant. And resurrecting Nicaea will bring us face to face with it.

But it will, I’m afraid, get worse for our comfort zone. Not only will we be visiting our local libraries and asking for some rather strangely titled history books, but the current news bulletins should hit us rather differently. With the Arab world in repeated chaos, the mention of ‘Christian churches’ in the Middle East will reveal to our new understanding not the western imports of the imperial past, but continuous Christian traditions rooted in the Apostolic era and still functioning today, and currently using church buildings erected in the 4th century. We will find we have Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, Turkey and Jordan, never mind Israel, Lebanon and Egypt, men and women who are Christians by reason of accepting the Faith of Nicaea. What is our Christian duty towards them? Within what was the Ottoman empire, Christian minorities survived, due to the ‘millet’ system, remarkably intact until the 20th century, despite being second class citizens and periodic bouts of persecution. But the devastation of the last 100 years has been terrible, in percentage terms greater than at any point in earlier ages, with Greek, Armenian, Syrian and Chaldean Christian populations being reduced to a tiny fraction of what was the case a century ago. Iraq and Syria became strongholds for the remnants. Until that is the last ten years, which have seen first Iraq and now Syria implode with Islamic civil wars, and the ‘Arab Spring’ produce a rather chilly one for Christians in Egypt.  I repeat, what is our Christian duty towards these our brothers and sisters? What action should we be taking, what should our church leaders be doing? For surely we have a precedent, as you will recall the comments in various New Testament passages about the financial contributions being collected in various culturally ‘superior’ and wealthier Greek churches for the relief of their ethnically different but still fellow Christians in and around Jerusalem following political upheaval. The point is that they did it. Or do we find old arguments about popery or the validity of clerical orders in western churches, or new ones about women priests or homosexuality more exciting, or simply more comfortable?

The idyllic calm of Nicaea and its beautiful surroundings will open the door to a bleaker, more dangerous place, but we have no excuse to refuse to go there. For not to do so will leave us ignorant of who we really are and surely bring upon us the condemnation that St Anthony visited upon Arius that I mentioned a little earlier: ‘If he had known himself, his tongue would not have spoken about what he did not know. It is however manifest that he did not know himself’. As we cannot ‘know ourselves’ until we know our Christian past, what, I wonder, is the worth of our present ideas about our religion?

Finally, may I end with two quotations that I find particularly instructive on divisions within and among churches. The first is from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559, in which he makes the following trenchant criticism of those who lightly divide the Body of Christ: ‘For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments….Christ has chosen and set apart the church as his bride…Nor can any more atrocious crime be conceived than for us by sacrilegious disloyalty to violate the marriage that the only-begotten Son of God has deigned to contract with us….The principle extends to the point that we must not reject (a church) so long as it retains (the true ministry of Word and sacraments), even if it swarms with many faults…. we claim too much for ourselves if we dare withdraw…from the communion of the church just because the morals of all do not meet our standard or even square with the profession of Christian faith. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4 ch 1, paras 10, 12, 18)  (Bold comments, you may feel. ‘The Institutes’ are a great ‘read’, though not for the faint-hearted!)

The second is from John Moschos, whom I mentioned earlier. He quotes a comment from a man from Alexandria called Palladios: ‘Believe me, children, heresies and schisms have done nothing for the holy church except to make us love God and each other very much less than before!’ (Spiritual Meadow, no 74.)


Nicholas Crampton

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