Conciliar Anglicanism?

Over on Stand Firm, there is an interesting discussion going on, sparked by an article by Matt Kennedy, discussing the Common Cause Partnership and the recently announced Anglican gathering in Jerusalem this summer just prior to the Lambeth conference. In that context, I posted a comment on what made councils of the patristic era “effective” and how that might relate to Anglicanism today. I post it again here, somewhat edited, for anyone interested in pursuing the subject.

In discussing what made for an “effective council” in Christian antiquity and how that might affect us today, we need to consider three things:

1 – what makes anything “effective,”

2 – what made the ancient councils, or anything else ecclesial, effective in the patristic era, and

3 – what would make anything “effective” in the Anglican Communion today.

Since we are discussing the patristic era, I will confine my examples to that period.

  • 1 – Ultimately, what makes anything effective is force, be it the force of the individual or collective will. That force can either be direct, as when I choose to quit smoking or someone else chooses to mug me for my wallet; or it can be represented, as when the traffic cop writing me a ticket represents the will of the sovereign, or a bishop teaching represents the will of God. Furthermore, that force, to be effective, must be accepted, either freely or through intimidation.

    For our purposes, there are broadly speaking two kinds of force: state and moral/spiritual (and if you think this sounds like the old distinction between temporal and spiritual powers, you’re right on target). True, that distinction has often been, and still is, blurred or even erased, but it is still useful here.

    A – state force: this can run from outright state-sanctioned violence (as in executions or war) to the more subtle forms of judges, courts, etc. But even the latter derives its ultimate force from violence, i.e. fines or imprisonment. And, since we can even reject that violence through our own choices of either violent or non-violent resistance, legal or state force still finally requires our individual or collective acceptance, whether on the basis of divine authority, or a free association founded on previously conceded rights, or the sovereign will of the social contract, or whatever.

    B – Moral/spiritual force:

    1 – used loosely and historically, this too can include violence, as in Christian antiquity when monks destroyed pagan temples, or mobs were employed in support of candidates for pope (Damasus in 366). It could be used either for an orthodox cause (e.g. the lynching of George the Arian bishop of Alexandria) or against one (e.g. Theophilus against John Chrysostom, or the Circumcellions on behalf of Donatism).

    2 – More palatably, moral or spiritual force can come either from personal example or from the (accepted) claim, whether of a charismatic individual or a larger community, to represent a divine authority. The latter can be catholic and biblical (e.g. Antony, Athanasius, Nicea) or sectarian and schismatic (e.g. the Montanists, or General Convention claiming that they represent God Himself “doing a new thing”). This force can be

    a) independent of state force; or
    b) it can work together with state force (as when heresy was declared to be illegal at the end of the fourth century); or even
    c) stand against a state force that claims to represent the church (e.g. Athanasius against Constantius, or Maximus the Confessor against monotheletism).

  • So what kind of force made ancient councils effective? The correct answer is “all of the above.” But there are further considerations.

    In a famous case, Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch, was condemned by several synods in the 260s, more than a generation before Nicea. These councils “effected” nothing whatever. Instead, Paul remained in possession of his see, although formally deposed, because at the time Antioch lay outside the empire, having been seized by Palmyra. Only when Antioch was retaken by the empire was Paul removed, and only after Christians referred the case (as a property dispute!) to a pagan emperor, Aurelian. Moreover, Aurelian settled it by declaring in favor of that party in communion with the bishops of Italy, and particularly with the Pope.

    After the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, both Donatists and catholics appealed to the Pope for judgment. When that went against the Donatsists, they appealed to Constantine; and when Constantine ruled against them, he did not shy from using state force. In spite of that (or because of it?), Donatism became the majority religion in North Africa for more than a century. St. Augustine in frustration concluded that it was morally acceptable to use state force against Donatists, and the decline of Donatism really set in not after any ecclesial condemnation, but when the state, hearing both sides in court over several days in 411 (the best attested legal proceeding of antiquity) decided against the Donatists and officially declared Donatism not merely a schism but a heresy. In other words, it took the Roman state (plus the Vandals) to begin the end of Donatism. What’s more, all of the great councils had the support of the state, being summoned by emperors who believed that unity of empire and church was essential.

    Not that imperial power alone settled what was and was not a truly ecumenical council. The famous (third) council of Sirmium in 357 was summoned by an emperor, the Arian Constantius, and its compromise with Arianism was supported by the majority of bishops in the church. Athanasius of Alexandria and Hilary of Poitiers heroically continued their lonely struggle, but the defeat of the “Sirmium blasphemy” was sealed by its eventual rejection by the whole church catholic, including the Pope.

    Nor could state force alone (in the person of Justinian) bring about the rejection of the Three Chapters (an imperial effort to resolve the differences between Chalcedonian orthodox and monophysite Christians). The Three Chapters controversy was only settled by the fifth ecumenical council (II Constantinople in 553), a council again summoned and enforced by the same emperor, but said council’s acceptance being, like that of Chalcedon, only gradual and incomplete, with a crucial part played by the papacy (parts of Italy remained in favor of the Three Chapters and out of communion with Rome for generations).

    Thus, in antiquity most Christians most of the time had few qualms about using state power to make a council (or anything else the church deemed necessary) “effective,” if such state power were used in their favor. Very few voices were raised against the theory of using the power of the state to enforce orthodoxy. However, if “effective” means “lasting” and “accepted by the wider church,” and if one is looking for a moral/spiritual (as opposed to state) authority that made ancient councils “effective,” you will find it either in the papacy or the gradual acceptance (or if you like, reception) of such councils by the church catholic. But this reception could take decades, and even then might not be truly “universal,” as in the rejection of I Constantinople by the Nestorians (who were, tellingly, outside of the empire), or the rejection of Chalcedon and II Constantinople by both Egypt (within the empire but with a strong national tradition) and Armenia (again outside the empire).

  • So what lessons might all this hold for a future, more “conciliar” Anglicanism?

    Obviously, any form of international Anglicanism will not (thank goodness!) be able to rely on state force in any form. It will not even be able, for the forseeable future, to rely on the general coercion of cultural approval. Nor can it use B 1 above—if the Pope has no divisions, the Archbishop of Canterbury has even less.

    No, the only force on which it can draw will be B 2 a) above—independent moral or spiritual force. But it is critical, in evaluating for example the upcoming meetings at Jerusalem and Lambeth, to consider just what kind of spiritual force is available.

    I have addressed this issue previously. Here I will both summarize and further elaborate:

    The “ancient councils” cited by David Handy+ above had this going for them—they claimed that they either deferred to, or represented, the divine will since they spoke for the whole (catholic, ecumenical) church, which church itself, being the Body of Christ, could pronounce with the authority of His Spirit. This ecumenicity is signalized today in Roman Catholic doctrine by the office of the Pope; in Eastern Orthodoxy by a more generalized notion of catholicity (or sobornost). This works in each case because both churches respectively believe they are the church. They each believe that they are the whole, not a part, of the catholic church, and can appeal to this wholeness. It is this wholeness, this catholicity, this ecumenicity, that allows them not just to speak (anyone can just exhort), but to speak truly, definitively, and indeed infallibly.

    But what if you say that you are only part of the church catholic? What if, by your very nature, you cannot speak ecumenically? For that is what the Anglican Communion has, up until now, explicitly claimed. If we are not the true church but only a part of it, to what can any Anglican council appeal for authority? Because what those who look for a more “conciliar” Anglicanism are asking for is an international institution whose councils carry moral force, but one which at the same time specifically rejects any claim to be the divinely appointed interpreter of the truth. The “ancient councils” were “effective” either because they were enforced by the will of the sovereign or were accepted as the judgment of the entire church catholic, or both. How could any Anglican council today plausibly represent either of these?

    The answer is, it couldn’t and it can’t. So what non-violent, moral or spriritual force can hold us together?

    It used to be that we could refer to a common liturgical tradition, based on the Book of Common Prayer. We were defined by how we prayed, and how we prayed was based on ancient, patristic models which reflected the consensus of the ecumenical, undivided church. But that common liturgical tradition was shattered in the last century, and while I would love to see it revived, the signs of this happening are few and far between.

    Some Anglicans have also, at times, looked to Scripture as the basis for our unity—but a simple appeal to sola scriptura, apart from its obvious drawbacks, has never commanded complete acceptance within Anglicansim and can be found nowhere in our formularies.

    That leaves Tradition, on which I have also already written plenty. But before anyone says, “Ah, but can’t Tradition develop?”, consider that the Anglican Communion, if it is only a part of the church catholic, can have no authority to develop doctrine. Why? Because, once again, such authority is of necessity either that of the ecumenical and catholic church, of which which we claim to be only a part, or it is sectarian and schismatic, which we claim we are not. The Anglican Communion cannot develop doctrine or alter catholic practice, cannot tinker with that which has been received, for the whole church catholic, any more than TEC can do it for the whole Anglican Communion. As I have said many times before, you cannot claim to be only a part and then act as if you were the whole.

    Thus the decisions or decrees of any Anglican council, if it is to carry any moral or spiritual force, can only be local and provisional on the one hand, but must also appeal to the wider, settled Tradition of the whole church catholic on other. Anything less will have no spiritual authority, and anything more will be neither patristic nor catholic, but sectarian and schismatic. But this would entail a (re)examination of much of what passes for Anglican these days.


    13 Responses to “Conciliar Anglicanism?”

    1. Truth Unites...and Divides Says:

      o “What if, by your very nature, you cannot speak ecumenically?”

      I would assume by that very same nature the Anglican Communion would *NOT* want to speak ecumenically, nor desire to speak ecumenically to include the RCC, the EO, and all the Protestant churches.

      o “If we are not the true church but only a part of it, to what can any Anglican council appeal for authority?”

      “…but a simple appeal to sola scriptura, apart from its obvious drawbacks, has never commanded complete acceptance within Anglicansim and can be found nowhere in our formularies.”

      “…this would entail a (re)examination of much of what passes for Anglican these days.”

      A (re)examination that’s way overdue. Semper Reformanda…


      Overall… an excellent essay IRNS. I tip my hat to you. Pax.

    2. Truth Unites...and Divides Says:

      Matt Kennedy offered a 1 sentence and 1 word resolution to the lengthy exposition: Confessional.

      However, I think his response needs one more key doctrinal mark of a Confessional Conciliar Church. Namely, *Discipline and Enforcement*.

      If it’s to be Confessional, then explicit how-to’s of Discipline and Enforcement must be formally and explicitly written out along with answering the question of Who will do the enforcement.

      Just saying “Confessional” is insufficient.

    3. Katherine Says:

      Thanks, IRNS. Even the Elizabethan settlement was “settled” by the force of the state. Without state force, and without a common liturgy, we’re becoming another “sola scriptura” Protestant sect, at least, the so-called orthodox among us are.

      Does this mean that the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is still monophysite? I always thought so, but the name is “Orthodox.” In that case, a disagreement with Chalcedon but acceptance of Nicaea and maintenance of the traditional worship have lasted 1,500 years and the faith is alive today in Egypt. And where are we Anglicans, only twenty-nine years after the loss of the traditional liturgy? Here in Cairo, at the expatriate church, most Sundays we say a pathetic three-line “creed” from the English “Common Worship” book, which affirms very little of the faith, while I assume the Copts and Armenians say the Nicene Creed.

    4. Id rather not say Says:


      I once met an Armenian seminary student (who became a friend of mine). Upon making his acquaintaince, I in my naivité declared, “Oh, you’re a monophysite!” Whereupon he rather stiffly replied, “I am not a monophysite. I am a non-Chalcedonian!”

      The whole question of monphysistism, while relatively clear theologically, is actually fairly complicated historically. Are monophysite churches in fact monophysite? An argument can be made (not necessarily one I agree with) that the monophysite controversy was mainly over words and politics, not substance and meaning. Certainly the so-called Oriental Orthodox, such as Coptic church, have managed to make some pretty good theological headway with Eastern Orthodox churches in recent decades. (And they have maintained their own unique spiritual and heritage. If you can, see if you can find any of the works of Matthew the Poor in English while in Cairo.) Hence a lot of peopl will refer to ‘so-called monophysites’ when discussing the Coptic Church.

      In fact, the introduction of the Nicene creed into the eucharistic liturgy may (if I remember correctly) have been introduced by monophysites, whereby they maintained that it was they who were true to Nicea, and not the Chalcedonians.

    5. Katherine Says:

      I’ll look, Professor. I don’t know whether a lot of theological stuff will be available in English — although I was able to buy Ratzinger’s “Jesus of Nazareth” at the Virgin megastore at the mall. I am going soon to visit the Coptic Museum. Perhaps there or somewhere in the area I can find something.

      I’ve visited the nearby Coptic church. Certainly looks Orthodox to me. Icons, carved screen.

    6. William Tighe Says:


      Pope Shenouda of Alexandria has given regular catechetical lectures for many years, and they have been translated into English and published in many small volumes (which I saw and perused in the bookstore of the Coptic Orthodox monastery in the Mojave Desert near logan, CA, in 1998). In the one that concerned the person of Christ, he was quite fierce about the “errors” of Chalcedon and the “diophysites”, and although hen did concede that the Chalcedonian definition might be understood in an “orthodox” (i.e., non-Chalcedonian) sense, and so form a basis for future ecclesiastical reconciliation, ge stated quite formly that the Coptic Church would never recognize the ecumenicity of Chalcedon or of any later councils, whether those of the Greeks and the Latins together down to 787 or those of the Roman Catholics subsequently.

      For all the wide areas of practical agreement beween the non-Chalcedonians, I will not believe in the restoration of unity between those two communions until it actually happens.

    7. Truth Unites...and Divides Says:

      “Just saying “Confessional” is insufficient.”

      This was my quote above regarding my analysis of Matt Kennedy’s reply to IRNS’s theological concerns about establishing a sound foundation for a conciliar anglicanism.

      In support of my unsupported argument, Sarah Hey at Stand Firm offers these thoughts to build a robust conciliar and covenantal Anglican Communion which encapsulates and addresses my concerns that any such measures *must* include precise guidelines and language for Discipline and Enforcement.

      Happy New Year to all!

    8. Gary Cartwright Says:


      Thank you for that wonderful trip through patristic history. I can use that in some of the local teaching that I do periodically (I really enjoy the studying of the early church heresies, as they often continue today under different guises)

      I fully agree with your statement:

      Thus the decisions or decrees of any Anglican council, if it is to carry any moral or spiritual force, can only be local and provisional on the one hand, but must also appeal to the wider, settled Tradition of the whole church catholic on other. Anything less will have no spiritual authority, and anything more will be neither patristic nor catholic, but sectarian and schismatic

      And if so than Anglicanism needs to re-examine itself from a point of view of how it relates to the “Church Catholic.” Is it in sync? Is it heading towards the unity that Christ prayed for? Do we still have a unque witness to the rest of Christendom? in other words, Has the “Anglican Experiment” run its course?” Or is it time to re-evaluate our relationships with the wider Church.

      Another question would be regarding the whole reformation (I realize this could bring up much emotion): Has Rome responded as best they can to the issues raised by Luther, Calvin and others? What is the justification (besides historical) for the continuation of a divided Church? Is it God’s will to continue in separation without active work towards bringing unity (like ARCIC)

      I have just finished serving a bishop for 8 years as his chaplain (an exceptional opportunity and privildge). He was most active in the current Anglican crisis and was trying to act in the role of a reconciler during most of those years. His study of history and the Oxford movement (especially John Henry Newman) had lead him to a decision to renounce his orders and be received into the Roman Catholic Church (which he did recently). Of course his decision was not that simple and there were several other factors, but in the end he became convinced that Rome had tried to respond to its errors that brought about the 16th century reformation, and that the reformation was now over and it was time for those who dissented to start the process of reconciliation. (yes I know many who read this will not agree . . . but this is part of “thinking out of the box”

    9. Gary Cartwright Says:

      to continue my last post (I clicked on the submit button by mistake)

      Let me state up front I fully fall under the “orthodox” heading, and I am an Anglo-Catholic Evangelical (I’m also a member of ACN). I highly respect the contribution that many in Anglicanism and other denominations have made through the years. But before we start to split the Anglican portion of the Body of Christ, shouldn’t we be asking the question seriously about why we shouldn’t be working towards greater unity (on a broader scale) rather than further division? It’s time for radical leadership and there are a few who could step up to that plate. It’s time for a new vision, not the repetition of the old approaches (meaning if we can’t agree, we’ll just split and start another institution). Those approaches all contain the seeds for where we are today.

      Gary C

    10. Truth Unites...and Divides Says:

      Some Anglicans have also, at times, looked to Scripture as the basis for our unity—but a simple appeal to sola scriptura, apart from its obvious drawbacks, has never commanded complete acceptance within Anglicansim and can be found nowhere in our formularies.

      According to this sub-section of the CofE’s response to the Draft Covenant, the issue and locus of ultimate authority is being re-examined.

      “Anglican theological method is rooted in the teaching of Holy Scripture, ‘the fountain and well of truth,’ containing all things necessary to salvation and constituting the rule and ultimate standard of faith, and recognizes the need for a communal reading of Scripture that is informed by biblical scholarship….”


    11. Truth Unites...and Divides Says:

      FYI, I have serious doubts that a Covenant will be the panacea against the malignant growth of the heresies and apostasies extant in the Anglican Communion.

    12. Truth Unites...and Divides Says:

      I’d rather not say Says:

      April 8th, 2006 at 2:40 pm

      Forget baptism. Anyone for a) bringing back confirmation as a requirement for communion and b) bringing back confession (whether corporate or auricular) as a requirement for communion?

      That would be a start.

      From: Ephraim Radner–Come Up Higher: A Response to the Report of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion

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