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The charismatic character of conciliar authority
In light of all this, I would emphasize that the real basis for the authoritative nature of the Church’s conciliar vocation is not, therefore, the entity of a “council” in itself. Councils are not Scripture. Councils themselves are not the Holy Spirit. Councils guarantee nothing. Just because one has a council – local or wider – does not mean that what it decides has any authority in Christian terms. Rather, the basis for the authoritative nature of the Church’s conciliar vocation lies in the faithful perseverance of its members in common over time, that is, in their willingness to live the Christian life together “for the Lord” and “in the Lord”. Since the authority of councils derive from their place in a historical series, it is grasped only retrospectively, and it is possible to do this only because one has carried through with the conciliar life together long enough and through a perseverant life of faithfulness on such a path that the truth is apprehended together. A synod may indeed come to a decision that is “true” in the sense of conforming to and displaying the truth of Scripture, but that council may never gain “authority” in the Church because it never took place within the extended conciliar life of the Church in such a way that its truth was apprehended.
The place where the Holy Spirit “authorizes” a council, therefore, is not first in the abstract nature of its decisions nor even in the juridically-defined and defining shape of a given gathering. It is in the ongoing Christian life of those making decisions and receiving them. Councils are authoritative when they are perceived, that is, as being “holy”, enacted by holy people and received by holy people, conformed to the Scriptural shape of God’s will. True councils are “charismatic”, in the qualification used by Orthodox theologians. Councils are authoritative, not only when they speak the “truth” (this is not a sufficient condition for conciliar authority), but when they are filled with and give rise to the gifts and fruit of the Spirit – faith, generosity, and so on, and “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Rom. 12:6ff.; Gal. 5:22f.). This should not be a surprise, Scripturally speaking: for it is the “gathering in my Name (cf. Mt. 18:20), in its rich and profound sense of the Spirit’s common life, that is promised the presence of Jesus. The Church “over time”, and hence as a truly conciliar reality, exists as Christ’s Body only as she embodies the Holy Spirit’s gifts and fruit in this sense that allows her to gather at all (1 Cor. 12).
The necessary and essential link between council and Holy Spirit, understood in the sense above, underscores a paradoxical reality: the Church’s councils need not be wholly “pure” in their make-up to be valid and authoritative. Rather they require only that some of their members be holy and, more importantly, that such holiness persist in the midst of the Church’s errors and sin. For the Spirit is “sent”; the Spirit does not constitute. The Spirit inhabits; the Spirit does not embody. This is the model of the apostolic church of Jesus, at the Last Supper and Passion: the holiness of the Church – and her councils – is given in the means by which her saints demonstrate the Spirit’s fruit within the Church’s fallenness, by the exercise of truthful witness, mercy and charity with and among her corrupted members, as Jesus did not only towards his persecutors, but towards his own followers who would and who did eventually abandon Him.
In light of this discussion, we can answer a number of questions currently being raised about attendance at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. We can do so by observing the character of the Church’s first great councils – e.g. Nicea and Constantinople – and seeing how in fact they conform to the outline of conciliar life suggested above, and how they clarify current concerns. Although these two councils represent something “new”, from the perspective of history, they were not in fact “primordial”. They emerged from and took their place within an existing and long line of previous councils, some of considerable significance and weight. As “councils”, they are “general”, not de novo.
Does one sit in council with those with whom one is out of communion?
Nicea answered this question affirmatively: present were not only the Novationist schismatic bishop Acesius, but also Arians (including Arius himself!) who had previously and formally broken with bishops of the (finally decided) “orthodox” party. One does not need to share the Eucharist with another Christian in order for the counsel of the Holy Spirit to be authoritatively pursued among them.
In the midst of disputes within the Church, including ones that cut deeply and that burden us today, this reality (more fully demonstrated below) cuts in all kinds of directions.
Does one sit in council with heretics?
Invited to Nicea, as we know, were Arius and his friends and supporters (e.g. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who ended up causing so much trouble for the orthodox after Nicea, despite signing on to the final agreement).
The first Council of Constantinople, over 50 years after Nicea, had to revisit with much anguish and conflict the very matters already decided at Nicea. This means that the later council, by definition, was one engaged with known “heretics”, established as such by a previous council. Yet that did not prevent the council’s gathering and its engagement of orthodox and heretic together.
Does one sit in council with the excommunicated?
As the previous question and response show, “heresy” can already be conciliarly defined and still be engaged subsequently on a personal level at another council. Hence, Arius, along with at least two African bishops, Secondus and Theonus, had been formally condemned and excommunicated by a formal Alexandrian synod, some time before Nicea convened. Yet Bp. Alexander (and Athanasius, his then-secretary) met with them at Nicea. Both Nicea and Constantinople gathered bishops who had, at various times, been excommunicated and even exiled by opposing parties.
One of the questions to be asked in the context of the above is, “does not counsel with heretics and the excommunicated threaten the corruption of the council itself and of the church subsequently?”. This question has been posed within the Anglican Communion currently in terms of TEC being a liberal “heresy” similar to a “gangrene” or “cancer” whose presence cannot be tolerated in council for fear of contamination. Clearly this was not the view of those participating in the first councils of the Church, including the first two Ecumenical Councils. It was not so because the nature of Christian conciliarity, as we have explained, is founded on the power of the Holy Spirit within the lives of those taking council, not uniformly, but simply really – just as Jesus’ authority in the Church is based on His own pneumatic life, not on His members’ uniformly.
Certainly, there are a variety of responses given in the New Testament church to heresy or immorality within the Christian community. In all cases where possible, discipline is exercised. But discipline within the New Testament is not uniform – as Paul’s experience with the “false apostles” at Corinth makes clear – and is often set aside in favor of the “power” of the Spirit’s “demonstration” in the lives of the Church’s saints, regardless of the failures of others around them. Indeed, the one text in the New Testament regarding “gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17) is not about complete disengagement with heretics, but about the proper kind of engagement, based not on drawn out controversy but on a particular kind of charismatic posture and example as a teacher (2 Tim. 2:24ff.) that leads the erring person to “repentance”.
The point here is that a council may choose to invite or not, on the basis of discipline or not – none of this validates or invalidates a council. These are prudential decisions, not matters of faith (see below).
Does one sit at council with those who have betrayed previous councils?
Following Nicea, an entire array of Arians and related “heretics” continued to agitate and in fact often “triumph” ecclesially through episcopal establishement and numerous new councils, both local and wider. Many, although not all, of these subsequent councils were attended by “orthodox”, who knowingly came to gatherings in which they were outnumbered, deceived, and mistreated. Their attendance, where possible, was based on the courage, calm, and faith granted them by the Holy Spirit, not on juridical realities. Such councils were often later judged to be invalid; but not because of their initial gathering, but rather because of their fruit. I personally believe it to be the case that, at certain point, if one can no longer trust the word of certain members of the Church, their presence at the Church’s councils do indeed become problematic. But again, to what degree is a prudential decision, not one based on principle.
Does non-invitation of potentially worthy attendees invalidate a council?
The Bishop of Rome was never invited to (nor did he or his formal representative attend) the Council of Constantinople (and he was, at the time, out of communion with the Council’s president, Melitius, as well as with others present). Yet, in time – and not a long time either – the Council of Constantinople was recognized by the Pope as a valid “ecumenical” council, despite not even having a formal papal representative present.The conclusion here, to restate a point made before and well-grounded in conciliar theology, is that councils are authoritative in their historical reception, not in their immediate form. The form, however, points to the character of the council in an initial way, and eventually reveals that inner character over time: one comes to council, and God does His work.
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