Archive for June, 2006

Two Reflections on the “Reflection”

June 30, 2006

On Tuesday, June 27th, ++Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a document entitled “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion.” It is both thoughtful and very well written, and it has provoked a great deal of comment (as it was surely intended to do).

I want to offer two critical reflections on the Reflection. The first has to do with how one suggestion in the document is being characterized in the media. (They’re wrong.) The second concerns the document itself, in particular ++Rowan Williams’ characterization of the nature of the Anglican Communion. (He’s right, but . . . )

  • Since the appearance of the Archbishop’s “Reflection” on recent events in the Episcopal Church and the future of the Anglican Communion, there have been several reports in the media that Williams is proposing some sort of “two-tiered communion,” with an “inner circle” of churches that subscribe to a yet-to-be-written “covenant” (such as that envisioned in the Windsor Report) and an “outer circle” of Anglican churches that do not. This is the view of Andrew Carey, of Anglican Essentials of Canada, and of Daniel Burke of the Religious News Service (and I believe there are others).

    I confess to being a bit baffled, because I have read the Archbishop’s statement carefully, and as far as I can tell, he is proposing (if indeed “proposing” is the right word) no such thing.

    Here is the relevant section of the ++Rowan’s “Reflection” (all emphases mine):

    The idea of a ‘covenant’ between local Churches (developing alongside the existing work being done on harmonising the church law of different local Churches) is one method that has been suggested, and it seems to me the best way forward. It is necessarily an ‘opt-in’ matter. Those Churches that were prepared to take this on as an expression of their responsibility to each other would limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness; and some might not be willing to do this. We could arrive at a situation where there were ‘constituent’ Churches in covenant in the Anglican Communion and other ‘churches in association’, which were still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures. The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example. The ‘associated’ Churches would have no direct part in the decision making of the ‘constituent’ Churches, though they might well be observers whose views were sought or whose expertise was shared from time to time, and with whom significant areas of co-operation might be possible.

    This leaves many unanswered questions, I know, given that lines of division run within local Churches as well as between them – and not only on one issue (we might note the continuing debates on the legitimacy of lay presidency at the Eucharist). It could mean the need for local Churches to work at ordered and mutually respectful separation between ‘constituent’ and ‘associated’ elements; but it could also mean a positive challenge for Churches to work out what they believed to be involved in belonging in a global sacramental fellowship, a chance to rediscover a positive common obedience to the mystery of God’s gift that was not a matter of coercion from above but of that ‘waiting for each other’ that St Paul commends to the Corinthians.

    I can find no call for any second “tier” in this. Rather, it seems clear (at least to me) that Williams is suggesting that any church that does not sign such a “covenant” is out, period. Such a church (e.g. TEC?) will maintain perhaps a friendly relationship with the Anglican Communion, but that relationship will be like that of the Methodist Church to the Church of England (at least at present), a tie of history and common origins, but no more. Not communion, not interchangeable orders, etc. Another example might be the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Joint ecumenical ventures, perhaps, but not the same church, and certainly not a church on any “second tier.”

    Insofar as Methodists are “associated” with Anglicans, it is through shared history and ecumenical discussions. A Methodist representative spoke to the recent General Synod as it debated the creation of women bishops (and so did a Roman Catholic). But would any Methodist, either in Britain or the US, consider themselves in a “second tier” to the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, or the Anglican Communion? Are Methodists in any sense “second class Anglicans”? Certainly not—at least, I’m quite sure the Methodists don’t think so.

  • My second point comes from this portion in the section “The Anglican Identity” in ++Rowan Williams’ “Reflection” :

    The reason Anglicanism is worth bothering with is because it has tried to find a way of being a Church that is neither tightly centralised nor just a loose federation of essentially independent bodies – a Church that is seeking to be a coherent family of communities meeting to hear the Bible read, to break bread and share wine as guests of Jesus Christ, and to celebrate a unity in worldwide mission and ministry. That is what the word ‘Communion’ means for Anglicans, and it is a vision that has taken clearer shape in many of our ecumenical dialogues.

    Of course it is possible to produce a self-deceiving, self-important account of our worldwide identity, to pretend that we were a completely international and universal institution like the Roman Catholic Church. We’re not.

    The Archbishop is absolutely correct. We’re not. The problem is, in its effort to distinguish the current unpleasantness from the “ordination” of women and the “process of reception,” the Windsor Report that so many, including the Archbishop, think so highly of makes the implicit claim that we are.

    Over a year and a half ago, I wrote a post that tried to point out this fundamental dilemma, one that lies close to the heart of the Anglican problem of authority. Please forgive me, but I am going to quote myself at length (between rows of asterisks):


    This confusion and incoherence points up a fundamental problem with Anglican concepts of authority (or lack thereof) and with the very idea of a “process of reception.”

    As early as Jewel in the 16th century, Anglicanism has always claimed (whether justly or not) to model itself on the church of the early centuries and ecumenical councils, something the Windsor Report itself sets out in paragraph 47 (emphases mine).

    When “the Anglican Communion” describes itself as such, it is self-consciously describing that part of the Body of Christ which shares an inheritance through the Anglican tradition, that is, from the Church of England, whose history encompasses the ancient Celtic and Saxon churches of the British Isles, and which was given fresh theological expression during the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformers of that time looked back explicitly to the Bible and the early Fathers, and had every intention that their theology would be ‘catholic’ in the sense of sharing the faith of the universal Church. The very fact that the family of churches which traces its roots back to the ancient churches of the British Isles should call itself an Anglican Communion is itself indicative of the twin fundamental concepts on which the community is built: our shared inheritance (’Anglican’) and our worldwide fellowship as God’s children (’communion’). That shared inheritance has itself included a developing understanding of communion, which has been expressed, for instance, in some of our ecumenical dialogues. It also makes us aware of a responsibility, not only to our contemporaries within the Communion, but to those with whom we share in the Communion of Saints.

    Anglicanism thus claims not to represent the whole Church Catholic on the one hand. As Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher famously claimed, there are no uniquely Anglican orders or creeds, but only those of the ancient, undivided Church. Yet on the other hand, Anglicans are free (according to the Windsor Report) to make innovations in sacramental ministry, especially at the provincial level, even in the absence of ecumenical consent, so long as they are submitted to a “process of reception” that apparently is entirely limited to the Anglican Communion.

    The Windsor Report stumbles over this very problem in paragraph 68, where it sets out its understanding of the “process of reception” (emphasis mine).

    Within our common life, one way in which unity has been maintained is by subjecting fresh developments within the Anglican Communion to a test of reception. In classical theological terms, ‘reception’ was the process by which the pronouncements of a Council of the Church were tested by how the faithful ‘received’ it. The consensus fidelium (’common mind of the believers’) constituted the ultimate check that a new declaration was in harmony with the faith as it had been received. More recently, the doctrine has been used in Anglicanism as a way of testing whether a controversial development, not yet approved by a universal Council of the Church but nevertheless arising within a province by legitimate processes, might gradually, over time, come to be accepted as an authentic development of the faith. This offers a clear threefold sequence:
    1. theological debate and discussion
    2. formal action, and
    3. increased consultation to see whether the formal action settles down and makes itself at home.
    This process of consultation, designed to strengthen Communion, is the very opposite of confrontation, and leads to a shared discernment of God’s truth. It is a key way of maintaining the unity of the Church through a time of experiment and uncertainty.

    In the middle of paragraph 68 we find one sentence (in bold italics above) that tries by verbal sleight-of-hand to glide past this difficulty by sliding from “Anglicanism” to “a universal Council of the Church” and then back to “a province.” “Province” here must mean a province of the Anglican Communion (e.g., ECUSA). But how can you “test” anything within Anglicanism when Anglicanism itself declares that it does not represent the universal Church? And as long as some believe that a matter (be it women “priests” or gay bishops) is of concern not just to the Anglican Communion but to the Church Catholic, how can any province take it upon itself to do such testing?

    The Windsor Report declares (paragraph 68) that

    In classical theological terms, ‘reception’ was the process by which the pronouncements of a Council of the Church were tested by how the faithful ‘received’ it. The consensus fidelium (’common mind of the believers’) constituted the ultimate check that a new declaration was in harmony with the faith as it had been received.

    Have I missed something? Do Anglicans now hold ecumenical councils? Was there such an ecumenical council that declared definitively on the “ordination” of women? Are there plans for one in the near future to deal with same-sex “unions”? When, in fact, this problem — that the ordination of women was something that could only be settled by an ecumenical council and that the Anglican Communion, let alone ECUSA, was in no position to hold one — was raised back in the seventies, supporters declared that this meant waiting, and that the demands of “justice” could not be delayed. Now we are hearing similar cries from the supporters of Gene Robinson and same-sex “unions.”


    To put it more simply: if we’re not a church like the Roman Catholic Church, one that claims ecumencial authority (a polite way of saying that it is the only true “church”), how is it that, in the matter of the “ordination” of women we can act as if we are? Sooner or later, ++Rowan Williams and company are going to have to face it: the “process of reception” was a dodge, a classic Anglican fudge, a means of deciding by not deciding but going with the cultural drift in the very manner that the Archbishop so eloquently warns against in the beginning of his “Reflection” :

    Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes – which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society – there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms.

    There does indeed. Just what those terms are is the most vital question facing Anglicanism. As Williams puts it,

    Some actions – and sacramental actions in particular – just do have the effect of putting a Church outside or even across the central stream of the life they have shared with other Churches. It isn’t a question of throwing people into outer darkness, but of recognising that actions have consequences – and that actions believed in good faith to be ‘prophetic’ in their radicalism are likely to have costly consequences.

    Cardinal Kasper couldn’t have put it better.

    It is no accident that both the “ordination” of women and same-sex “unions” have claimed to be the result of “prophetic” actions, and it is no accident that both have had costly consequences. If the Episcopal Church cannot have its cake and eat it too—to declare the right to meddle with the church’s historic understanding and yet pay no price with its place in the larger church—how can the Anglican Communion?


    A House and Two . . . ?

    June 28, 2006

    On June 19th, I got an e-mail from a reader who, in the aftermath of the election of the new Presiding “Bishop,” simply asked, “Now what?” At the time, I had little advice to offer, and frankly, given the pace of recent events, don’t really know what to say now except hope and pray. I wrote a post that I thought might at least give a few people a laugh, and to judge from the reaction, that’s exactly what it did—that is, give a laugh to very few people.

    Then on June 21st, just as General Convention was ending and the Diocese of Forth Worth was asking for “alternative primatial oversight,” I flew to New York for a week where my wife had medical treatment and we attended a memorial service for my late step-father-in-law. I followed events as best I could and wrote my last post in New York on the 22nd in a decidedly downbeat mood.

    Since then, however, the pace of events has picked up considerably, to the point where it is not only hard to keep up but also hard to write anything, since some other shoe always seems to drop. By now, several dioceses have asked for “alternative primatial oversight” (although it remains unclear to me just what that means); the largest parish in the Episcopal Church, Christ Church Plano, has announced its departure from the Episcopal Church; the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a statement that, well, everyone is buzzing about, and rightly so; the Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of one of the largest and most successful parishes in the Episcopal Church, has just been elected a missionary bishop for Nigeria; the Diocese of Newark has included a gay candidate on its slate for possible election as bishop (I’m shocked! Shocked!); and . . . well, something else has probably happened in the time it took to write this.

    So I find it impossible to write on this or that letter or statement or action, at least for now. Maybe things will calm down a bit and we can take a deep breath. Meanwhile . . . when I described my next-to-last post to a correspondent as “dark humor,” he responded that “gallows humor” was a more appropriate description. Well, perhaps some pointed humor would again be appropriate. I therefore offer the following for reflection, one an old Jewish joke, the other of more recent Anglican vintage.

  • An elderly Jew washes up on a desert island. Figuring he’s going to be there for awhile, he procedes to build for himself a house and two synagogues.

    Eventually, though, a ship does come along, spots the Jewish castaway and sails over to rescue him.

    However, as the captain wades ashore, he sees what has been built and is puzzled. “I understand the house,” says the captain, “but . . . why two synagogues?”

    The old Jew points to one of the two synagogues, scowls and says sternly, “That one I don’t go to!”

  • That this humor is characteristically Jewish is, to me, undeniable. And yet, I have heard exactly the same joke told about Russian Orthodox Christians! Until recently, there were at least three different Russian churches in this country alone, none of them in communion with each other. The old Russian saw was, get three Russians into the same room and you’ll find four jurisdictions.

    The same joke could have been told about Anglicans, of course, except with this difference—the various parties within Anglicanism managed to remain in communion with each other. Now, how long will it be before that no longer applies?

  • The second joke goes like this:

    It is High Mass at the National Cathedral, and a female bishop is presiding, with her pregnant lesbian lover dressed in a dalmatic and carrying the censer. An anglo-catholic priest turns to his neighbor and whispers, “That does it! Just one more thing and I’m outta here!”

    This one was recently batted around among e-mail acquaitances of mine, and several correspondents recalled different versions, the variant each time being the particular outrage that provoked the response—a female presiding bishop places a statue of the Buddha on the high altar; a couple engages in ritual prostitution in the sanctuary in a Rite of Spring; children are sacrficed to Moloch . . . you get the idea.

    Yet apparently there does come a point where the outrage is sufficient to cause serious defections, anglo-catholic or otherwise. If the reaction to the last General Convention means anything, we have apparently reached some sort of tipping point.

  • Are the dominoes at last starting to fall? And if they are, in what direction? Are castaway Anglicans doomed to building a house and two churches? Or can we avoid that fate? How? Should we even try?

    Much to think and pray about . . .

    Sausage and Legislation

    June 22, 2006

    (Note: I’ll be adding links to various comments when I can over the next few days. Right now I’m on the road and must post on the fly, so to speak.)

    (Warning. Serious ranting to commence. Parental guidance advised.)

    What follows is not meant in the least to diminish the efforts of faithful Christians, all the +Jack Ikers, Brad Drells, Kendall Harmons+, and Christopher Cantrells+ who did their utmost to bear witness to the truth at Columbus—and there were many of you, I know. Your names will be written in the Book of Life. But . . .

    The philosopher Leibnitz famously postulated that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” This is actually a fairly serious philosophical argument; however, it prompted Voltaire to comment that, “if this is the best of all possible worlds, God is a sadistic pig.”

    It is on days like this that I begin to wonder if Voltaire was right.

    General Convention 2006 is over. Could they have screwed this up any worse?

    Of course, I had tried to think of worst case scenarios for the Convention. But these folks managed to exceed my wildest imagination.

    One obvious objection to my complaint is that I am taking this too seriously. Sure, I may be faced with difficult choices, difficult in every way: emotionally, personally, intellectually, spiritually. But hey, someone could say, this wasn’t Hurricane Katrina. Nobody died or lost their home. Get real and get over it.

    But such an objection would be fair if we were only dealing with a catastrophe on a physical, material level. We are supposed to be people who believe in an eternal destiny for each of us. Call it “pie in the sky when you die” if you like, but there is supposed to be a supernatural dimension to all the politicking that went on in Columbus—witness how many times the Holy Spirit was invoked to justify this or that bit of blasphemy or apostasy.

    Houses, cities, and even lives can be rebuilt. Hell is forever—and purgatory, if you believe in it, doesn’t sound like much fun either.

    I will write something on the possible consequences of what transpired in Columbus, Ohio sometime soon. For now, I think it is imperative that we wake up to just how bad the disaster of GC06 was. The sheer scale of the of the stupidity, particularly of the House of Bishops, gives new meaning to the word “pathetic.” These guys couldn’t field a team in a Special Olympics for the Spiritually Handicapped.

    To appreciate just how awful this all is, I don’t even need to quote some of the bizarre statements already coming from mouth of the new Presiding “Bishop.” No need to detail the lunatic goings on of Bishop Chane and Company in the aftermath. Instead, let us consider the various possible outcomes for this Convention, the might-have-beens, from best to worst, and see just how low we have to go to get to reality.

    1 – The best outcome was, of course, the very least likely, barring a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea or the raising of Lazarus. Someone truly (and I mean truly) orthodox—Jack Iker, say, or Keith Ackerman—is nominated from the floor and elected Presiding Bishop. The delegates and the bishops realize that the Episcopal Church is in a state of schism already as well as apostasy and set about to set it right through resolutions and a collective covering of themselves with the legislative equivalent of dust and ashes. No, not likely, and in the case of the Presiding Bishop perhaps constitutionally impossible, but hey, we can hope, can’t we?

    2 – The next best thing—or perhaps I should say, the least bad outcome we could reasonably have expected—would have been to elect the least awful of candidates up for PB—Parsley, I suppose—and then go on to pass resolutions that would have been truly compliant with the requests of the Windsor Report. Not that I have ever thought that much of the Windsor Report, a fatally flawed document. Nor am I at all clear as to what constitutes the mysterious “Windsor process” everyone keeps talking about. This would have kept things together for now, and then it would be on to fight another day.

    3 – Next would have been electing, say, Alexander of Atlanta and not passing any “Windsor compliant” resolutions at all. Certainly this would have achieved the “clarity” that so many wanted, on both sides. At least the mushy middle would have been forced to see that all their efforts at obfuscation had failed. In fact, there are probably not a few who would have preferred #3 to #2, and I can understand why.

    4 – They could have elected a radical feminist process theology same-sex-union promoting pseudo-bishop as Presiding Bishop—oh wait, they did that, didn’t they?—and then again pass no “Windsor compliant” resolutions at all. We almost had that. Again, there are probably those who would have preferred that on all sides.

    5 – Bu nooooOOOoooo. First they had to pick the absolutely worst candidate on the list as Presiding “Bishop.” Reports are that this was due to some real episcopal arm-twisting by a certain west coast bishop (obviously moved by the Spirit, of course). Then, in an act of cowardice that will go down in infamy, the bishops, suddenly faced with the real possibility that they might not be able to sip tea and nibble crumpets at Lambeth in 2008 while they stroked their egos with the illusion that they are somehow of international significance, showed the courage of their convictions by cooking up the weakest, most pathetic “resolution” (perhaps the silliest term possible to describe the text that was passed) they could, then used every means short of threatening to knee-cap the Deputies to get it passed—a resolution that will fool no one (except possibly ++Robin Eames), a resolution that was immediately disowned by Network bishops on the right and the Chane-led lunatics on the left (who, it should be noted, outnumbered the Network objectors by about three to one). For once, I actually agreed with Louie Crew, who declared that this resolution would “cut the tongue out of the Holy Spirit.” Louie may be clueless as to what the Spirit has said or will say, but he was spot on that there was not the least whiff of smoke from the tongues of fire in this pathetic “resolution.”

    So there you have it. Bismarck once commented that the two things you never want to watch being made are sausage and legislation. Truer words were never said. I feel sick. Mark Shields once remarked concerning a certain Senate candidate that “calling him an empty suit is an insult—to the men’s apparel industry of America.” Well, calling some of these bishops empty chasubles would be an insult—to Almy.

    Yet despite that, I am glad for all the internet coverage of this Convention. CaNN, Stand Firm, BabyBlue, Whitehall and David Virtue, for all my disagreements with some of them in the past, did an outstanding job of displaying the carnage as well as the courage of a few who tried desperately to be a voice of reason and godliness in an orgy of apostasy, to say a word of sanity in a Convention hall lost in a bad acid trip. My hat is off to you all, particularly now as many of you are probably suffering from dark thoughts. Comforting words would sound hollow, but you have my prayers.

    As for the consequences of this pathetic show, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I’ll post on them later. Right now, well, I’m tempted to say I need a drink, but really I need to be on my knees. Or maybe both. I’m sure “the Spirit” will guide me. He/she is spreading his/her favors pretty liberally these days.


    June 19, 2006

    (Thunderous applause. Wild cheering.)

    Thank you. Thank you. God bless you. No, please. Enough. Everyone please take a seat, or we’ll be here all day and we still have a great deal of business to conduct, as you well know.

    Well, it took thirty-six hours and forty-two ballots, including three contested votes, but . . . we did it! Talk about breaking glass ceilings! A layman, elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church!

    (More thunderous applause.)

    First, I want to thank all those who sent me congratulatory telegrams, particularly President Al Gore, who certainly knows a thing or two about tough, contested elections! Also, the Archbishop of Canterbury, +John Broadhurst, has been very gracious.

    Of particular interest to you all should be the kind words of Pope John Paul III, the former Alvin Cardinal Kimel (man! Talk about breaking barriers!). “Coming from a lifetime of service in the Episcopal Church, I can only say that I am eager to carry forward the great strides in ecumenical progress we have made in recent years, symbolized first by my own election, and now yours. Clearly, a fresh round of ARCIC is called for!”

    Second, I want to make it clear that, in seeking reconciliation, during my primacy there will be no harsh words or measures against those dismayed at my election. I understand that the Diocese of Newark has already put forward a proposal asking for Alternative Primatial Oversight and has expressed a desire to come under the canonical jursidiction of the Anglican Church of Canada. I can see no reason why such a wish should not be speedily granted, nor any cause to deny any Newark clergy the full terms of their benefits from the Church Pension Fund. Should any other diocese or parish make a similar plea, well of course each request will have to be judged on its merits, but in principle I see no reason to automatically say, “Hell no.”

    Third, in pursuing our goals of a renewed church, I hope that my primacy will be marked by a fresh emphasis on theological education, both of our clergy and or laity. To that end, I will be asking for a resolution calling for the immediate resignation of all instructors in our seminaries. Now, before anyone gets either too excited or incensed, let me say that I mean ALL of our seminaries. It would not be fair to single out just a few. Admittedly, we could fill our parishes with fresh, enlightened, orthodox clergy from only Nahsotah and TESM, and I know that would all be our preference, but such a form of discrimination would surely be unfair. Better to start from scratch, I say! To that end, I am appointing a committee, chaired by Bill Witt, to set up a screening process for all the new hires that will be necessary.

    Fourth, my new chaplain, the Rev. Kendall Harmon, will be responsible for coordinating suggestions as to where our new headquarters should be. Yes, folks, that’s right. 815 is history. What our new location should be . . . well, my only personal requirement is that it not be too distant from a) the beach, b) a Starbucks, and c) really good food. I understand that a bid has already come in from a small island off the coast of South Carolina that has facilities in place.

    Finally, a question that I know has been on all of your minds: what to do with the Episcopal News Service? Let’s admit it: so many changes in such a short time has rendered ENS almost dysfunctional. I therefore propose that we outsource the entire news operation to Canada. Some people up there really seem to know what they’re doing, and its time we ended our parochial, imperial American attitude and learned a thing or two from those ingenious folks at CaNN. After all, in the Age of the Internet, what does it matter where we get our information from, so long as we know it’s reliable?

    Well, enough for now. We have work to do! Let’s get to it, and God bless you all!

    (Standing ovation. Cheers of “IRNS for ABC!”)

    (Sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.)

    “God never commands either schism or heresy” or Donat Hole (Part Five)

    June 17, 2006

    (With apologies to the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward)

    It just ain’t patristic’ly so,
    It just ain’t patristic’ly so,
    The things that yo’ bustin’
    To read in Aw-gustin’,
    They just ain’t patristic’ly so . . .

    “History” (note the scare quotes) is replete with things that never happened and words that were never said or written, at least by the people to whom they have been attributed. Thus Caligula never actually made his favorite race horse, Incitatus, a senator (he just tossed off the suggestion as a witticism), and Marie Antoinette never really said “Let them eat cake.”

    These sorts of everyone-knows-that-but-in-fact-it’s-not-so’s are found just as often in ecclesial history as well. Thus Tertullian never wrote credo quia absurdum est, “I believe because it is absurd,” although he may be the source. Of late, we have witnessed a great chase for a supposed quotation from Richard Hooker, often used to exploit Hooker’s authority by defenders of the revisionist agenda, that led exactly nowhere.

    Another favorite source of pseudo-quotation is none other than St. Augustine. He is often given credit for the phrase, in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity,” but in truth he never wrote it.

    The reputation of St. Augustine is so great that it is hardly surprising that he should be invoked in the current controversy facing the Anglican Communion in general and the Episcopal Church in particular. His is perhaps the most popular name associated by revisionists with the idea that schism is worse than heresy and it is to his authority they appeal when labeling opponents of the consecration of Gene Robinson “Donatists.” I have been unable to trace the source of this idea, but from what little I can tell, it appears that over time the assertion that Augustine believed schism was as bad as heresy seems to have morphed first into “as bad if not worse than heresy,” and from there to just “worse than heresy.” Thus the Catholic Encyclopedia, first published in 1913, under its entry on Donatism, declares that “in Africa Cyprian and Augustine both taught that schism is as bad as heresy, if not worse.” Ninety-two years later, + Gordon P. Scruton, Bishop of Western Massachusetts, could declare to his 2005 diocesan convention that “Anglicans have traditionally followed Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Richard Hooker in believing that schism or separation is worse than heresy.”

    I have already written on the question of St. Cyprian, heresy and schism; I will only note (again) here that Cyprian did not teach that schism was either as bad as, or worse than, heresy, but that schism was heresy, which meant something rather different and famously rendered (in Cyprian’s mind) schismatic sacraments invalid. As for Augustine, whose ecclesiology departed significantly from Cyprian’s, he was forced to declare that, in the particular case of the Donatists (an important qualification), Donatists were not merely schismatics, but heretics, and it was their heresy that made them so awful. Unlike Cyprian, Augustine believed that the distinction between schism and heresy was not purely notional, but that what entitled the church to condemn Donatism, and just as importantly what entitled the church to use the force of the state against the Donatists, was not merely Donatism’s schismatic, but also its heretical, character.

    There is reputed to have been a monastic library where, on the shelf for the works of St. Augustine, someone had scratched “He who says he has read all this is a liar.” I would certainly be very less than truthful if I claimed to have crawled through anything like the entire Augustinian corpus in a search for something resembling schisma peior quam haeresis est or sentiments to that effect. However, after hunting through dictionaries and databases, I have to date been unable to locate any such idea. That’s not to say that it could not be there somewhere, and that is certainly not to say that St. Augustine did not have quite a lot to say about both heresy and schism. Quite the contrary. However, from what I have been able to determine, Augustine’s actual thoughts on the relation between heresy and schism do not lend comfort to those who are pressing for unity at any price.

  • The Donatist schism in North Africa had its roots in the Great Persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, various local personality conflicts in and around Carthage, a certain sense of North African provincialism, and a deep sense of loyalty to the theology of North Africa’s martyr hero, Cyprian. Here is not the place to rehearse the people and events that resulted in one of the most famous schisms of the early church. Readers, if they wish to consult accounts online, can go here or here. Any good survey of the early church will give the particulars. The great modern work on the subject remains W. H. C. Frend’s The Donatist Church (1952). Essentially, Donatists believed that consecrations of bishops in Latin North Africa (i.e., Numidia) in the aftermath of the persecution—in particular of Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage—by those who (the Donatists alleged) had cooperated with the authorities in the persecution rendered them invalid, and only they (the Donatists) had maintained a valid line of succession and sacrament. Arguments before arbitrators and panels of bishops outside of North Africa appointed by the emperor Constantine only produced decisions in favor of Caecilian and against the Donatists. When process and argument failed to persuade the Donatists to surrendur, Constantine tried coercion, issuing an edict confiscating Donatist property and exiling Donatist leaders. However, within a few years, Constantine abandoned the effort, choosing to concentrate on his bid for sole power. Two separate churches with little apparent difference came to co-exist in North Africa in a state of perpetual mutual hostility, Donatist and Catholic.

    One outstanding difference in particular, however, would rankle Catholics both within and without North Africa. Following their hero Cyprian, Donatists insisted that schismatic baptism was no baptism at all. Since the Donatists claimed to be the true church, they would therefore rebaptize anyone who had already received a Catholic baptism. This practice really got under the skin of Catholics, who did not similarly rebaptize Donatists who joined the Catholic church, and Augustine spent a great deal of ink on the matter, insisting that baptism was not a possession of this or that priest or church but of Christ, and that thus any baptism properly performed was valid, needing only the communion of the true Catholic church and its faith to become effective. From such roots Augustine developed his sacramental theology of ex opere operato, a concept that has characterized western Christian theology ever since and is reflected in Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles.

  • By the time St. Augustine became the bishop of Hippo in Numidia in 395, the Donatist schism had lasted two generations, and Donatists made up the majority of Christians in Latin North Africa. Augustine was faced with a challenge that would preoccupy him from that point down first to 405, when the emperor Honorius issued anti-Donatist decrees, and then to the decisive judgement of 411. In that year, Augustine finally persuaded Donatists leaders to commit to a great public debate with almost three hundred bishops from each side in attendance. In the judgement of the imperial tribune who presided, the argument was won by Augustine and the Catholic side (though it must be admitted that the fix was in for the Catholic side before a word was said). Donatism would live on for awhile, but the force of the Roman state would drive it underground.

    During his episcopate, Augustine slowly moved towards the view that intervention by Christian state authorities against opponents of the Catholic faith was right and necessary, a (or, some would say, yet another) sad legacy of Augustine’s thought. Augustine’s main point in the years from 395 to 411 was also his main tactic, centered on the Donatist practice of rebaptising Catholics. Augustine, trained as a teacher and rhetorician facing a career in government before his conversion, well understood the legal circumstances: under the laws of the emperor Theodosius (379-395) and his son Honorius (384-423), schimatics might be punished by fines, but the main the force of the state would be brought to bear on heretics. Simply put, Roman law assumed that heresy was worse than schism, reflecting the development of canon law within the church in the fourth century. Thus whatever he himself thought about which was worse in the eyes of God, right from the start Augustine consistently argued that, by their insistence on rebaptism, Donatists were not merely schismatics but heretics. Augustine’s first substantial work against Donatism, written in 393 or 394 and now lost, was, in fact, entitled Against the Letter of the Heretic Donatus.

    Of course, during all these debates, there continued to be argument over the original cause of the schism, namely the validity of the election and consecration of Caecilian and the complicated history that followed. One of the most effective arguments against the Donatists was that, in the years since Caecilian, the Donatists themselves had been less than pure and that their attitude towards rebaptism was, in truth, inconsistent. However, the conflict between Donatist and Catholic was, in the end, inescapably theological. Donatism, based on a doctrine of sacramental purity that was both historically and ecclesially impossible to sustain, was judged not merely a schism but an ecclesiological heresy.

  • In truth, distinguishing between heresy and schism in the early church was a tricky business in general. In his 1953 Schism in the Early Church (to which I am indebted for much of my information), S. L. Greenslade, after running through various patristic citations of this or that heresy or schism, came up with following conclusions:

    (i) The general opinion was that heresy meant false doctrine and schism an orthodox sect. Some writers were satisfied with this distinction.

    (ii) Any body which had broken from the Church could be called a schism, and

    (iii) some sects which are now commonly called schisms were classed among heresies.

    (iv) As long as most theologians believed that any sect outside the catholic communion had no spiritual life, there was no great need to distinguish carefully between heresy and schism.

    (v) When the need to do so became more obvious, whether because of the legislation against heresy or because of theological developments such as Augustine’s, the more reflective minds found it difficult to define both heresy and schism.

    In other words, the distinction between heresy and schsim was always, in fact, difficult. Yet in the early church, the distinction was made. Apart from Augustine, there were certainly those who believed that schism was as bad as heresy. Chrysostom declared that “to make a schism in the Church is no less evil than to fall into heresy.” And outside of his specifically anti-Donatist writings, Augustine could certainly make a distinction between heresy and schism that was not simply notional: “Heretics violate the faith by thinking falsely about God, while schismatics break away from fraternal love by their wicked separations although they believe as we do.” (De fide et symbolo 21). However, to date I have as yet been unable to locate any comment outside of his anti-Donatist oeuvre in which Augustine ranks schism qua schism as worse than heresy, nor can I find any other patristic source for such an idea.

    Along with numerous letters and sermons that give details both as to the course of the Donatist controversy in his lifetime and about his own thinking, Augustine wrote a number of substantial treatises against Donatism. About a dozen of these survive, written over a period of more than two decades. Of these, a surprising number have never been translated into English, at least so far as I can tell. (Interested readers can click on the highlighted text to check out the project to produce both a complete digital text of modern critical editions and an English translation, as well as the excellent website maintained by the Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana, which has the entire Migne Patrologia Latina text online as well as an Italian translation).

    This is a substantial body of literature, and I have read only a fraction of it, so my conclusions below must be taken as tentative (and I welcome either supplementary information or correction). So yes, I’m going a little bit out on a limb here. However, with that caveat, I will hazard a few general observations along with some specific points.

    First, whether by hunting in dictionaries, databases, or secondary sources, or in reading any of the anti-Donatist works in either the original Latin or in English translation, I have been unable to locate any direct statement by Augustine that schism is worse than heresy.

    Second, Augustine regularly pairs schism and heresy in all his discussions of Donatism, something that clearly upset Donatists. In the Contra Cresconium (II.4), Augustine quotes his Donatist opponent Cresconius as complaining that Augustine calls Donatists heretics, even though Catholics and Donatists follow the same observances and have the same sacraments; to which Augustine replies, if we have the same sacraments, then why do you rebaptize Catholic converts to Donatism? You can’t have it both ways. Instead, by insisting on rebaptism, Donatists have answered the question, “Where is the Church” in such a way as to render their separation not merely schismatical, but heretical. Moreover, Donatism is a haereticorum sacrilegum errorem, a “sacrilegious error of heretics,” because the Donatists have remained in schism for so long; in schismate inveterato remansistis, “you have remained in inveterate schism” (II.8.10).

    Third, Augustine will regularly describe schism in extreme terms. In mentioning the various accusations of crimes by or against Donatists dating back to Diocletian’s persecution, Augutine will nevertheless declare that, whatever the truth or untruth of this or that charge, the Donatists cannot get off the hook by this means, since schisma tamen crimen est omnium, “schism is the crime of all crimes” (De unitate 2.3). The crimes of Korah, Dathan and Abiram show that schism is more heinous than idolatry (Epistle 51). Donatism is repeatedly described as the immanum sacrilegum, indeed the immanissimum sacrilegium, “the most enormous of sacrileges,” (Contra litteras Petiliani II.96.221).

  • Yet in none of these passages (or any other that I have yet found) does Augustine explicitly draw the conclusion that, since schism is worse than idolatry, or that since it is greatest sacrilege, or since it is the crime of crimes, therefore it is worse than heresy. Why?

    Part of this is no doubt due to Augustine’s background as a rhetorician and grammarian, someone trained to speak in extreme terms, whether in a panegyric to an emperor (something Augustine had done in pursuit of a government post in his pre-Christian days) or in a court of law. However, surely the main reasons lie in a) the difficulty in distinguishing heresy and schism in general, b) the reluctance to give a free pass to Donatists in particular on the charge of heresy, and most importantly, c) his belief that, whatever its origins, schism when continued over a period of time must turn to heresy to maintain itself.

    Two remarks, separated by perhaps fifteen years, suggest the key to Augustine’s thinking on schism. As noted above, in the Contra Cresconium of 405, Augustine insists that Donatists are heretics because, whatever they have in common with Catholics, they are inveterate schismatics. In 420, near the end of his life and years after his victory at the conference in 411, Augustine, in his summary of the various heresies facing the church, described the Donatists as men who had “made a schism” but had “by confirming their pertinacious dissension turned schism into heresy.” (De haerisibus 69) In other words, Augustine, despite his strong condemnation of schism, never directly weighs it against heresy not because heresy is more or less evil than schism, nor because heresy is by definition schism. Rather, since only the Catholic Church can be the source of truth, any schism, though perhaps distinct from heresy in its origins, inevitably results in heresy if it is maintained for any length of time. In other words, it is precisely because of its heretical bent, due to separation from the divinely authorized source of truth—the Catholic Church—that schism is so awful. What may begin as a sin against charity always contains the seeds of a sin against faith.

    Thus Augustine would have found the strange appeals we have heard over the last several months by bishops such as +Peter Lee, or +Neil Alexander, or +Gordon Scruton—that in the choice between heresy and schism, we should choose heresy—simply bizarre. Deus autem numquam iubet schisma vel haeresim fieri. “God however never orders that there be either schism or heresy.” (De unitate 13.33)

  • Supporters of Gene Robinson have repeatedly accused opponents of Donatism; yet, as has been pointed out in the past, the case against Gene Robinson is not one of sacramental efficacy—that would indeed raise Donatist issues—but of communion with heresy. In fact, what is (to me) most striking about the arguments in favor of “revisionism” or “reappraising” or “the Spirit doing a new thing” are their own resemblance to . . . you guessed it—Donatism, with a pinch of Montanism thrown in for good measure.

    In a sense, it will be the consecrators of Gene Robinson, the “reappraisers” who, if they should choose in the language of the Windsor Report to “walk apart,” will be the true inheritors of the Donatist spirit. Donatism was nothing if not a movement of moral and spiritual purity or integrity, an integrity which in the case of Donatists spilled over into their estimation of the sacraments. Well, as far as that goes, it is the revisionsists who claim that they alone have fully grasped the message of the Spirit, all others having failed to “listen.” They alone, guided into this “new thing” the Spirit is doing, have true moral integrity. It is their opponents, the “reasserters,” who are the morally impure for failing to see the injustice of such a stance against gay “people” and “inclusive love.” Ironically, our very insistence on the plain meaning of the Biblical text has apparently rendered us hateful, moral failures, unjust. Should the Episcopal Church “walk apart,” the revisionists will thus justify themselves when, like Donatists insisting on moral purity as a sign of the true church, they proclaim their new, true, “inclusive” church, no longer ECUSA but now the “international” TEC. Unlike the Donatists, however, theirs will not be a heresy rooted in schism, but, like the Montanists of old guided by a New Prophecy, a schism rooted in heresy.

    An introduction to icons

    June 3, 2006

    In February 2006, an illustrated slide lecture on icons and iconography was given by Dr. Irina Iazykova at the inaugural meeting of the Anglican-Orthodox Educational Centre, operated from St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Moscow. One of her students, Julia Melnikova, kindly did the translation and obtained permission Dr. Iazykova to publish it here. Ms. Melnikova is a student at the Biblical-Theological Institute in Moscow (or BBI), the library of which is also currently housed in St. Andrew’s with the help of a grant from the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius. I am informed that that “the target audience was the proverbial educated layman, and in particular Anglicans with a limited idea (if any) of what icons mean to the Orthodox.”

    Dr. Iazykova teaches at the BBI (and elsewhere) and is the author of two works on the subject of icons, including Se tvoru vse novoye: ikona v XX veke (Behold I make all things new: icons in the twentieth century), which has been translated into Italian, faccioand has also contributed two chapters to A History of Icon Painting. In addition to her work in iconography, Dr. Iazykova holds a PhD in cultural studies and, I am told, is an excellent song writer!icon painting

    Two notes: as a professional educator myself, I am very aware of trying to pour the proverbial gallon into a pint pot. Just try giving a lecture on the entire Reformation, from Luther to the Edict of Nantes, in fifty minutes. Dr. Iazykova faced a similar challenge in this lecture, and allowances must be made for a necessary brevity. The colors of icons, for example, do often have symbolic or theological significance; however, they are a bit more fluid than Dr. Iazykova’s lecture indicates. Thus the blue and red of Christ (indicating his divine an human natures) sometimes shade off into green and brown. The reader more familiar with icons should therefore make allowances for the limited time Dr. Iazykova had for her lecture and the necessary lack of nuance that such circumstances inevitably require. Dr. Iazykova has given an excellent introduction to this fascinating subject, but it is of course only an introduction, and those with an interest should continue to pursue it in such easily accessible works as ouspenskyThe Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky or Truetskoi’s Icons: Theology in Color.

    I received the text of Dr. Iazykova’s lecture translated by Ms. Melnikova with notes indicating where certain slides were shown, but not the slides themselves. I have tried to provide illustrations according to those notes as best I can; however, the reader should know that a) these were not necessarily the pictures originally shown by Dr. Iazykova and b) they are not always icons of Russian origin (although that in itself should not make a crucial difference). Therefore any inappropriate choices in this matter are to blamed on me and not Dr. Iazykova.

    Further editorial note: all of the images below come through just fine on my Macintosh using Firefox. If you see blanks on your computer, this means that images would not or could not come through for whatever reason.


    interior chramaIcons are essential for the [Eastern] Orthodox tradition. One cannot imagine an Orthodox church or an Orthodox Christian’s home without icons. In birth, death, marriage, at the commencement of any work, or when they travel – throughout their life, Orthodox Christians are accompanied by icons.

    Russia accepted Christianity in the 10th c. from the Byzantine Empire. Along with the faith, the Russian nation took in the vast tradition of Orthodox art which by that time already had a thousand-year history of its own. In the Orthodox tradition, the icon does not just act as an element of interior decoration. It is what is called a «window into the invisible world», a sermon, a prayer—«theology in colors». Understanding this art requires knowledge of an artistic and symbolic language of the icon that is different from the language of any other art. In our talk this evening I want to introduce you to the language of the icon.

    The Russian word «icon» comes from the Greek word eikon, «image». As the Bible tells us, God has no image, and thus cannot be portrayed. But God endowed all things with their images at creation. All of God’s creation is like a ranking or ladder of images which reflect each other like mirrors and in the end can be traced back to God as the «proto-image» (archetype) of all.

    What do we know about God? That he is One, Eternal, Invisible, and Incomprehensible. How is it possible to create an image of One who cannot be seen and whose mystery cannot be comprehended? This is why in the Old Testament God commands us not to make any images of Him (Exodus 20:4). If, after all, we want to somehow portray God, the most honest method would be to leave the page blank.

    lifegiver St. John in his Gospel writes: «No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known» (John 1:18). Jesus Christ slightly lifts the veil off the mystery of the Invisible God. «The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, and we have seen His glory» (John 1:14), John says. Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, is the true Image of God.

    But man is also an icon, the image of God. Holy Scripture says God created man in his image and his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). But after the Fall, being removed from the source of Being, man stopped being the perfect mirror of God’s glory, God’s icon—or rather, in his sinful state man is now like a painted-over and darkened icon that needs to be cleaned and restored. mother and child In every man God’s image is hidden, not always seen clearly, and even often distorted. In the face of Christ we see the undefiled image. We can also find His features in the saints that followed Christ. Long before the art of iconography emerged, St. Paul called his followers, «My children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…» (Galatians 4:19). That is what according to Christian ascetics is the supreme art—revealing the image of God in us. The Church Fathers taught that the purpose of life is not just self-perfection, developing one’s natural abilities, but the uncovering God’s true image in us.

    pokrov on nerlNature also reflects the Supreme Image. Nature is God’s icon, because creation testifies of its Creator. That is why the Church Fathers said that God gives man two books of knowledge, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation. The first book reveals to us the Savior’s mercy, and the second one reveals the wisdom of the Creator. But nature as icon reflects the Creator to a lesser extent than man. Holy Scripture tells us that «the world lies in sin» and «the present form of this world is passing away.» (1 Corinthians 7:31). winter church

    hagiasophia Finally, the last step of the ladder is the icon as a work of art, or speaking more broadly, as all human creative work. Ideally, anything man creates should become a reflection of divine glory. But only the icon is consciously directed at this, presenting to use the image of Jesus Christ, who revealed the Father to us. All other images are directly connected with the icon of Christ. Icons of the Virgin Mary represent the One through whom the Word of God came into the world.

    our lady of the sign

    antony An icon of a saint does not just represent an outstanding or famous person, but someone in whom the light of Christ has shown forth, someone who followed Christ and became like Him. «Imitate me, as I imitate Christ,» Paul says, stressing that he is an example and a true image of a Christian for all of us.

    palm sunday Narrative icons depict events in which Christ was glorified. This could be a Gospel story or an episode from a saint’s life or from Church history.

    luke iconographer An iconographer creating an icon appears at first glance very much like a painter. But this is not quite true. A painter creates his own world, his work is his own, individual creation, an act of self-expression. An iconographer in an icon does not express his own vision but rather what the Church teaches. This is why iconographers in ancient times never put their names on icons.

    luke An iconographer is more like a Gospel writer: these men did not make up the text, as does someone creating a novel or a story; they wrote down what the Church retained as revelation about Jesus Christ, His life, message, death and Resurrection. In ancient times, icons were called «Gospels in colors», while the Gospel was called «an icon in words.» «As writing to the ear, so silent painting reveals through images», Saint Basil the Great said. Pope Gregory the Great (Dialogos) called church art «the Bible for the illiterate,» because those who can’t read can easily learn the Church’s teaching through images.

    The icon is more like a book than a painting. It contains the Good News, the message. This message is communicated not by letters and words, but by images and colors. To communicate the Gospel, the Church developed the iconographic canon. It took shape gradually over centuries, growing out of doctrines and theological reflection. The iconographic canon is a symbolic language with its own rules, which I want to turn to now.

    The image in the icon at first appears unusual, even distorted—everything here is different from the world around us. An icon cannot be realistic, or more precisely, it cannot be naturalistic, because it represents the other world, the world of the age to come. An icon is an image of the Heavenly Kingdom, of which Paul says «What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him» (1 Corinthians 2:9). This is the supreme and transfigured reality that can be conveyed only with symbols and signs.

    A sign, a symbol, a parable – the Bible often uses this way of communicating the Truth. Prophets used the language of parable and symbolic poetry, and Jesus spoke in parables. A symbol helps us to see further and deeper than everyday reality. The first Christians, even before they had churches, used symbolic images, out of which the art of the icon later developed. catacomb In the Roman catacombs, on walls and sarcophagi we find pictures: a fish, an anchor, a ship, a bird holding an olive branch, a vine, a monogram of Christ, etc. They reflected the central concepts of Christianity. For instance, the Greek word «ichtus», fish, was interpreted as an acronym for Jesus Christ God Son Savior. The anchor is a sign of hope, and the bird symbolizes the human soul.

    The first icons emerged soon after the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., when the Emperor Constantine granted Christians religious freedom. The first icons were realistic and resembled portraits. But very soon, the naturalistic manner was replaced by symbolism and the images became less «flesh-like» and more ethereal, emphasizing the primary importance of the spirit in humans, their bodies serving only as a shell, a fragile vessel (2 Corinthians 4:7).

    discus Christianity was born in the world of antiquity ruled by the principle of a «sound mind in a sound body». This ideal is most vividly reflected in Ancient Greek art, which glorified athletic beauty. In Late Antiquity, philosophers believed the reverse, that «the body is the soul’s prison» and the «soul is trapped in the body like a bird in a cage».

    Christianity confronted these extremes with its own anthropology, expressed by St. Paul: «Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you» (1 Corinthians 6:19). (John the Baptist). The body is thus not denied but is given the functions of a container for the most precious of contents, the Holy Spirit. In an icon, the human is usually represented as a combination of external frailty and internal power: «God’s power is made perfect in weakness» (2 Corinthians 12:9)

    The spiritual content of the image is most fully expressed in the representation of the face, lichnoye. The face is the most important part of an icon. vernicle In iconographic technique, the work stages are divided into lichnoye (a sort of combination “facial”/“personal”) and dolichnoye (“extra-facial”/“non-personal”) stages. The dolichnoye material is created first – the background, landscape, architecture, garments, etc. Then, at the very end, to complete the image, the iconographer creates the face.

    The eyes are most important for the face. As Russians say, «The eyes are the mirror of the soul». angel eyesAnd our Savior says in the Sermon on the Mount, «The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light» (Matthew 6:22). That’s how the ancient iconographers understood eyes — as reflections of a person’s inner life, which is the light.

    But the lichnoye (“facial”/“personal”) part is that which represents the whole person. So, apart from the face and the eyes, the iconographers also place the hands in this category. This is why the gesture is so important in the icon — the Savior’s blessing, the prayerful gestures of the hermits, the gesture of Archangel Gabriel passing the Good News to Our lady or the gesture of Our Lady as she responds to this News.
    annunciation lamentation
    Emotions in the icon are not expressed by faces, which are presented in a calm, dispassionate manner, but by gestures of sadness, joy, despair, peace.

    paul The object depicted in the saint’s hands is very important. It is a sign of his ministry and glorification. St. Paul, for instance, is usually depicted with a book in his hands because he preached the Gospel.

    st peterSt. Peter is shown holding keys, which are the keys to the Kingdom of God which he received from the Savior (Matthew 16:19). The martyrs are represented holding crosses as a sign of being crucified with Christ. The prophets hold scrolls of their prophecies.jeremiah St. John of Kronstadt is depicted with the Eucharistic Cup, kronstadtbecause he constantly reminded his flock that taking communion is central to Christian life.

    The way a person is represented on an icon is different from his picture. An icon is not a portrait, but the image of the transformed flesh.

    Realistic art, for instance, is said to try to present a person just as he is. pushkinBut in fact any art only represents an image, the way the artist perceives it, or the way society wants to see it. Alexander Pushkin looked at his portrait painted by Orest Kiprensky and said «I see myself as in a mirror, but the mirror flatters me».

    christ icon The iconographer is not trying to present a person as he is in earthly reality. The icon is a conditional portrayal, a generalized one. The icon of Jesus Christ is not His portrait but his image, not only because no one knows exactly what the Savior looked like, but because it is His glorified image, an image in the radiance of Divine Glory. The Gospel says that the disciples did not recognize Christ after His Resurrection, because His appearance had become different, not what they were used to seeing.

    theotokosThe essence of the Savior’s person is revealed in symbolic details — the halo with a cross, a sign of His glory and at the same time of His sacrifice on the cross—and in the blessing gesture and the Gospel. We also see that His garments have two colors, red and blue. This is because Jesus Christ is both God and Man. His human nature is symbolized by the red tunic (the undergarment), and his Divine nature is symbolized by the blue himation (the upper cloak). For Our Lady the colors are reversed: the undergarment is blue and the cloak is red. This is because Christ is God who became Human, and Mary is an earthly woman who became the Mother of God.

  • basilgeorgeThe bishops are portrayed in robes decorated with crosses (Greek polystavrion), signifying that they carry the cross. The martyrs wear red cloaks because red is the color of blood and of sacrifice.

  • crucifixionmary egyptIn certain cases, the body on the icon may be painted naked. For example, Christ in the passion scenes and on the cross appears naked. Ascetics, hermits, stylites, and God’s fools (“Fools in Christ”) are often depicted naked because they have removed their old garments and presented their bodies «as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God» (Romans 12:1).

    presentationThe representation of a person in the icon is most important, and everything else conforms to it. Architecture, landscape — hills, trees – all of this symbolically designates the environment and is offered in the most conventional and symbolic manner. If an iconographer, for example, needs to show that the events in question are taking place inside a building, he throws a decorative cloth (velum, Latin for sail) over the architectural elements depicting the exterior of a building.

    In icons, bodies have no shadows because they are in the light and the light is within them. There is no external source of lighting in icons; light radiates outward from within. An icon is composed using light over light. ascensionThis is primarily expressed by the golden background that symbolizes the radiance of Divine Glory, in which the saints abide. Sometimes gold is replace with symbolically related colors – red, symbolizing the fire of the Spirit, green – also the color of the Spirit and the color of hope– or yellow, a direct substitute of gold.

    Apart from the background, light is conveyed in spots of light flashing on everything – the faces, the garments, the hills and everything around. This is uncreated light, divine energies which transform the world.

    Light influences colors, so ancient icons were bright and joyful. Icons grow dark with time under the effect of candle and lamp soot in churches. But underneath the accumulated black layer, we usually find bright, saturated colors. St. John of Damascus said «Color in painting leads to contemplation and, like a meadow delighting the eye, secretly pours divine glory inside my soul».

    resurrectionThe most common colors are red, blue, green and yellow. Black is very seldom used in icons. There is no room for darkness in the transformed world because «God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.» (1 John 1:5). Black also has a symbolic meaning. It is used to portray hell, the place where there is no light. But we see that hell has already been defeated by the Risen Christ.

  • An icon is always news of the Resurrection, a message of Christ’s victory. Even the Crucifixion, the most dramatic episode of Christ’s earthly life, is portrayed in the light of the Resurrection. dionysus crucifixionChrist in the icon of Dionysius (the Dionysus crucifix from the pavlo-Obnorskeyeo monastery) is calm, light, and even joyful. The Savior’s death of the Cross is at the same time His victory over death. Resurrection follows after the Cross, and the joy of Easter shines through the grief and suffering, giving them radiance. On the cross, Christ shines with light and love; He extends His hands to embrace all humanity.

    Space and time in the icon are arranged by their own rules, which are different from those of our world. The icon is composed from the perspective of eternity, and therefore it combines events taking place at different times. transfiguration2The past, present and future apparently come together in time: for instance, in the Transfiguration icon we see how Christ ascends the mountain with his disciples, is transfigured there and comes down form the mountain again. The icon, like a roll of film, unwinds to show different fragments of being. Or rather it is made like a scroll that unfolds in time and space.

    Another example is the Christmas icon, which also overlays episodes that happened at different moments in time and in different places: the Christ child’s birth, the Good News announced to the shepherds, the journey of the magi. All of them seem to flow into each other, forming a single composition. The space is built according to the principle of a scroll that is unfolded in space. christmasBut the scroll also unwinds in time: Christ’s Birth is the beginning of the Savior’s earthly life. Yet we also see the sign of the end of his earthly journey. The cave symbolizes both the Christmas cave and the cave of the Lord’s grave. The swaddling clothes of the Child remind us of the funeral shroud which will embrace the Savior’s Body after He is to be removed from the cross. And the angel inclining over the cave reminds us of the angel who will proclaim Christ’s Resurrection.

    The world in the icon is unusual, as if turned inside out and overturned before us. There is no illusion of depth here. The image is focused in the foreground; it is coming at us and all objects are turned facing the viewer. Researchers call this method of arranging a space «reverse perspective» (as opposed to direct perspective), though it would be better to call it “symbolic perspective”. Direct perspective (which emerged in art during the Renaissance) ranks objects in space from large to small, according to their distances from the viewer. All lines converge in the vanishing point on the horizon. This point shows that the created world is finite. In the icon, on the contrary, all objects are drawn in the same size; and the space does not narrow but expands because the world of the Kingdom of God is infinite. The lines converge not on the plane of the icon, but in front of it, where the viewer is, in the heart of the praying person. This point signifies the place where two worlds – the human and the divine, the seen and the unseen – meet. «The icon does not depict anything, it reveals to us the Kingdom of Heaven,» says an outstanding modern iconographer Archimandrite Zinon. The icon does not tell us about God, it puts us face to face with God’s mystery.


    Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, for example – based on Genesis chapter 18, Abraham’s hospitality – is not a simple illustration of Sacred History; it leads us into the mystery of the Triune God, the mystery of the salvation of every one of us. That is why Father Pavel Florensky, the great 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian, scholar and art historian, could allow himself (and share with us) such a remarkable impression of this icon, writing that “Because Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, we know that God exists.”