Monday, October 27, 2008

The Seven Ecumenical Councils in Anglicanism

Post-1977, Continuing Anglicans have a tendency to affirm the classical Anglo-Catholic position that the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church bear an equal catholicity and consentient authority for the whole Universal Church today, but that position only emerged after centuries of careful reflection and theological development in Anglicanism. I agree with the 'Seven Council' position, obviously, and we are all indebted to our Caroline Divine, Non-Juring and Tractarian forbears for it - but it must be admitted that that position took time to develop.

The 19th Canon of 1571, promulgated by Queen Elizabeth I, asserts very succinctly the authority of the Fathers and Councils in a general way: 'let preachers take care that they never teach anything... except what is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testament, and what the Catholic Fathers and and ancient Bishops have collected from the same doctrine.'

This is a typical Anglican approach to the subject.

A modern version of this basic recourse to ecumenical consensus is found in the Canon Law of the Church of England and the text of the liturgy entitled Common Worship:

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

I, AB, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.

More specific references to the authority or number of the General Councils, outside of Articles XX and XXI , are of a particular and more individual kind, arising from the theological teaching of divines and theologians. It is rare to find an explicit reference in Anglicanism to the unconditional acceptance of all Seven Ecumenical Councils, dogmatically or canonically, beyond the statements of individual Anglican bishops and writers - with the sole exception of the Affirmation of Saint Louis. We indeed and absolutely believe all Seven Councils are truly ecumenical and catholic - on the basis of the received Tradition of the ancient Undivided Church of East and West, a Tradition which has never been completely comprehended by the Anglican formularies or Canons, a Tradition which was never intended to be fully explicated by the local and provincial formularies of the Catholic Church of the British Provinces. The Anglican formularies address only particular critical theological and disciplinary concerns of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that certainly by design. Behind them, however, stands the universal authority of the Holy and Apostolic Tradition, which did not have to be rehashed or redebated by Anglican Catholics.

Conside this quote from Dr Bill Tighe: '...despite the fact that advocates of all sides to the 16th-century religious conflict, Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed alike, were given to claiming that their particular doctrinal stances and, in some cases, distinctive practices, were in accord with those of the Early Church Fathers, or at least with those of high standing (such as St. Augustine), none [but Anglicanism] were willing to require, or even permit, their confessional stances to be judged by, or subordinated to, a hypothetical ‘patristic consensus’ of the first four or five centuries of Christianity.' But Anglicanism most certainly did, and does so to this day.

Dr CB Moss' excellent study, The Church of England and the Seventh Council, is an essential read for anyone interested in this controverted area of theology.

On the matter of the reception of the General Councils in the Anglican Communion (from the days of her orthodoxy) we should say that the Church of England, as a true part of the Catholic Church, never rejected any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and evidently felt she had no need to comment, negatively or positively, on a point of received Tradition that was certainly considered by all Catholic Churches a settled point of dogma. She is a 'Church of the Apostles and Fathers' after all! The Church of England never protested any dogma defined by the Seven Holy Councils and never brought into question the legitimacy or canonicity of any universally-received Ecumenical Synod. Article XXII is about popularly-held and practised medieval error, not ecumenically consentient teaching. The Ecumenical Councils were and are a given - and thus the dearth of commentary or reaffirmation in the Anglican formularies. Often the beauty of Anglicanism, like her cousin Eastern Orthodoxy, is that she does not feel she has to define all the minutiae of her theology or practical life, and is willing simply to allow Tradition to be Tradition: liturgical theology as systematic theology, worship and practice over definition. The question of the Seven Councils should, I think, be considered one of those areas so treated.

Ecumenical Councils are ecumenical because they are received over time by the consensus of the whole Church Catholic, and Anglicanism, pre-, mid-, and post-reformation certainly received the Councils of the Undivided Church along with the rest of Christendom. This reception has never been disputed, to my knowledge, by any synodical authority within Anglicanism. The full appreciation and application of the doctrine of all Seven Councils (especially Nicea II) required a centuries-long process in the Western Church as a whole, and certainly within Anglicanism in particular, but I do not think any one can doubt that the Councils have always been integral to the ethos, the inherited living memory, of the Anglican Church.


Anonymous said...

Tremendously good post.

Personally, I do not mind private opinions favorable to Trent or Latin Scholasticism if they aid a person with a certain bent of mind to come to Christ. But, I do not wish to have pious opinion forced on me in Common Prayer -- either in the sermon or through (Counter-Reformation) ceremonial.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Actually one of the Homilies referred to in Article XXXV did explicitly condemn the Seventh Council. Another Homily approved the first 6.

However, other bits of Elizabethan church-related legislation and accepted practice were inconsistent with the pure iconoclasm of this Homily, and 17th Century bishops and doctors of the C of E explicitly approved the teaching of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Also, the Homilies were only said to "contain" good doctrine, not to be uniformly binding.