“A Truly Ecumenical Church Council”?

I am very much enjoying the ongoing discussion on Arcoamaticus’ two blogs, “Glosses from an Old Manse” and Lutheran Catholicity. Of course, in claiming “catholicity” for the Lutheran tradition (if not the Lutheran Church) the dear fellow has set himself up as a bit of a target for one such as I – a target as big as a barn door, as I heard someone express it recently…

Here I want to steal an issue that Acro raised in the combox of one of his blogs, where he wrote:

Indeed, and there we disagree. We will have to leave that verdict to a truly ecumenical church council or to the verdict of God in heaven, which ever comes first.

To which I responded:

Exactly who would you want to invite to a “truly ecumenical Council”? …We, of course – and I expect the Orthodox too – could only accept validly ordained bishops as genuine participants of an ecumenical council.

Then there is the question of how one could really have such a council unless “full communion” were to be established between these bishops before the council opened.

So tell me: who would be able to attend and vote at your “truly ecumenical council”?

Acroamaticus then responded:

I think we could be gracious enough to allow the Pope to call it, since we have no other better candidate for head of Christendom at the moment. I think its pretty much a no-brainer (great American phrase) that the RCs would permit Orthodox representation.

I think we orthodox Lutherans should have a seat at the table, since our concerns have never really had a valid hearing, or at the least we should be allowed in the room to whisper in the ears of sympathetic bishops.

And the Anglicans, the orthodox ones, that is, as that would finally settle that argument.

And the non-Chalcedonians and Nestorians, because the opportunity is too great not to invite them.

And the Reformed could be let in on the same basis as us, provided they baptise infants and confess the Creeds.
Have I forgotten anyone?

Now I should make it clear that my own understanding is that an “ecumenical council” is any council of validly ordained bishops recognised as such by the Bishop of Rome. In that light, Acro’s grace in suggesting that the Pope call such a “pan-Christian” meeting (perhaps a better description for what we are talking about rather than “truly ecumenical” – a description which is somewhat judgemental on earlier ecumenical councils) is appreciated. I know that for years there have been plans to hold a “pan-orthodox” council, which has floundered upon the simple ground that they can’t agree who has the authority to call such a council. Most of them would agree that if the Roman Pope were not “a heretic”, he would have the authority to call a such pan-Christian council.

But of course, that raises the other problem that the Orthodox could never regard any council that included non-Orthodox (Catholic, Protestant, or Non-Chalcedonian) as in any sense “ecumenical”. But for the moment we will leave that to one side.

As for the non-Chalcedonians, we Catholics actually have a fairly good relationship with these Churches these days, and certainly recognise the validity of their Orders and other sacraments.

A much bigger problem is raised by Acro’s distinction between the various protestant bodies as “orthodox” or “non-orthodox”. How is the Holy Father supposed to make such a distinction – when effectively we regard ALL protestants as “non-orthodox”?

And then, what office holders in these bodies should be regarded as voting members, given that none of them are validly ordained bishops?

The fact is, that even if the Pope were to call a council in which non-Catholics were invited to take part, he could only concievably extend that invitation to the bishops of those “particular Churches” which we are able to recognise as “Churches in the true sense”.

If non-episcopal voting participants were included it could not in any sense be regarded as an “ecumenical council”, since every ecumenical council (whatever counting method you use) in history has been a council of bishops and bishops alone.

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10 responses to ““A Truly Ecumenical Church Council”?

  1. David – historically, the Ecumenical Councils held in the West have included heads of religious orders (abbots and major superiors) who would be priests, not bishops.

    For example, at the great Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, there were “seventy-one patriarchs and metropolitan bishops, four hundred and twelve bishops, and nine hundred abbots and priors together with representatives of several monarchs.”

    Mind you, I don’t know what voting rights if any these extra-episcopal attendees had…

  2. Yes, the right to vote is the question. I am aware that others other than bishops took part in councils – for instance, apparently princes and theologians had a big part to play in the Council of Constance, and in the Second Vatican Council we have all sorts of guest participants and advisors, including non-catholic ecumenical guests who even, on occasion, addressed the council. So that might provide a model, but the question of voting rights remains central.

  3. David,
    I wonder if the ‘holy father’ might not surprise you by who he calls to such a council. Joshua is quite correct to point out that others than those consecrated to the episcopacy have been invited to such councils in the past, while the Orthodox were actually ahead of the Roman Catholics in recognising the role of laity in such deliberative matters (cf. Khomiakov).
    As for us Lutherans and the Anglicans, I think Benedict XVI is bright enough to decide who is orthodox, and if necessary we could find several African or Asian bishops in the Swedish succession to attend.
    Why, my dear fellow, such a momentous occasion would be no time to be parochial, it would befit the significance of the event to be magnanimous, catholic even (!) as regards who attends.

    Are you afraid that we, in league with the Orthodox et aliter, would vote down your distinctive doctrines? If your case is so strong at the bar of scripture and tradition, what fear ye?

  4. BTW, the Swedish Succession is no more valid than the Anglican Succession. Sorry to burst that bubble.

    And, BTW, I fear nothing at all from a truly ecumenical council, because the promises of Christ apply to all those who rightly exercise his authority.

    I fear plenty from those who do not properly exercise this authority, and yet presume to do so. No such promise extends to them. See my recent post on Pastor Nestingen’s paper.

  5. David,

    If I might, I would add one (or one and one-half) other significant items to what constitutes an ecumenical council:

    1. A council is not ecumenical a priori based on who is in attendance, but posteriori based on its reception by the church. (Admittedly, this is an Orthodox distinction, but one I believe the Roman bishops would not necessarily pre-emptively dismiss.)

    1.5 From a Roman Catholic perspective, the Roman pontiff has historically reserved (or received or been granted) the right or privilege to ratify the decisions of any council.

    Fr Fenton

    • Thanks, Father – I knew that, but it is good that you have spelled it out. I think both Orthodox and Catholics are agreed on (1), except that from our point of view, the process by which (1) happens is (2). If the Roman Pontiff ratifies he decisions of a council, then we regard it as “received by the Church”. He doesn’t have to be in attendance, of course. He wasn’t for any of the first seven ecumenical councils.

  6. Tongue firmly in cheek on the Swedish apostolic succession, David. It’s interesting from my perspective but does not have the significance that you would give to it (although I note Rome has necessarily modified the primitive version of it to fit with her dogmas). And in any case it’s a bit like what Newman says on the Vincentian Canon, 1700 years ago it might have been possible, but now?
    Do you remember Sasse’s Letter on the topic?

    • No, I don’t recall the Sasse letter. Do you have a copy? Is it posted on your Sasse blog?

      I am not sure in this comment what “IT’s” refers to, about which “Rom has necessarily modified the primitive version of IT to fit with her dogmas”. Is it the Swedish Succession? Or the definition of an Ecumenical Council? My confusion continues to the point not understanding what you mean by “1700 years ago IT might have been possible, but not now”.

      Please clarify.

    • Oh, and I note from your Lutheran Catholicity page that you have “come out”. So welcome, Mark/Acromaticus, to this discussion.

  7. Thanks David. Good to be here.

    All the “its” refer specifically to apostolic succession – sorry for any confusion, everything I do on a Friday is done in haste.

    Newman said that the Vincentian Canon might have been possible when Vincent formulated it, it was no longer so because during the time since there have been too many complex historical developments; mutatis mutandis, I suggest the same refers to apostolic succession, is it really possible to trace the succession mechanically? Not to mention the doctrinal difficulties, which is where Sasse comes in. He calls it “a soap bubble on which no church can be built”. It is Letters to Lutheran Pastors No. 41, April 1956, “Apostolic Succession”, and was translated by Norman Nagel (Australian, of course) and found in We Confess the Church (CPH, 1986). I’m not aware of any electronic version but a Google search might turn one up. I have extracts from it on my Sasse site. If you really would like a copy I’d be happy to photocopy it and send it to you, David.