A confusion of councils – high level messy church

It’s time after my long post-Brexit grief-induced silence to get back to the blog. I want to push on with my series on the Anglican 39 articles, and get it finished within the next month, if possible, so I can move on to other things.

This means we resume on the third of a mini series within the articles dealing with the Church and authority. One of the most bizarre features of the twenty-first article is the implicit contradiction between the emphasis on scriptural authority at the end, and its opening statement on the place of princes in calling church councils. Oddly enough, my Bible seems to omit the information that Claudius or his procurator summoned the Jerusalem Council. It is a sign of some of the confusions over authority that Cranmer resolves but poorly.

XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.

Scripture, however, is prescriptively silent on councils, even if it descriptively narrates a gathering which comes to be seen in many respects as as a precursor to decision making by council. It is rather hard to say that anything significant about councils is taken out of scripture, rather than the developing tradition and practice of the Church.

Insofar as the Acts narrative tells the story of a council, what is represented is clearly a consultation and decision made by the church through its leading apostolic figures. That, of course, is a problem for Cranmer, since it is arguably possible (if implausible – I think this is also a misreading of Acts) to say that councils can’t be gathered without the consent of the Pope. Given Peter’s role, this view could, however anachronistically, just about be declared as “taken out of Holy Scripture”. The view that they need “the commandment and will of Princes” simply cannot be declared to be derived from scriptural text or precedent even in that tendentious way.

Underlying this is a more serious problem. It is quite possible to say councils “may err” although the Roman Catholic response to erring councils has been to declare that they are not in fact councils of the church, and remove them from the list of those recognised as such. But the idea that gatherings of the church, or some part of it, may err is still there under that sleight of hand. What is different is that largely it was a subsequent council that recognised this error, such as the way in which Chalcedon (451 AD) overturned the Second (Robber) Council of Ephesus (449 AD) — this despite it having been called under imperial authority. But who, apart from another council, can authoritatively say that a previous one has erred?

Well, in one sense, Cranmer’s answer is an appropriate one: scripture can say a council has erred, but this fails largely to deal with the issue that scripture needs interpreting. Councils generally (and whether rightly or wrongly) declare their teaching to be an interpretation of scripture, and that they are indeed teaching things “taken out of Holy Scripture”. Exactly how authoritative, when set against a collegial declaration like this, is an individual theologian’s or bishop’s (never mind an individual Christian’s) statement that a council has erred?

In one sense it is not necessarily authoritative at all: it can only be a persuasive statement of scriptural teaching or meaning, to argue that the council has failed to give an adequate account of scripture. Its authority is intrinsic and lies in its own reasoned integrity. It has to appeal to, renew, or even re-create, the sensus fidelium – the consent of the faithful.

Where Cranmer is right is to insist that there should be consonance between council and scripture. Neither the interpretation of the collegium, nor that of the individual, should be arbitrary, imposed simply by external authority, but themselves subject to the authority exercised by God in and through the Church’s reading of the scriptures. Where he is wrong is in failing to develop an adequate account of the Church, a point noted in previous posts.

A coherent critique needs to reflect more on the Church’s being under authority, and not simply having authority. It needs to take on board finer nuances of the relationship of scripture and tradition, and not a simple opposition. It needs to reflect on a conciliar and collegial approach in the way that post-Vatican II Catholicism has done in theory, but miserably failed to do in practice. Continuing Roman Catholic arguments over the interpretation and reception of Vatican II illustrate well how complex conciliar authority actually is. In short, a coherent article needs to take councils more seriously than this bare statement does.

Beyond this, it needs to reflect on the role of the papacy in relation to the broader institution of episcopacy and the church in terms other than jurisdiction: that is, it needs to conceive the Petrine ministry in a more mutual and non-hierarchical relation to the whole apostolic ministry. It needs in short, to offer a self-definition that is defined more positively and less negatively. Only then might it have a chance of being persuasive as both catholic and reformed.

Derogating councils in the way this article does is unfortunate. It is as wrong-headed as the papal tendency effectively to say “Le concile, c’est moi!” The meeting together of Christians generally is always essential to a proper hearing of the Scriptures, for which private study is a supplement. The meeting in argument, and debate around the scriptures, in attentiveness to the Spirit, of all those who are charged with the apostolic teaching ministry of the Church is a particular and focused way of doing what Christians do, for the purpose of resolving how to meet the challenges of the moment. Surely we should hope that God will hasten the day when an Ecumenical Council can be ecumenical in every sense of the word.