John Hunwicke on the second Council of Constantinople
‘Cherchez la femme’ might be one way to understand the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The ‘femme’ – the Actress – was a remarkable lady – daughter, they said, of a bear-keeper, she was a prostitute; disgusted people avoided her in the street. But she was no mere poule de luxe; while the rioting was destroying the centre of the city and her husband was packing his bags, she put backbone into him and made him stay. And, in some five years, he had rebuilt, from the ashes left by the rioters, the great Church of Sancta Sophia with its green and porphyry pillars; the marble slabs on floors and walls in green and blue and red; the mosaics; the illumination that, by night, so shone from its windows that people said the sailors on the Bosphoros navigated by it. Her name was Theodora; and the man who made an honest woman of her (he had to change the law to do so) was Justinian: the last real Roman Emperor; the last man to rule, in the name of Rome but from Constantinople, over a Mediterranean which was essentially a Roman lake.
Like all ambitious Christian monarchs, Justinian longed to see his empire buttressed by a church; and a Church is not much of buttress if it is disunited. And here – despite the Council of Chalcedon, despite the lapidary elegance of the Tome of Leo – (he was a finer Latin stylist than Cicero and his theology was nearly as fine as his prose) the Monophysite schism was still rumbling on. Justinian was orthodox – that is to say, Chalcedonian. But Theodora sympathized with the Monophysites. And so Christian unity just had to be on the agenda.
Ecumenism in practice
Much of the East disliked Chalcedon (Christ has One Person and Two Natures) and insisted on continuing to say that Christ has only one Nature; they are what history calls Monophysites (mono = only one; phys = nature). In 482 the Emperor Zeno had, under Monophysite influence, put out a ‘Unity Document’ (henotikon) which endeavoured to fudge the issues by imprecision: in particular, by just not mentioning Chalcedon. (Unity by imprecision? Fudging issues? Good heavens! Zeno should have been ‘Chair’ of the Anglican-Methodist conversations!) Pope S Felix Ill reaffirmed the orthodox faith of Chalcedon and excommunicated the Emperor’s Monophysite adviser, the Patriarch of Alexandria; the first great schism between East and West resulted, the Papal West being Chalcedonian orthodox, the Imperial East being heretical Monophysite. Justinian’s first great success was to make most of the East orthodox, and thereby to restore unity with the Holy Father. But the division revived – especially in Constantinople and with Theodora’s encouragement. Justinian’s orthodoxy began to flag a little, and in 533 he backed the formula ‘God was crucified’ — dear to Monophysites because it emphasizes the Divine Unity of the One who died on the Cross and thus puts paid to any Nestorian idea that the Lord’s humanity was dying on the Cross while his divinity was having a quick gin in the Bull. A couple of years later Theodora, a crafty lady, got to work on the Papal Legate in Constantinople, Vigilius, from whom she thought she secured an undertaking that, If He Were Ever In A Position Of Authority, he might very well take the Monophysite side. Within months, Byzantine military heavies in Italy had disposed of Pope Silverius, and Vigilius, in the elegant Porvoo concept, had his bum on the Roman seat. But, as Pope, Vigilius failed to deliver. History, sadly, does not record the unladylike abuse in the emails which doubtless winged their way from the ex-prostitute to the Vicar of Christ. Things came to a head in 543/4, when Justinian condemned the Three Chapters, texts authorized by Theodoret, Ibas and Theodore and much hated by the Monophysites. Pope Vigilius refused to approve the edict – on the ground that actually to condemn the gentlemen concerned went unacceptably further than Chalcedon. This created a problem. In Justinian’s legal system, the Pope is ‘chief of all the holy priests of God’, and the Holy See is ‘the source of all priesthood’. So Emperor invited Pope to a friendly chat in Constantinople, where he was induced to condemn the Three Chapters (548), although he upheld the decrees of Chalcedon. The orthodox West, suspicious of apparent concessions to Monophysitism, turned so nasty (parts of Africa excommunicated him) that Vigilius retracted his condemnation, excommunicated some of the Emperor’s favourite bishops, and then very wisely fled from Constantinople before he could be invited to another Imperial Chat.
Knock a Pope about a bit
So, in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople was convened on a springtide of Byzantine, Caesaro-papist enthusiasm for reconciling the Monophysites by condemning not only Nestorius, Theodoret, and Ibas, but their master Theodore … whether the West liked it or not. Vigilius was anxious to avoid yet more physical softening-up; he had already once been arrested in Rome before the blessing at the end of Mass and once dragged, struggling violently, from the Nunciature chapel in Constantinople; a century earlier a Patriarch of Constantinople had died as the result of imperial-inspired violence at a ‘General Council’; Vigilius stayed away. 165 bishops, all eastern, were to sign this Council’s decrees; it was not a terribly representative or ‘ecumenical’ gathering. The Three Chapters were condemned; Vigilius responded by condemning 60 propositions of Theodore but refusing to condemn theologians who had not been condemned at Ephesus or Chalcedon and who were dead. The nadir was reached when the Council scraped the Pope’s name off the list of Patriarchs with whom it was in communion; but eventually the mess was composed and Vigilius subscribed the Anathemas of the Council. Fortunately, he died before he could get back to the rage awaiting him in Italy, where the important primatial sees of Milan and Aquileia (its bishop styled himself Patriarch) remained out of communion with Rome, because of what they saw as a Monophysite wobble, until the end of the seventh century.
The anathemas of Constantinople II send out contradictory messages. The Council anathematizes those who deny Chalcedon and itself uses Chalcedonian formulae. But its body-language can be read as Monophysite; in a piece of ecumenical legerdemain it gives Monophysites a lifeline: they can avoid anathema if, while continuing to ‘say’ One Nature, they ‘take’ the words in a Chalcedonian sense. ‘God Crucified’ was expressed a little more carefully – and approved. (It found a permanent place in the Byzantine Rite in a hymn, Monogenes, of Monophysite origin.) And the Council’s anathemas, like many of Justinian’s documents, make much of our Lady’s divine maternity, using the formula ‘the holy and glorious Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary’ and anathematizing those who did not take the
words seriously. But, although Constantinople II was the high watermark of the Monophysite tendency in the Catholic Church, it failed to achieve its aim of reconciling the Monophysites … has doctrinal fudging ever delivered a stable unity?
Justinian – and Theodora’s – sparkling Mediterranean-wide empire did not long survive them. Fragments of it were washed up on distant, barbaric shores: elegant silver plates among the pagan splendours at Sutton Hoo,, a rather more functional thurible (the earliest surviving piece of Saxon Church Plate?) at Glastonbury. Perhaps the firmest mark left on the life of the Church by the events we have followed is the description of our Lady which has just been quoted. The distinguished Anglican liturgist E Ratcliff saw it as ‘[Justinian’s] chosen formula for expressing the unique position of our Lady’, and wondered if it was Vigilius’ deacon and successor, Pelagius (no, a different Pelagius) who inserted it into the Canon of the Mass – the venerable ancient Western Eucharistic Prayer probably knocked into more-or-less its present Shape by Pope St Leo the Great in the mid-fifth century. A more flowery version of it keeps cropping up in the Byzantine Rite of St John Chrysostom; and so it can justly be deemed ‘ecumenical’. It is a shame that the formula is not more often heard today in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Official Roman rubrics expect the Roman Canon which contains it to be the normal Eucharistic prayer on Sundays and Festivals; and from the Catholic Revival onwards until the 1960s Catholic Anglicans commonly fitted it into their Mass. Fathers! Back to basics!
There are other messages for us in Constantinople II. The Church’s infallibility does not mean that every Council or Pope is guided into doing the best thing in the best words for the best of motives. Theodora, Justinian, and Vigilius were, none of them, very admirable people. The Holy Spirit, amid all the vicissitudes and messes of the historical process (as Newman was to comment of the events of 1870) performed the negative function of preserving the Church from error. That is how a small and unrepresentative gathering of episcopal Court toadies, an unpleasantly ambitious and vacillating Pope, an imperial bully-boy, and his conjugal ex-whore could be, in God’s Providence, the occasion of the Second Holy Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. Since Vatican II many in the West have sentimentalized its elusive and intangible ‘spirit’ (not its actual words, which they ignore) and the eventual completion of its work in that wondercouncil of all time, Vatican III. Orthodox, for whom Councils are sacred events that happened a long time ago, sometimes seem unaware that most Councils were, in Newman’s words, ‘a dreary, unlovely phenomenon’. Constantinople II gives the lie to any idea that a Council must have been neatly convened and controlled by the Pope – and to the notion that it must be tidily universal, representative, open, democratic, and free. Since large parts of the East, having denied Chalcedon, remain to this day Monophysite by denying Constantinople II, it puts paid to the notion that a Council is ‘Ecumenical’ when ‘everybody’ has ‘received’ it. Of course, one can always say that a Council is ‘Ecumenical’ if it is accepted by everybody except heretics and schismatics … but the criterion then becomes, in the perfection of its circularity, useless. Except for Caesaro-papists, perhaps the only definition of ‘Ecumenical Council’ which could survive a reading of Constantinople II would be something like ‘papally sanctioned decrees emerging from some sort of conciliar consultative process’.
A peculiarly Anglican footnote. In 1996 one of the Pope’s regular Wednesday catechetical sessions reaffirmed the phrase ‘Mary ever-virgin’ (aeiparthenos), which in fact goes back beyond Constantinople II to the conciliar documents of Chalcedon. Within 24 hours ‘a Church of England spokesman’ (anonymous) had assured The Times that ‘the majority of New Testament scholars’ believed Jesus to have had uterine brothers (despite clear indications in Mark 15.47 and Matthew 27.56 that his ‘brethren’ had a different Mary for their mother). This is what happened. Journalists contacted the General Synod’s chief spindoctor, Eric Shegog, for comment, making it clear that he would have to meet a Press deadline. He phoned Canon NT Wright, secured the comment, and supplied it to Fleet Street. Thus a phrase sanctioned by Chalcedon and Constantinople II (Councils accepted by the Anglican/Orthodox dialogue, not to mention the Second Book of Homilies), embedded in the ancient rites of East and West and used daily in countless churches throughout the world, reaffirmed by the Successor of Peter, can, without any reference to any of the ecumenical processes we are supposed to be engaged in, be instantly rubbished. And it is the Vatican that gets criticized for being unfriendly! Would Current Management, or the General Synod’s anonymous minions, treat the Methodists … or Islam … with such contempt?
John Hunwicke was until recently head of Theology at Lancing College.