The Council of Jerusalem

One of our commentators, Cath.Anon raised the issue of ‘authority’ in a searching and penetrating comment on my post of ‘catholicity’; it’s a jolly good question and one to which I had been (sort of) coming. He has encouraged me to get my skates on and brace myself to do it – so thank you Cath.Anon, both for the excellent comment and the nudge!

He is right to say that there needs to be authority. The quickest survey of church history shows this has been a problem from the start. However one wishes to interpret the claims of Rome that its Bishop is more than primus inter pares that is not how things operated for most Christians for most of the history of the faith.

We know from Acts and Paul’s letters that when Peter drew back from table communion with Gentiles under pressure from the church in Jerusalem, the matter was resolved only by what we have seen as the first council – and there Paul told Peter he was wrong – and the majority agreed with him. That set the precedent for the next four hundred years or so.

No one seeks to deny that the Bishop of Rome had a prominent place in terms of authority, but that authority was as a presiding bishop over those bishops in the western part of the Roman Empire. Alexandria, the most fertile intellectual and cultural centre of the Roman Empire was far more prominent in terms of the development of doctrine and theology, and its Bishop, like his counterpart in Rome, had authority over bishops in north Africa and to the south. The Bishops of Jerusalem and Antioch also had an authority which stemmed from their historical importance, and with that a right to be heard. The establishment of the new imperial capital at Constantinople created a tension and a dynamic which became important once Christianity was recognised by the Emperor.

Prior to that, in cases of theological controversy, local bishops did what the Apostles had done, got together, when they could, to sort things out. The establishment of the See of Constantinople and the official recognition of Christianity changed things decisively – as we see at Nicea and after. As C451 has written extensively on this (just follow the link), I shall confine myself to the question of authority.

The decisions reached at Nicae followed the template of that first council – except for the presiding of the Emperor. Rome sent representatives, but no one asked the Pope whether he approved or not. The pattern which developed across the next few councils is interesting. Rome and Alexandria had a common interest in trying to contain the upstart claims (as they saw them) of Constantinople. We see the apogee of this alliance at Ephesus in 431, where Cyril of Alexandia’s alliance with the Bishop of Rome saw off Nestorius. This alliance broke down in the unskilled hands of Dioscorus at Chalcedon in 451, where Constantinople was able to win the support of Rome. But the dynamic was the same.

None of this is to deny the theological and doctrinal issues that were at stake, but it is to suggest that the church dealt with them by dialogue and discussion as between equals; the Pope in Rome mattered greatly, but his imprimatur was not decisive (or even, sometimes needed), and ecclesiatical politics often resembled coalitions in countries with a system of PR. Where there were three major sees, two against one would always win, and Rome was skilful. The demise of Alexandria, first after Chalcedon and then the Muslim conquest, left only Rome and Constantinople. The latter refused to recognise the claims of the former to primacy, and indeed tried to claim the same for itself (follow the link to C’s posts). This led to the schism of 1054, which was never healed, and helped lead to the downfall of the great imperial city.

In the four centuries which followed, both Sees faced encroachments from secular power, but where Rome was dealing with kings who were Christians and, while sometimes disputing the extent of it never denied its power, Constantinople was dealing with Islamic invasions which were to leave it a shadow of its old self, a decline not helped by the Catholic Venetians sacking the city in 1204 in an act of disgraceful vandalism.

After 1453 Rome alone remained of the old five major Sees of Christendom, at least in terms of freedom from Muslim domination. However, within a century, it managed to create schisms within its own domain by its ham-fisted response to calls for change. Of course, further east, and as far as China with the Nestorians, there remained Christians who had never acknowledged the claims of Rome. In the end, Rome reformed itself, but not before the unity of Western Christendom had fractured.

In terms then of ‘authority’, where should a Christian wanting certianty look. Rome? I look acros the Tiber and see warring tribes, with many Catholics claiming not only to be more Catholic than the Pope, but that the Pope is not even a Catholic. If that’s ‘authority’ I can have that, without the nastiness, in my own Church. Of course, you can decide to convert and take the view that the Pope is right on matters infallible, but you can do that anyway, and as I understand it, there is even dispute on how many infallible pronouncements the Popes have made. I am sorry, none of that would be comfort if I needed the security of a single voice of authority.

What then, is the alternative for those of us who do not find the claims of Rome convincing? In a way it is the same as for those who are Catholics but do not find the Pope very convincing oin the environment or what some wags call “tutti frutti”, which is to make up our own minds – reason and scripture working on how we interpret authority. I suspect most of us do that anyway.

In terms of ecclesiology, there are bishops and a synodical system with lay participation for Anglicans which are our equivalent of that meeting at Jesusalem – and the Archbishop of Canterbury, like Peter, can find himself challenged. Its better for all of us than a system where the Pope is challenged only by some bishops, priests and laity after the event, and where people genuinely spend weeks and months trying to work out what he actually said and then what he meant by that.

In the end, we make up our own minds as guided by the Spirit which moves us. I respect those who find their destination in Rome and ask no more than respect for those of us who find it in Canterbury – even if the architecture is not so grand and ancient.