Abusing the Fathers
The Windsor Report’s Misleading Appeal to Nicea
by William J. Tighe
A year ago, after the uproar over the consecration as bishop of New Hampshire of the notorious Vicki Gene Robinson—the Episcopal priest who divorced his wife and subsequently openly entered a homosexual relationship that continues to this day—the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a committee to look into the matter. The consecration clearly contradicted the 1998 Lambeth Conference’s resolution declaring such relationships to be incompatible with the Christian faith, and the “Lambeth Commission” was to recommend ways in which the Anglican Communion could maintain the highest possible degree of communion.
The ensuing “Windsor Report,” released on October 18, 2004, called for moratoria on the ordination of all non-celibate homosexuals and on the approval of rites for blessing same-sex “partnerships,” as well as for an end to the intervention of traditionalist bishops (usually from Africa or Asia) in the dioceses of “revisionist” bishops. It called both traditionalist and revisionist groups to express regret for their actions, which were deemed to be incompatible with the tangible and intangible bonds that held the Anglican Communion together.
N. T. (“Tom”) Wright, the bishop of Durham in the Church of England, was a member of the commission, and in various places since the issuance of the report has defended it. He has for some years deservedly enjoyed the reputation of a first-rate Scripture scholar who has been able to counteract and debunk revisionist—read, if you will, heretical or anti-Christian—views of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord and of the authority of the Bible.
He appeals particularly to those “conservative evangelical” Christians who wish to uphold a generally high view of the authority of Scripture in doctrine and morals, but wish to leave room for some “developments,” such as the ordination of women, which Wright supports.
Wright has, in particular, defended the report’s implicit censure of the intervention of orthodox Anglican bishops in the dioceses of revisionist ones in the United States and Canada. In a report published in the liberal-leaning English Roman Catholic weekly The Tablet, he justified this censure on the basis that such interventions were “in contravention not only of Anglican custom but of the Nicene decrees on the subject.”
The theory of the inviolable integrity of diocesan boundaries has underpinned the statements of more than one or two Episcopal bishops in recent years, such as Peter Lee of Virginia and Neil Alexander of Atlanta. The result of the theory that “heresy is preferable to schism” and “schism is worse than heresy” has been the belief among influential conservative Anglicans that the faithful must put up with an unending stream of doctrinal absurdities and moral enormities.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Wright insisted that “border crossings” are not only “disruptive” but prohibited by the Council of Nicea. “And I think not a lot of people know this, but it’s important to say this was a question that the early fathers faced at the same time as they were hammering out the doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ, and that they gave it their time to say people should not do this because that’s not how episcopacy works.” He insisted that “the real charge” against the offending dioceses
The interviewer then noted that one theologian believed that, in the early Church, orthodox bishops considered a heretical bishop’s see vacant and would go into his diocese. “It’s not simply as easy as that, because who says that so-and-so is a false teacher?” Wright responded. Bishop John Spong would describe the Evangelical former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, as “a false teacher. . . . So you have to have some way of getting a handle on this and not simply one bishop saying that his next-door neighbor is out of line and therefore he’s going to invade. That has never been the Anglican way.”
As Bishop Wright’s grasp of the church fathers’ theory and practice seems a bit weak in these areas—and as he was clearly the most scholarly member of the commission—it may be useful to pursue the subject a bit further. Less can be said for the church fathers’ support for the commission’s claims than Wright asserts.
A regrettable feature of the Windsor Report is its lack of documented notes and references to back up its claims and assertions. For example, it simply cites “the ancient norm of the Church” for its claims about the unity of all Christians in one place and for its rationale against the intervention of outside bishops, without offering any evidence at all. It never quotes any “Nicene decrees on the subject,” to use Bishop Wright’s phrase, though an allusion to one of Nicea’s canons, of doubtful relevance, is tucked away in the report.
The Council of Nicea, which met from May to August of a.d. 325 and is most famous for its formulation of the original version of the Nicene Creed, also produced twenty canons, or rules, to settle problems or fix abuses in the Church. Several of the canons concern the relations of bishops with one another and of clergy with their bishops. Significantly for the present case, none have any legal force in any contemporary Anglican church.
But more importantly, none of them seem to have any real applicability to the situation of the Anglican Communion, or the Episcopal Church, today. If any one of them underlies Bishop Wright’s oblique reference, it must be Canon 16. Members of the clergy, it declares,
This canon obviously deals with “clergy flight” and “clergy poaching”: It assumes a community of orthodox belief between the churches and bishops concerned, and says nothing at all about interventions in churches whose bishops have abandoned orthodoxy of belief and practice and have begun to oppress those of their flock who continue to uphold it, even if that “oppression” consists only in contradicting that orthodoxy and furthering those who teach and act against it.
But while I was puzzling over Wright’s invocation of this inapplicable canon, I found an allusion to the eighth canon early in the report. In this passage, the report deplores “ as now part of the problem we face” the breaking of communion with the Episcopal Church by other Anglican churches, attempts by dissenters in America to “distance themselves” from the Episcopal Church, and the interventions of archbishops from other Anglican churches.
Then it comments: “This goes not only against traditional and oft-repeated Anglican practice [alluding to the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth Conferences] but also against some of the longest-standing regulations of the early undivided church (Canon 8 of Nicea).”
The Pure Ones
So what does the canon say? It is one of the longer ones, and it concerns the re-entry into the Church of “the so-called ‘pure ones’.” It required them to “promise in writing to accept and to follow the rulings of the Catholic Church,” primarily to have communion with those who renounced the faith during persecutions but had since been given a period of penance and a date for their reconciliation with the Church.
In places that had only “pure ones” as clergy, they should keep their status, but if a “pure one” wanted to be admitted to the clergy in a place that had “a bishop or a priest of the Catholic Church . . . it is evident that the bishop of the Church should keep the dignity of bishop.” A bishop of the “pure ones”
“The pure ones” was the name given, perhaps self-given, to a schismatic group known as the Novatianists. They originated in the aftermath of the great persecution—the first empire-wide persecution—launched against the Church by the Roman Emperor Decius in 249–251. Before that persecution, a Christian who renounced Christianity under pressure and then wished to return to the Church could only be readmitted to the Eucharist when on his deathbed.
In the aftermath of the persecution, which saw apostasies on a large scale, the bishop of Rome, Cornelius, allowed the “lapsed” to be readmitted after some years of public penitence, which involved, among other things, standing in a particular place during the Church’s Liturgy and leaving before Communion. Most bishops elsewhere adopted this practice as well, but in Rome, Pope Cornelius was opposed by the priest Novatian, whose followers elected him bishop in opposition to Cornelius, and in the ensuing years the schism spread throughout the Roman Empire.
The Novatianists were moral rigorists, best known for their absolute prohibition of second marriages under any circumstances (including after the death of a spouse) and their refusal to readmit the lapsed to Communion. In every other respect, though, their beliefs were thoroughly orthodox. A Novatianist bishop turned up at the Council of Nicea, where he was as vehement in his opposition to the views of the heretic Arius as any of the other bishops there. It was only when he went on to insist on the exclusion of the lapsed from Communion that his Novatianist allegiance came to light, and he was ejected from the council.
Of all the various heretical or schismatic Christian sects, the Novatianists were viewed with the most indulgence, as this canon indicates. Although it was common at the time to regard as “heretical” all Christian sects that pertinaciously and as a matter of principle separated themselves from the “Catholic and Apostolic Church,” in practice the council treated groups of them who wished to rejoin the Church as though they were simply schismatics.
In fact, few Novatianists took advantage of this offer. Their church, or “denomination,” continued to exist as a rigorous and “pure” alternative to the established Church in parts of the Eastern Roman Empire for some three or four centuries afterwards.
Dealing with Defectors
It is hard to see how this canon has anything to do with the troubles of contemporary Anglicanism that evoked the Windsor Report. The canon does uphold the unity of the local church, but the situation it addresses is the reunion of a schismatic group with the Church, not the appropriate response of bishops to the defection of one of their brethren from their common orthodoxy. However, the latter type of situation did arise in the fourth century, in the long aftermath of the Council of Nicea, and later still.
The main purpose of the Council of Nicea was to judge the views of the Alexandrian priest and theologian Arius, who held that Jesus was a creature—a divine being created by God before the angels, the cosmos, and mankind, but a creature nevertheless. Nicea condemned Arius’s views, and its creed confessed the full co-divinity and co-eternity of “the everlasting Son of the Father.”
However, since the controversy continued unabated after Nicea, and since Emperor Constantine had wanted the council to promote ecclesiastical harmony, the fact that it signally failed to produce such harmony induced him, within a few short years, to attempt to promote various theological compromises that would reconcile the Arians and the Niceans. (Many of the most influential bishops around the emperor were sympathetic to some degree with Arius.)
Among the most vigorous and uncompromising upholders of Nicea and its creed was the young archbishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (c. 296–373), who as a priest had accompanied his predecessor to Nicea. His vigorous opposition to any compromise earned him the hostility of the bishops who had most influence with the emperor, who himself in the last decade of his life (he died in 337) increasingly regarded Athanasius as a disturber of the peace, and finally exiled him to what is today the German Rhineland.
After Constantine’s death, as his Arianizing son Constantius became master, first of the East and then (in 350) of the whole Roman Empire, imperial policy shifted from conciliation to coercion of the adherents of Nicea, and these shifts continued down to the final defeat of Arianism in 381.
As time went on, the whole Church became divided over the question, with bishop opposing bishop. Athanasius was willing, as the conflict intensified—in his case, as early as the mid-340s—to intervene unilaterally in dioceses whose bishops were Arians or compromisers. The historians Socrates and Sozomen, writing in the middle of the next century, record that he ordained men in dioceses whose bishops were tainted with Arianism to serve the orthodox upholders of Nicea, and that he did so without seeking or obtaining the permission of those bishops.
We do not know for sure whether Athanasius ordained bishops for these orthodox communities faced with hostile heterodox bishops, or only priests and deacons. Socrates’s account in his Ecclesiastical History is obscure, stating only that “in some of the churches also he performed ordination, which afforded another ground of accusation against him, because of his undertaking to ordain in the dioceses of others.”
In his Ecclesiastical History, Sozomen wrote of Athanasius’s ejection of Arianizing clergy when he returned to Egypt from his second exile around 346, and added, “It was said at that time that, when he was traveling through other countries, he effected the same change if he happened to visit churches which were under the Arians. He was certainly accused of having dared to perform the ceremony of ordination in cities where he had no right to do so.”
And he was not alone. Other orthodox bishops acted similarly.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus, yet another historian (and bishop), tells us in his Ecclesiastical History that a contemporary and collaborator of Athanasius, Eusebius of Samosata, traveled around many of the eastern portions of the Roman Empire disguised as a soldier, and where he found Arian or Arianizing bishops, he ordained deacons, priests, and even bishops to care for the orthodox and oppose the official bishops and their supporters. He names five bishops Eusebius consecrated.
Another bishop, Lucifer of Cagliari, wandered throughout the Mediterranean world in support of those who upheld Nicea. Both Socrates and Theodoret record his intervention in the divided church of Antioch. In 362 he consecrated the leader of one of the orthodox groups, the leader of the other, larger group having early on in his career appeared to compromise with moderate Arians. The uncompromising orthodox group had never been willing to accept him as their bishop, and the consecration embittered the break between the two and led to a schism that was not to be healed for over fifty years.
Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, conducted ordinations in his native Palestine in defiance of compromising bishops during the Arian crisis. As Socrates relates, he did the same thing many years later in Constantinople, when he was led to believe that John Chrysostom, the patriarch there, supported the errors of Origen.
Details of the activities of such bishops are few, but in the next century, for 85 years after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, both proponents and opponents of that council among the bishops in the eastern parts of the empire were willing to intervene, or intrude, regularly in dioceses whose bishops were on the “ other side.”
All of this allows us to say that any attempt to construct a theory of the inviolability of diocesan boundaries cannot find any support in the theory and practice of the early Church. In the light of this history, Bishop Wright’s invocation of “Nicene decrees” and the Windsor Report’s allusion to “the ancient norm” and “some of the longest-standing regulations” vanishes altogether, and all that is left is “Anglican custom” (Wright) or “traditional and oft-repeated Anglican practice” (Windsor).
Those who have followed the actual practices of Anglican churches over the past three decades, in the United States, Canada, and Australia especially, will see how readily proponents of one innovation after another have been willing to abandon norms, decrees, regulations, canons, customs—you name it—to gain their ends.
In the Christianity Today interview, Wright remarked that “the real question at the heart of much of this is, which [are] the things we can agree to differ about and which [are] the things we can’t agree to differ about.” He continued, speaking of modern questions the Nicene fathers he invoked would have thought settled matters of their common faith,
How do we know, and who says which differences make a difference and which differences don’t make a difference?
Speaking for myself as a Catholic with many Anglican friends, the clearest and most instructive (as well as the saddest) lesson of this episode is how sincere and pious Christians, like Bishop Wright, deprive themselves of any compellingly persuasive basis for rallying a forceful “Athanasian” movement to retake their churches from the heterodox innovators who dominate them—and not least because of their own inability, as the bishop’s statements show, to make clear judgments about false teaching and false teachers and to take firm and decisive measures in response. In consequence, they render their own situations hopeless, being able neither to fight nor to flee.
N. T. Wright’s article appeared in the 23 October 2004 issue of The Tablet and may be found at www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi-bin/register.cgi/tablet-00945. The Christianity Today interview can be found at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/142/42.0.html. The sources of the quotations from Socrates are (in order): Book II, chapter 24; III.6 and 9; VI.12; those from Sozomen are III.21; and from Theodoret IV.13 and V.4; III.2.
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“Abusing the Fathers” first appeared in the April 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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