Basilean Exhortations to Unity
The fourth Century Church
Of the church of his fourth-century day, St Basil says:
Nowadays it is hard to find, and extraordinary to see, a Church pure, unharmed by the troubles of the times, and preserving the apostolic doctrine in all its integrity and completeness (Letter CCLI).
How ringingly relevant it all sounds. Writing to Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, he says:
Men who are in agreement on the most important matters are wholly severed from one another on some one single point.
And in speaking of the church of Antioch in the same letter, Basil says with sadness:
There heresy is divided against orthodoxy, and orthodoxy is divided against herself.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, isn’t this exactly where we are in Anglicanism right now? Let us strive to be sure that in our own ‘integrity’ (for want of an adequate term) we are not so sure of our rightness that we dismiss every other viewpoint, honestly and charitably held, as spurious, in what is meant to be a period of ongoing discernment. Love must be paramount. Still in the letter to Epiphanius, Basil speaks with distress concerning the unbelievable internecine warfare taking place between so-called Christians:
Nowhere is pity to be seen; nowhere sympathy; nowhere a brotherly tear for a brother in distress … We jump on them that are fallen; we scratch and tear at wounded places; we who are supposed to agree with one another launch the curses that are uttered by the heretics.
It would be consoling to think that we have not come to such a pass, but are not our bitter words and harsh judgements, often enough publicly proclaimed, the unkindest thrusts of all?
Basil addresses one of his letters to ‘The Monks Harassed by the Arians’ (No CCLVII). Here he remarks about the problems of battling with an enemy, not from foreign parts but from our own locality. Previously, Christians faced open persecution from pagan idolaters but now from those nearby who also term themselves believers. Everything is confused. Even dying for the sake of truth is not universally recognized as martyrdom. Sadly enough, both sides in our present day skirmishes deem themselves unjustly done by, martyrs for the faith, in contra-distinction to the others.
However, Basil reminds the monks that they have a special function within the church, to remain faithful in love, and to persevere in the truth come what may:
I exhort you, therefore, not to faint in your afflictions, but to be revived by God’s love, and to add daily to your zeal, knowing that in you ought to be preserved that remnant of true religion which the Lord will find when he cometh on the earth.
Present day monastics still have this awesome charge, but it is not theirs only. Our corporate ears must be open to the challenge. Nor must we be fearful if ‘traitors have arisen from among the very clergy themselves’ or if we feel totally outnumbered:
If but one be saved, like Lot at Sodom, he ought to abide in right judgement, keeping his hope in Christ unshaken, for the Lord will not forsake his holy ones.
Basil is able to cite himself as an example (cf Letter CCLI):
I, brethren beloved, small, and insignificant as I am, but remaining ever by God’s grace the same, have never changed with the changes of the world. My Creed has not varied…
As we received from the Lord, so are we baptized … so we make profession of faith … so do we offer our doxology.
Therefore we are exhorted not to lose heart, since we are not actually in a minority, and
this is true for us too in our current situation:
‘Standfast in the faith.’ Look over all the world, and see how small the part is which is unsound. All the rest of the Church which has received the Gospel, from one end of the world to the other, abides in this sound and unperverted doctrine (ibid).
This is grandly affirmative. Meanwhile we struggle on, gropingly but optimistically. Basil gives Bishop Epiphanius three directives which perhaps we should try to make our own:
First, then, pray; next, to the utmost of your ability, exhort … [and seek] not to claim union in one direction and disunion in another but to restore the severed member(s) to the original union (Letter CCLVIII).
Can we then, somehow, under God, be instrumental in restoring our whole Anglican Communion, to that original union? St Basil, intercede for us.
A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone.