SEAD Conference hears Prof. Radner on Conciliarism
Friday October 12th, 2007
Prof. Ephraim Radner
Each year, Wycliffe hosts a conference entitled, Scholarly Engagement with Anglican Doctrine (SEAD), which offers parish leaders, teachers and students an opportunity to participate in a lively and creative interaction between “the faith once delivered to the saints” and the present context in which that faith must be appropriated. The keynote speaker for this year’s conference, “Anglicans in Covenant: On the way to a Catholic and Worldwide Church” was Wycliffe’s own Dr. Ephraim Radner, perhaps the foremost thinker on this subject in contemporary Anglicanism.
In his inaugural address to faculty, staff, students, alumni and visitors, Dr. Radner, presented the idea of conciliarism – the Church as a communion of churches who take counsel together, an idea that has historically informed reflection on the Christian Church. In light of the recent proposals for a worldwide Anglican Covenant that grapples with issues of autonomy and unity within communion, an opportunity learn about what it might mean to be a conciliar Church from such a passionate, gifted pastor and theologian was truly a gift.
In his first of two presentations, Dr. Radner provided a brief overview of the concept of conciliarism, historically and theologically. He began with the conciliarist perspective of the late middle ages, explaining that “conciliarists were those who favoured the superiority of [General] Council over the [primacy] of the pope.” He acknowledged that even up to the present, conciliarist discussion, driven by focus on the jurisdiction and natural rights of a State, has often been more politically than theologically grounded resulting in, “the possible framework for an ordering of common life – “its constitution” becom[ing] the subject of academic and polemical interest rather than the goal of common life itself, which would be more properly construed in terms of the body of Christ and its inner charity.”
Following this introduction to the topic, Dr. Radner elaborated on the second of these two perspectives of “life together” indicating that the idea of ‘counsel,’ versus ‘council’ in fact means to gather the Church in all its diversity into one place, as Christ seeks to gather all through his own life, death and resurrection. He added that if we are, in our temporal existence, to “concretely” live out this gospel call to gather and to act as the body of Christ, than we must engage in concrete political processes by, “finding a bridge between the goal and process” of conciliarism; questions of the political processes in which we engage in the Church are not ancillary, nor are they a distraction from the real business of the Church; rather they are in fact, the very substance of and indicative of our response to God’s call to live and witness together as the one body of Christ.
Dr. Radner then examined the historical landscape in which conciliarism developed and progressed including the “high water-mark of conciliarism,” the Council of Constance (1378-1418), its subsequent decline particularly exhibited at the Council of Basle (1431-49) and ultimately during the reign of Henry the VIII, through Vatican I until a renewed interest at Vatican II spurred on by the brilliant work of Hans Kung.
While insisting that we must necessarily engage in concrete political actions as a conciliar Church, Dr. Radner warned that “[w]hen conciliarism is limited to the analysis and manipulation of power by this or that group … its value in understanding of the vocation of the Church clearly diminishes. Nevertheless he argued that the political framework for conciliarism “derives from a basic moral point … [that] the welfare of the people shall be the governing law.” Thus laws must be applied in such a manner so as to ensure the achievement of a larger goal. In the life of the Church then, we must understand conciliarism in the context of how Christ brings salvation to His people; not through the lens of our political, ecclesial “forms,” but rather “as a way of life.”
Dr. Radner then addressed the philosophical/metaphysical components of conciliar thought, discussing the contributions of Nicholas of Cusa, Richard Hooker, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Joachim of Fiore and Anthony of Padua. He concluded from the works of these writers that “the political dimensions of ‘taking counsel’ … have always been rooted in a larger theological reality: a vision of how God takes particular and discrete realities, determined by separate temporal spaces and forms, and draws them together into the resolution of his one purpose … [i]t is ‘Christ’s mind’ that brings all things together through His mission and ministry as Incarnate in time and this is to be the ‘mind’ of the Church as His body.” Thus conciliarism, at its fundamental level, should be understood as deriving its value for the Church not from a political or metaphysical framework, but rather from a Scriptural, canonical one.
The discussion continued with Dr. Radner’s proposal for a, “description of conciliarism’s intrinsic power within the economy of God.” His first strategy in accomplishing this task was to examine what the Scriptures are and his second was to examine how they order our lives. It is to Gregory the Great that Dr. Radner turned to illustrate his point concluding that “[f]rom Gregory’s standpoint, the concordantia that Nicholas’ [of Cusa] instantiates, has to do quite concretely with the relationship of the Church to the Scriptures as the are articulated, proclaimed, received and understood in time; and, conversely, it is this proclamation and reception that form the Church through the mission of Scriptural impulse and our subjection to it.”
Dr. Radner concluded with an outline for conciliar life in the Church. He stated that, “ … the concord of council is an outworking or embodiment, of the work of the Word of God, given in the two Testaments, as it extends itself into the world.” Thus it is in counsel, in life together, in canonical discernment across time [time that may not necessarily suit our given ideological agendas], that we can seek to answer questions pertaining to our common and our individual concerns. Further, given the nature of conciliar counsel described in his presentation, Dr. Radner asserted that councils should meet regularly, “[t]o let council drop or to refuse attendance is to consign the Scriptures to a purely functional instrumentality based upon autonomously described demands, when they are in fact the inventors of our needs.”
The counsel of reading the Scriptures together in fact enables us to come together in worship: submitting to God, confessing our sins, repenting of them, forgiving and reconciling and in so doing, acknowledging with thanks and praise, our creator and redeemer. Finally it is this action, in counsel, that both points to God and engages in mission, thus serving the Church’s vocational calling.
-Synopsis by Katie Silcox, M.Div. student, Wycliffe College. The full text of Prof. Radner's lectures is available below.