Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Anglicanism and the Ecumenical Councils

As someone who appreciates the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the topic of Anglicanism and its relationship to the seven Ecumenical Councils intrigues me. And so I read a recent article published in The Living Church by Samuel Keyes entitled "Viewpoint: Anglicans and Councils" with great interest. Here are some excerpts:

Perhaps it should go without saying that the Anglican Communion has a mixed history with the seven ecumenical councils. Like the Orthodox, Anglicans cannot accept Rome’s reduction of “ecumenical council” to mean a general synod called by the pope. Yet I suspect that most Anglicans — including many who call themselves Anglo-Catholics — remain deeply suspicious of claims to “infallibility” about councils, even when, regarding the seven, such a notion is held consistently in both East and West.

This suspicion is unfortunate—or so I hope to show in this brief essay. It is unfortunate first of all because it ignores the grammar implicit in calling something an ecumenical council. A council becomes ecumenical not because, crudely, everybody was there, but because it was eventually received as having proper dogmatic authority in the whole world. ...

What any conception of “ecumenical” takes for granted, then, is that in order to call something ecumenical one must be part of the Church. It is the Church itself, as the Body of Christ, that reveals its wholeness, not some external secular principle. Accordingly, we cannot seek to judge the councils from some neutral ground. That, in Vladimir Lossky’s words, “would be to judge Christianity from a non-Christian standpoint: in other words, to refuse in advance to understand anything whatever about the object of study. For objectivity in no wise consists in taking one’s stand outside an object but, on the contrary, in considering one’s object in itself and by itself” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976], 12). ...

Where does all this leave us as Anglicans? Our problem, as has been made painfully clear in the current crisis, is that we do not really know who we are. It will not do to defer to scripture as if scripture stands outside the catholic and ecumenical tradition, for this attitude easily suggests, however unintentionally, that we read the scriptures alone, and that we alone mediate their interpretation.

Instead, let us follow the vision of Lambeth 1920, at which the bishops urged “every branch of the Anglican Communion” to “prepare its members for taking their part in the universal fellowship of the reunited Church, by setting before them the loyalty which they owe to the universal Church, and the charity and understanding which are required of the members of so inclusive a society” (Resolution 15).

Read it all.

While noting that the very idea of following the ecumenical vision of Lambeth 1920 is all but laughable for The Episcopal Church these days (and one either laughs in sorrow or joy), I read Keyes as offering a critique of the sola scriptura approach that, as he puts it, places the authority of scripture "outside the catholic and ecumenical tradition." It's a critique of the tendency towards hyper-Protestantism in The Episcopal Church on all sides, a tendency that places Anglicans/Episcopalians outside the Universal Church.

In other words, I read this piece as a critique of the "three-legged stool" model of authority that pits scripture over and against tradition as though the two can be so neatly separated. As Keyes writes, "To the fathers, truth was not an achievement, but a gift - a tradition (literally: handed down). The scriptures were the heart of this gift, but they could not be abstracted from the giving." Abstracting scripture from the tradition that gives it, scripture loses its grounding in truth and becomes simply another manifestation of division (rival wills to interpretation). That, too, is another manifestation of the "Protestant prerogative" to assert one's own individual conscience over and against the Universal Church.

As one Eastern Orthodox Christian who read this article told me: "Scripture simply makes no sense outside of tradition. The idea that the Ecumenical Councils' job was the interpretation of scripture would strike us as bizarre."


plsdeacon said...

The problem is that "Tradition" is normally taken to mean "what we've always done" or "what's been done in the last x years."

Among the Clergy and Laity of TEC (and the USA in general), there is a tendendcy to say "don't know much about history" as if its a good thing!

Bishop Fitzsimmons-Allison said that Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. We need more of the first ("Faith of our Fathers living still") and less of the second ("We never done it that way before!").

The problem is how to separate Tradition from traditionalism. How do we determine what is of the esse of the Church (Tradition) and what is of the bene esse of the Church. Looking to the 7 ecumenical councils and how they interpreted Holy Scripture (the most fixed part of Holy Tradition) would be wonderful for us.

As a humorous aside, how many Easter Orthodox does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: What is this change of which you speak?

Phil Snyder

BillyD said...

"Yet I suspect that most Anglicans — including many who call themselves Anglo-Catholics — remain deeply suspicious of claims to “infallibility” about councils, even when, regarding the seven, such a notion is held consistently in both East and West."

Historically, though, Anglicanism has recognized the first four Councils, not all seven - right?

Bryan Owen said...

I think you may be right about the first four rather than all seven of the ecumenical councils, BillyD. That's what Lancelot Andrewes, for instance, affirms in the quote from him I include on the right sidebar of this blog when you scroll down.

Toni said...

But why four and not seven councils?

Bryan Owen said...

Good question, Toni. I don't know the answer. Anyone else?

There's a chapter entitled "Councils, Conferences and Synods" by Frederick H. Shriver in The Study of Anglicanism that notes that the first four ecumenical Councils "have a special place in Anglican theology, secondary to the Scriptures themselves, but the way in which their authority is acknowledged is complex and very important in its expression of classical Anglican theological method" (p. 203). It doesn't appear that the chapter addresses why only the first four are esteemed authoritative to the exclusion of the final three Councils.

Perhaps the reason why the final three of the ecumenical Councils get excluded is because they were deemed insufficiently grounded in scripture? If so, does their exclusion demonstrate the problem of using the scriptures as though they "stand somehow outside the Church as an impartial arbiter," when, actually, from the beginning, they have stood within the Church as a "biased" or "interested" advocate?

plsdeacon said...

Perhaps part of the reason for there being four instead of seven councils recognized is how do we determine an ecumenical council? The truth is that an Ecumenical Council is only recognized significantly after the fact. Why is Nicea recognized as ecumenical and Sirmium (358) and Rimini and Selucia (359) not recognized? It is because the church later reversed Sirmium, Rimini, and Selucia at Constantinople.

I don't have sufficient resources to hand, but I would bet that the last three councils were not deemed sufficiently important by the Caroline Divines to hold the title "Ecumenical"


Bryan Owen said...

plsdeacon wrote: " ... I would bet that the last three councils were not deemed sufficiently important by the Caroline Divines to hold the title 'Ecumenical.'"

That may be true, but it still strikes me as rather odd since all seven of these councils were deemed very important by the Church East and West until the Reformation.

I'm still wondering if a more Reformed view of the authority of scripture plays a role here.

Anybody else have some light to cast on this?

Toni said...

Well, I suspect you are correct Fr. Owen.

I would venture to guess that a Reformed prejudice against Icons may have something to do with a lack of acceptance of the Seventh Council.

Toni said...

whatsoever was decreed in the four General Councils, or in any other truly such, and whatsoever was condemned in these, our Church hath legally declared it to be Heresie. --Jeremy Taylor

Interestingly though Jeremy Taylor speaks of four General or Ecumenical he seems to leave room for more to be acknowledged with the phrase "or in any other truly such".

Toni said...

"For surely it is lawfull for a Man to serve God without Images; but that to worship Images is lawfull, is not so sure. It is lawfull to pray to God alone, to confess him to be true, and every Man a liar, to call no man Master upon Earth, but to rely upon God teaching us; But it is at least hugely disputable and not at all certain that any Man, or society of Men can be infallible " --Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor sounding very Protestant in his objections to Icons and in his mistrust of authority.

Bryan Owen said...

Regardless of how Protestant Jeremy Taylor may sound in this brief passage, he's right about the worship of images (icons) not being "so sure." Veneration, on the other hand ... well, that's an entirely different matter.

Toni said...

That depends Father on whether Jeremy Taylor makes a proper distinction between the two. One has to see what exactly he's objecting to.

Elsewhere in this letter he describes the Roman practices he objects to. "now you are taught to worship Saints and Angels with a worship at least dangerous, and in some things proper to God; for your Church worships the Virgin Mary with burning incense and candles to her"

So is he condemning damnable idolatry or is he objecting against what would be deemed veneration according to 7th Ecumenical Council?

Toni said...

Idolatry or the worship of images isn't questionable Father, it is just flat out wrong.

Bryan Owen said...

You're quite right about the worship of images, Toni. Hence, the importance of the distinction between worship on the one hand, and veneration on the other. The Orthodox Christians I know don't worship icons. They venerate them. Same thing with Roman Catholics and the Virgin Mary. I haven't read the letter by Jeremy Taylor that you're citing, but it sounds to me like he's failing to make this fundamental distinction.

The same thing holds true for Episcopalians who bow when the processional cross comes down the aisle at the beginning and the ending of the service - we're not worshiping the cross, we're venerating it out of respect for the One who suffered and died on the cross.

Perhaps some Protestants would do well to distinguish between worshiping and venerating the Bible?

And while I'm thinking about it, am I worshiping the American flag when I put my hand over my heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Or am I venerating it out of respect for what it stands for and for the sacrifices of predecessors?

The difference between worship and veneration is a difference that makes a difference.

Toni said...

The Jeremy Taylor quotes may be found in A Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman Newly Seduced to the Church of Rome.

It can be found here:


Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the link, Toni. I actually shared a snippet of this letter in an earlier posting, but I've not read it in its entirety.

BillyD said...

Here's a pdf version of a book entitled _The Church of England and the Seventh Council_, by Claude Beaufort Moss. Moss claims that the Church of England historically recognizes six General Councils, and argues for the acceptance of the seventh, stating on page 3 that the Book of Homilies and several Anglican authors (as well as some foreign Reformers) speak of six.

BillyD said...

Sorry - I think I forgot the link:


Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing this, BillyD.

Toni said...

we gladly give great honour to the Councils, especially those that are General, we judge that they
ought to be placed far below the dignity of the canonical Scriptures: and we make a great
distinction between the Councils themselves. For some of them, especially those four, the
Council of Nicæa, the first Council of Constantinople, and the Councils of Ephesus and
Chalcedon, we embrace and receive with great reverence. And we bear the same judgment about
many others held afterwards, in which we see and confess that the most holy Fathers gave many
weighty and holy decis ions according to the Divine Scriptures, about the blessed and supreme
Trinity, about Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, and the redemption of man obtained through
Him. But we think that our faith ought not to be bound by them, except so far as they can be
confirmed by Holy Scripture. For it is manifest that some Councils have sometimes erred, and
defined contrary to one another, partly on actions of law, partly even of faith.’

From the Church of England and the 7th Council.

Bryan Owen said...

I just came across that book the other day. It can be downloaded as a PDF file here.