[N.B.: The rejection of diocesan boundary crossing by bishops from other provincial Churches of the Anglican Communion, as has gone on for several years now in the United States, Canada and Brazil, continues to be an important (essential?) commitment on the part of some conservatives who remain within The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, as in the latest offering from the principal theologians of the Anglican Communion Institute. I don’t comment on this piece, “Patient Endurance – On Living Faithfully in a Time of Troubles”, for reason of not yet having read it closely enough to offer either cogent criticism or praise. However, I am persistently bothered by the appeal to this rejection, one of the injunctions of the 2004 Windsor Report, because it represents an oversimplication of life in the early Church during the time of the Arian controversy (which, remember, was not settled by the Council of Nicaea but continued to rage at least until the Council of Constantinople, near the end of the fourth century). My objection to the Windsor injunction, and its continued endorsement by some conservatives, is grounded mostly in a protest against this oversimplication of history and against an appeal to the canons of the Council of Nicaea that is theologically incoherent in the current context for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the bishops gathered at Nicaea understood themselves, and those bishops in communion with them, to be The Church, while Anglicans do not so understand themselves. Episcopalians and Anglicans who appeal to the canons of Nicaea against diocesan boundary crossings skate on very thin ice indeed, when many Anglican dioceses have been set up where there previously had been bishops in historic succession, whether Catholic or Orthodox or Old Catholic (not to mention Oriental Orthodox or Assyrian Christian), in some cases for many centuries before Anglican incursions into these established apostolic sees. Examples of these incursions in North America alone include all Episcopal and Anglican dioceses in Quebec, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas and the rest of the Southwest, California, Alaska, and Mexico. And yet Nicaea is not invoked against them. The only right basis for an appeal against diocesan boundary crossings by bishops in other provincial Churches of the Anglican Communion is an appeal to “the bonds of affection” – and the strain put on them by the actions of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada renders such an appeal difficult in the extreme.
The following is the original form of William Tighe’s essay “Abusing the Fathers: the Windsor Report’s Misleading Appeal to Nicea”, published in edited form in Touchstone, and republished here in its entirety, after publication in March 2005 on the original Confessing Reader weblog with Dr Tighe’s kind permission. While I am myself among those conservative “evangelical (and catholic, in my case)” Christians who appreciate Dr Wright’s scholarship, I believe that Dr Tighe does us a service in providing this critical analysis of the appeal to the canons of the Council of Nicea with reference to the current crisis in Anglicanism. Dr Tighe’s critique is no less apposite now than it was nearly four years ago.]
N. T. (”Tom”) Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, has for some years deservedly enjoyed a 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 the authority of the Bible, such as those emanating from the “Jesus Seminar” or from the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong. He appeals particularly to those “conservative evangelical” Christians who wish to uphold a generally “high” view of the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, as regards doctrine and morals, but who wish to leave room for some “developments” that more conservative and tradition-minded Christians find suspect, such as the ordination of women, of which Bishop Wright is a strong supporter.
A year ago, the uproar after the election and subsequent consecration of the notorious Vicki Gene Robinson — the Episcopal priest who divorced his wife and subsequently openly entered a homosexual relationship which continues to this day — as Bishop of New Hampshire, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a committee of Anglicans (five archbishops, five bishops, two female clergymen and five lay church officials) to look into the matter — it was a development which clearly contradicted the 1998 Lambeth Conference’s resolution declaring such relationships to be incompatible with the Christian faith — and to make recommendations as to how the Anglican Communion could deal with it in such a way as to maintain the highest possible degree of communion. The Chairman of this “Lambeth Commission” was Robert Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of the Church of Ireland, a man who, as chairman of a similar committee in the late 1980s about the issue of women bishops, helped to devise a way in which the Anglican Communion could avoid — as it has so far — a split over that divisive issue. Possibly the hope was that he would be able to work the same magic on this new, and even more divisive issue. When the Lambeth Commission produced its “Windsor Report” on October 18, 2004, the results fell well below the expectations of those who expected, or hoped, that it might recommend the expulsion, or at least the suspension, of the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Church of Canada, whose diocese of New Westminster began officially to bless homosexual “partnerships” in May of that year) from the Anglican Communion, or at least some measure of firm discipline.
The report came to three conclusions: it called for a “moratorium” on the elevation to the episcopacy of all non-celibate homosexuals, a similar moratorium on the authorization of rites for the public blessing of same-sex “partnerships” and an end to the intervention of traditionalist Anglican bishops (usually from Africa or Asia) who have intervened in the dioceses of other Anglican bishops to support traditional Anglicans who have been under attack for their orthodox stance on this issue, or on that of the ordination of women: these bishops, as well as those responsible for fostering and promoting the blessing of such homosexual unions or involved in the consecration of Bishop Robinson, were called upon to express regret for their actions, which were deemed to be incompatible with the tangible and intangible bonds which held the Anglican Communion together. But no “enforcement clauses” appeared in the report, although there was the suggestion that those bishops who refused to express regret for their actions might abstain from participation in any function or forum in which the Anglican Communion as a whole was represented, and just the hint that if the first two condemned practices were to continue and the requisite “regrets” were not forthcoming, something further might have to be done about it.
Bishop Wright was a member of the Lambeth Commission, and in various places since the issuance of the report has defended its actions (and lack of firmer actions). He has, in particular, defended the Windsor Report’s implicit censure of the intervention of orthodox Anglican bishops in the dioceses of “revisionist” ones. In a report which he had published in the 23 October 2004 issue of the liberalish English Roman Catholic weekly journal The Tablet he justified this censure — which the African Anglican primates, who met in the last days of October, criticized strongly for “the moral equivalence drawn between those who have initiated the crisis and those of us in the Global South who have responded to cries for help from beleaguered friends” — on the basis that such interventions were “in contravention not only of Anglican custom but on the Nicene decrees on the subject.” As Bishop Wright’s grasp of the Church Fathers’ theory and practice seems a bit weak in these areas, it may be useful to pursue the subject a bit further. First, however, I have to note a regrettable feature of the Windsor Report — its lack of documented notes and references to back up its claims and assertions. This compares badly with such documents as those produced by the various ecumenical dialogues in which the Catholic Church has been involved, such as the “Joint Declaration on Justification” of 1999, in which the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation claimed to have reached a consensus on that issue, one of the most critical matters separating Catholics and Protestants (especially Lutherans) in the Sixteenth Century. That is a document for which one or more Biblical or (in some cases) Patristic references are provided for every assertion of a doctrinal nature which it contains. The Windsor Report, for example, simply cites “the ancient norm of the Church” for the unity of all Christians in one place, without any references, for its rationale against the intervention of outside bishops, and although there is an allusion to a canon of the Council of Nicaea tucked away in another section of the Report, it is far from obvious, as I shall show later, that it has any bearing on the current crisis in the Anglican Communion.
The Council of Nicaea, which met from May to August of 325 AD and is most famous for its formulation of the original version of the Nicene Creed — the version in universal use today is a modification approved by, if not created at, the Council of Constantinople in 381 — also produced twenty canons, or “rules,” to settle problems, or fix abuses, in the Church. Several of them concern the relations of bishops with one another, or of clergy with their bishops. None of them seem to have any real applicability to the situation of the Anglican Communion, or the Episcopal church, today — and it is clear that these canons as such have no legal force in any contemporary Anglican church — but when I read them over I thought that if any one of them underlies Bishop Wright’s oblique reference it must be Canon 16, which runs as follows:
Priests and deacons or, in general, any member of the clergy, who have the audacity, not considering the fear of God and not knowing the Church’s rule, to abandon their churches, must not under any circumstances be received in another church but by all means must be forced to return to their proper communities, and if they refuse, they are to be properly excommunicated. In addition, if anyone dares to take someone who is under the authority of another bishop and to ordain him in his own church without the consent of the bishop in whose clergy he was enrolled, let the ordination be regarded as null.
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, in the view of other bishops hitherto in communion with one another, 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 this over I received information form the Canon Theologian of the ECUSA Diocese of South Carolina, the Rev’d Dr. Kendall Harmon, that it was Canon 8 of Nicaea that had been cited in the Windsor Report. So I went back to the Windsor Report. There was nothing to help me in the Endnotes or in Section D of the report, the section which contains its conclusions. Finally, and after much searching, I found an allusion, rather than a reference, in Section A of the report, in a subsection entitled “Illness: The Surface Symptoms.” Paragraph 29 of that section describes — and while describing deplores “as now part of the problem we face” — the breaking of communion with ECUSA by other Anglican provinces and dioceses, attempts by dissenting parishes and groups to “distance themselves” from the dioceses, bishops and provinces within which they are “geographically located” and the interventions of Anglican archbishops from elsewhere in dioceses of ECUSA and the Anglican church of Canada. About this last “problem” it comments: “This goes not only against traditional and oft-repeated Anglican practice” — and here there is an allusion to the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth Conferences — “but also against some of the longest-standing regulations of the early undivided church (Canon 8 of Nicaea).”
So what does Canon 8 of Nicaea say? It is, unfortunately, one of the longer of that council’s canons, and runs as follows:
Concerning those who have called themselves ‘the pure ones,’ if ever they want to come into the catholic and apostolic church corporately, it seems right and proper to the holy and great council that they (i.e., their clergy), after having received the imposition of hands, should then remain in the clergy. But first it is important that they promise in writing to accept and to follow the rulings of the Catholic Church, that is, that they will have communion with those who have been married a second time and with those who renounced the faith during persecution for whom a period (i.e., of penance) has been established and a date (i.e., of reconciliation) set. It is, therefore, necessary that they follow in full the rulings of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Consequently, when in the cities and villages there are only clergy ordained by these ‘pure ones,’ let them keep their status as clergy; on the other hand, where there is a bishop or a priest of the Catholic Church, if certain of these ‘pure ones’ want to be admitted to the clergy, it is evident that the bishop of the Church should keep the dignity of bishop. As for the person who carries the name of bishop among the so-called ‘pure ones,” he is to have the rank of priest unless the bishop consents to let him have the honor of his title. But if he is not so disposed, let the bishop give him a place as a chorepiscopus (i.e., a bishop or perhaps a priest who exercised some supervision over Christian communities in the rural areas, while being himself subordinate to the bishop of a nearby city) or as a priest so that he can appear as being integrated into the clergy. Without this provision, there would be two bishops in the city.
“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 apostatized, or 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, decided to relax this practice by allowing apostates 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 as 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 to their adherents and their refusal to readmit the “lapsed” — those who had renounced the faith — to communion. In every other respect, though, their beliefs were thoroughly orthodox. A Novantianist bishop turned up at the Council of Nicaea, where he was as vehement in his opposition to the views of the heretic Arius (whose views the council had been called to consider, and which it condemned) as any of the other bishops there, and it was only when he went on to insist on the exclusion of the lapsed from communion that his Novanianist allegiance came to light, and he was ejected from the council. Of all the various heretical or schismatic Christian sects — “heretical” or “schismatic” in the judgement of the “Catholic and Apostolic Church” whose bishops assembled at Nicaea — the Novatianists were the ones who were viewed with the most indulgence, as this canon indicates. It was common at the time to regard as “heretical” all Christian sects who pertinaciously and as a matter of principle separated themselves form the “Catholic and Apostolic Church,” while the term “schismatic” was applied to those separations, local in nature, and without any doctrinal basis, which resulted from such causes as disputed episcopal elections, and so while on a strict view the Novatianists would have been viewed as heretics separated from the “Catholic and Apostolic Church,” in practice the Council of Nicaea (as Canon 8 shows) was willing to treat groups of them who wished to rejoin the Church as though they were simply schismatics. But, 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 Catholic and Orthodox Church) in parts of the Eastern Roman Empire for some three or four centuries afterwards.
It is hard to see that this canon has anything to do with the troubles of contemporary Anglicanism that evoked the Windsor Report. It does uphold the “principle” of the unity of the local church, but the situation that it addresses is that of the reunion of a schismatic group with the Church, not the question of the appropriate reaction of bishops to the defection of one of their brethren from their common orthodoxy. However, such situations did arise in the Fourth Century, in the long aftermath of the Council of Nicaea and later still.
The main purpose of the Council of Nicaea was to judge the views of the Alexandrian priest and theologian Arius, who held that Jesus Christ, the Savior, the “first-born of all creation” was a creature — a divine being created by God before the angels, the cosmos and mankind, but a creature nevertheless. Nicaea condemned Arius’ views, and its creed the full co-divinity and co-eternity of “the everlasting Son of the Father” (the question of the nature and status of the Holy Ghost arose subsequently, and was not settled until the Council of Constantinople in 381). However, since the controversy continued unabated after Nicaea, and since the Emperor Constantine’s purpose in calling it together was at least as much to promote ecclesiastical harmony as to define dogmatic truth, the fact it failed signally to produce ecclesiastical harmony induced the emperor within a few short years to attempt to promote various attempts at theological compromise that would have the effect of reconciling Arius and his followers with those who upheld the decisions of the council. (The fact that many of the most influential bishops around the emperor were sympathetic to some degree with Arius’ theological outlook gave added impetus to these efforts at compromise.) Among the most vigorous and uncompromising upholders of Nicaea and its creed was the young archbishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (ca. 296-373), who as a priest has accompanied his predecessor as archbishop, Alexander, to Nicaea, and had succeeded him as bishop three years later. Athanasius’ vigorous opposition to any compromise on the matter 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; and after Constantine’s death, as his Arianizing son Constantius became master, first of the East and then (in 350) of the whole Roman Empire, Athanasius experienced repeated recalls and renewed exiles, as imperial policy shifted from conciliation to coercion of the adherents of Nicaea. As time went on, the whole church, especially in the Greek-speaking eastern regions of the empire, became divided over the question, with bishop opposing bishop. Athanasius, in particular, was willing, as the conflict intensified, to intervene unilaterally in dioceses whose bishops were Arians or compromisers, but he was not alone.
The Fourth-Century ecclesiastical historian Socrates (ca. 380-440) records that Athanasius, after his vindication by the Council of Sardica in 343, and the ending of his exile (he would experience more exiles over the next quarter century), undertook to ordain men in dioceses whose bishops were tainted with Arianism to serve the orthodox upholders of Nicaea, and that without seeking or obtaining the permission of those bishops. We do not know for sure whether Athanasius, then or later, ordained bishops for these orthodox communities faced with hostile heterodox bishops, or only priests and deacons. We do know that another contemporary “Nicene” bishop, Eusebius of Samosata, travelled around much 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. Details of the activities of Athanasius, Eusebius and any other like-minded contemporary bishops, such as Lucifer of Cagliari, who wandered throughout the Mediterranean world in support of those who upheld Nicaea, or Epiphanius of Salamis (in Cyprus), a native of Palestine who conducted ordinations in Palestine in defiance of compromising bishops, are few, but in the Fifth Century, after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, both proponents and opponents of the 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,” especially when the imperial authorities supported first once side, then another, or attempted to broker compromise settlements, during a period of 85 years after that council. All of this allows us to say that any attempt to construct a theory of the inviolability of diocesan boundaries — a theory which would serve to underpin the statements of more than one or two ECUSA bishops in recent years (such as Peter Lee of Virginia or Neil Alexander of Atlanta) that “heresy is preferable to schism” and that the faithful should feel obliged to put up with an unending stream of doctrinal absurdities and moral enormities — 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” begins to look distinctly thin, and when on a closer look it seems all to boil down to Canon 8 of Nicaea, it vanishes altogether, and all that is left is “Anglican custom” (Wright) or “traditional and oft-repeated Anglican practice.” But then one has to ask whether, if this is all that remains, it amounts to anything at all. Those who have followed the actual practices of Anglican churches, in the United States, Canada and Australia especially, over the past three decades, will see how readily proponents of one innovation after another have been willing to norms, decrees, regulations, canons, customs — you name it — in order to gain their ends: the illegal and uncanonical “ordinations” of priestesses in ECUSA in 1974 and 1975 and in Australia in 1991, and the subsequent cave-in of both Anglican churches on that issue; the casting of a blind eye towards clergy and ordinands in irregular marital or sexual situations; and, just recently in ECUSA, the production (as “resources”) of syncretistic rites introducing elements of “goddess worship” or outright paganism as acceptable, if unofficial, options. Speaking personally, for me the clearest and most instructive (as well as the saddest) lesson of this episode is how sincere and pious Christians, like Bishop Wright, who endorse one patently unbiblical innovation (or “development”), such as the ordination of women, but wish to oppose another (partnered homosexual bishops and clergy, and the blessing of such “partnerships” by their church), both deprive themselves of any compellingly persuasive basis for rallying a forceful “Athanasian” opposition to retake their churches from the heterodox innovators who dominate it and (in consequence) render their own situations hopeless, as able neither to fight nor to flee.
Dr William Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College, specializing in the history of the Renaissance and the Reformation.