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The Council of Nicaea

Topical Tuesday: Loose Canons? Andy Lines and the Canons of Nicaea

Posted by Mark Smith, 20 Jun 2017

Mark Smith examines Justin Welby’s use of ancient canons to oppose “cross-border interventions.”

On Friday 30th June, Andy Lines will be consecrated at a meeting of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), as a ‘missionary bishop’ for Europe. This is in response to the recent decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) to modify its definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, placing it at variance with the majority of the Anglican Communion.

In a letter to the Primates of the Communion, Archbishop Justin Welby expressed profound concern over the upcoming consecration of Canon Lines. For Welby, the Church’s continued commitment to “those with differing views” (exemplified by the role of the Bishop of Maidstone in providing oversight for those who oppose the ordination of women), made the appointment of a missionary bishop unnecessary. Such an argument rests, of course, on a theological parity being drawn between disagreements over ordained ministry, and over sexual ethics - a parity that is by no means self-evident, as Lee Gatiss argued last week.

What was most intriguing, however, was what the Archbishop went on to say next:

The idea of a ‘missionary bishop’ who was not a Church of England appointment, would be a cross-border intervention and, in the absence of a Royal Mandate, would carry no weight in the Church of England. Historically, there has been resistance to cross-border interventions and ordinations from the earliest years of the universal Church’s existence. Such weighty authority as canons 15 and 16 of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 are uncompromising in this regard and make reference to the “great disturbance and discords that occur” when bishops and their clergy seek to minister in this way.”

Here, the claim is made that the consecration of Andy Lines, and the episcopal ministry he would exercise, would be contrary to Canons 15 and 16 of the Council of Nicaea. If Welby is correct in his interpretation, then it is indeed a palpable hit - for Canon Lines’ ministry, far from strengthening the cause of orthodoxy, would be in direct transgression of that most ‘orthodox’ of all councils.

This is not the first time that appeals have been made to Nicaea in the context of disputes over Anglican jurisdiction. The Windsor Report (2003), written in the aftermath of Gene Robinson’s consecration, condemned (in para. 29.3) similar cross-border interventions as contrary to “some of the longest-standing regulations of the early undivided church (Canon 8 of Nicaea)”.

The Archbishop’s statement, then, fits within a wider context of reaching back to the canons of Nicaea as a means to critique (and so delegitimise) various attempts by conservative Anglicans to preserve episcopal integrity. The question remains, though - is this appeal to the Nicene canons persuasive?

The Council of Nicaea issued twenty canons, which sought to regulate a range of church practices, and eliminate a number of growing abuses. As practical measures to deal with particular issues of the day, the canons do not claim for themselves a timeless authority - indeed, as one might expect, many of them now have limited direct relevance to the life of the church. Canon 1, for instance, maps out the fine disciplinary distinction between a clergyman who has been castrated by barbarians, and a clergyman who has chosen to castrate himself. Canon 18 forbids deacons to sit on the same bench as presbyters. Canon 19 deals with those who had followed the heretical teaching of Paul of Samosata. The majority of parishioners in the Church of England have probably violated Canon 20 at some point or another, since it rules that prayer on the Lord’s Day must be offered whilst standing, and not whilst kneeling.

It is fair to say, then, that although the Nicene canons preserve some helpful theological principles for church governance, they cannot be applied straightforwardly, or without remainder, to the contemporary scene. So what are the theological principles that Canons 15 and 16 embody and commend? Here is their text in full:

Canon 15. On account of the great disturbance and discords that occur, it is decreed that the custom prevailing in certain places contrary to the Canon, must wholly be done away; so that neither bishop, presbyter, nor deacon shall pass from city to city. And if any one, after this decree of the holy and great Synod, shall attempt any such thing, or continue in any such course, his proceedings shall be utterly void, and he shall be restored to the Church for which he was ordained bishop or presbyter.

Canon 16. Neither presbyters, nor deacons, nor any others enrolled among the clergy, who, not having the fear of God before their eyes, nor regarding the ecclesiastical Canon, shall recklessly remove from their own church, ought by any means to be received by another church; but every constraint should be applied to restore them to their own parishes; and, if they will not go, they must be excommunicated. And if anyone shall dare surreptitiously to carry off and in his own Church ordain a man belonging to another, without the consent of his own proper bishop, from whom although he was enrolled in the clergy list he has seceded, let the ordination be void.

These canons address a growing problem in the church of the early fourth century. Some bishops (and, as Canon 16 notes, other clergy too), tempted by the prospect of greater wealth, influence, or prestige, sought to move from less important sees to more important ones. This kind of worldly ‘see-hopping’ resulted in disruption to diocesan affairs, and brought scandal upon the church. So, for instance, the sleek and upwardly-mobile Eusebius, Bishop of Berytus, wangled for himself the see of Nicomedia, and with it a position of great influence at the imperial court. Subsequently, through further politicking, he managed to migrate to the even more impressive see of Constantinople.

What is condemned in Canons 15 and 16, then, is translation for improper motives, rather than translation per se. This is supported by the evidence of other episcopal ‘promotions’ around this time that did not result in controversy or criticism - indeed, the translation of Bishop Eustathius from Beroea to Antioch was approved either at the Council of Nicaea itself (as Sozomen claims, H.E. I.2) or a few months earlier at the Council of Antioch (as Schwartz argued, ‘Zur Geschichte des Athanasius VI’). When, a few decades later, Gregory of Nazianzus was accused of transgressing this canon simply for taking up the see of Constantinople, he recognised the attack as a deliberate misuse of the tradition (De vita sua, 1810). Writing in the early fifth century, the church historian Socrates gave a long list of eminent bishops who had undergone translations entirely properly (H.E. VII.36). Ironically, were it mere translation being attacked by Nicaea, then Justin Welby himself would come under censure, having moved from the see of Durham to that of Canterbury!

It is just possible, if one squints a bit, to interpret the final sentence of Canon 16 as affirming the principle that, if a clergyman is to be ordained outside his diocese, the ordaining bishop should first obtain the consent of the diocesan bishop. Even if understood in this way, however, the canon cannot be said to bear on the case of Andy Lines. Nicaea’s legislation, after all, works on the assumption of a single, genuinely ‘catholic’ church - it knows nothing of the kind of legitimate overlapping episcopal jurisdictions which have developed in the centuries since. In England, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church, the Free Church of England, the Moravian Church, the British Orthodox Church, and the Church of England, are all episcopally governed, yet not in communion with one another - the fact that the bishops of each denomination cover the same territory is therefore not a cause for strife or disruption. Similarly, Andy Lines will be consecrated into the ACNA, which is not in communion with either the Church of England or the Scottish Episcopal Church - he can thus legitimately minister in those territories without any ‘border-crossing’, for, from the perspective of the jurisdictional geography of the ACNA, there are no borders to cross. 

Finally, it is worth briefly considering Canon 8, since, as we noted above, the Windsor Report claimed that this canon explicitly prohibited cross-border interventions. Canon 8 was written to address a very specific and troublesome sect - the self-styled Cathari (‘pure ones’), that is, the followers of Novatian. These were moral rigorists who took a dim view of those believers who had lapsed under threat of persecution. In bringing the Church’s discipline to bear upon this group, Canon 8 explains that “there may not be two bishops in the city”. It is presumably this comment that got the authors of the Windsor Report so excited. However, the point being made here in Canon 8 is an entirely mundane one - namely, that for the sake of good order, there cannot be two competing diocesan bishops in the same see. Again, the issue of overlapping episcopal jurisdictions is simply not in view.

In short, the Nicene canons to which the Archbishop refers in his letter to the Primates have little, if anything, to say on the issue of Andy Lines’ consecration. Not even Canon Lines’ sharpest critics have suggested that he is seeking episcopal preferment for worldly gain, which is the fault these canons are primarily concerned to extirpate. It is undeniable that the notion of a ‘missionary bishop’ for Europe raises genuine ecclesiological questions, but these must be confronted on their own terms, and not through a specious appeal to ancient rulings that neither condemn, nor even envisage, the situation we now face.

Photo by Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican -, Public Domain.

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