Project Canterbury

The Assyrian Church.

By Mr. Athelstan Riley.

A Paper read at the Wolverhampton Church Congress, October, 1887.

In the mountains of Kurdistan, on the frontiers of Turkey and Persia, dwell the Assyrian or Chaldean Christians, forming, as is the case with all the Christians of the East, at once a nation and a Church. They are divided politically into subjects of Turkey and of Persia, actually into two sharp divisions, the inhabitants of the plains and the inhabitants of the mountains. Crushed under the iron rule of the Mahommedan powers, and exposed to the pitiless hostility of their traditional enemies, the fierce and cruel chiefs of the Kurdish tribes, the Assyrians of the plains exist rather than live under the most miserable conditions imaginable, whilst their brethren, the tribal Assyrians of the mountains, secure from molestation in the deep and narrow valleys that separate the lofty mountain ranges of Kurdistan, maintain a kind of semi-independence under the rule of their hereditary maleks, or chiefs, though at the cost of an absolute isolation from the rest of the world, a removal from all civilising influences, which has produced the curious anomaly of a race of wild and savage mountaineers, wilder and more savage than their Mahommedan rulers, and yet clinging tenaciously, in spite of their barbarism and their crass ignorance, to their ancient Church, their ancient liturgies, their ecclesiastical rites and customs, and the faith of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The supreme ruler, temporal as well as spiritual, of the Assyrian people is the hereditary Patriarch Mar Shimoon, Catholicos of the East, who lives with his family and his immediate followers in the small village of Kochanes, in the mountains of Assyria, close to the tributary of the Tigris, the river Zab, or, as the Patriarch prefers to say, "On the banks of Pison, the river of Eden."

The Patriarch, Mar Shimoon, Catholicos of the East. Whence this proud title? The answer brings us at once to the history of the Assyrian Church.

As Christianity gradually spread eastwards from Antioch, the Christians on the borders of Persia began to be known as the "Church of the East," and their chief bishop, or primate, as the "Catholicos of the East," who took rank as sixth in the Catholic Church, immediately after the five great Patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. This primate was immediately dependent on the Patriarch of Antioch, by whom he was invested with the dignity of the Catholicate, and this continued until the rise of the Nestorian heresy in the fifth century. In 431, Nestorius and his teaching having been condemned by the third Oecumenical Council (of Ephesus), the Church of the East threw in her lot with the arch-heretic, and was formally cut off from communion with the Catholic Church; shortly afterwards the Catholicos of the East assumed the further title of Patriarch.

Separated from the mother See of Antioch, the Church of the East [1/2] continued to flourish and increase; for a time, indeed, it seemed as if Nestorianism would vanquish the truth. Nestorian missionaries, zealous, active, self-sacrificing, spread over the whole of Asia, preaching Christ to the fire-worshippers of Persia, the barbarians of Tartary, the Buddhists of China, everywhere founding Churches and planting bishoprics, until, in the sixth century, the Catholicos of the East, resident in Bagdad, ruled over twenty-five metropolitical provinces, which stretched from Jerusalem to China. Millions of Christians rendered obedience to his sway, and, incredible though it be, and little known even amongst students of ecclesiastical history, this vast Nestorian communion at the time of its greatest prosperity, towards the beginning of the fourteenth century, was not only the largest Communion in Christendom, but outnumbered the whole of the rest of Christendom, East and West, Roman, Greek, and schismatical Churches all put together. It was not only a missionary Church, it was a learned Church; the Nestorian schools of Edessa, Bagdad, and Nisibis were noted for their professors of divinity and of philosophy. Khiva, Bokhara, Samarcand, and other remote barbarian cities had each their colleges, their seminaries, their schools of theology. The ecclesiastical discipline--so indispensable to every Church--was perfect. Once a year, or in the case of remote provinces once in five, each Metropolitan was bound to visit the Catholicos at Bagdad, to personally give an account of his stewardship, and to receive the counsels of his Patriarch.

And yet this great Communion fell--a terrible warning to unfaithful Churches, a fearful example of the punishment of heresy. It fell, as Dr. Neale says, because, with all its beauty and majesty, with all its venerable antiquity, it was not founded upon the Rock. It was built, not on Christ, but on Nestorius; and therefore, though for a season heresy outnumbered the Catholic Faith, yet the time came when it fell, and great was the fall of it. In the fourteenth century a bitter persecution arose; its details are known to God alone, the names of the countless martyrs who laid down their lives cheerfully for the Christian Faith as they had learnt it are noted only in His Book. But we know that the whole of that complicated and wonderful organisation was dissolved, and that the vast Nestorian Church melted away like snow before the sun. One by one the branches of the great Community were exterminated, and, finally, the conquering Tamerlane pursued the unfortunate Christians with such fury that the Catholicos of the East himself was forced to fly into the mountains, where his successor still lives with the feeble remnant of his flock. This is the prelate and this is the people who have applied for help to the Primate of All England.

Into the history of this appeal I have no time to go. In my last report on the foundation of the Mission last year, to be had, with other papers, at the office of the Mission, all is fully traced out, and the correspondence between the Archbishops of Canterbury and the Oriental bishops is given at length. [2, Dean's Yard, Westminster, London, S.W.] Suffice it to say, that after over forty years of unsuccessful attempts to send the promised aid, and of repeated and bitter disappointment to the Chaldeans, a permanent mission was founded last year by the efforts of our present Primate, and I had the honour of conducting to Kurdistan the Rev. Canon Maclean and the [2/3] Rev. W. H. Browne, and of presenting them to the Patriarch, Metropolitan, bishops, and people of Assyria. In the spring of this year an urgent request for reinforcements prompted two clergymen, the Rev H C. Ogle, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and the Rev. A. H. Lang, to volunteer for the work. Within a fortnight of their intended departure a sad misfortune befel the mission--a sudden illness called Mr. Ogle to his rest, and Mr. Lang left England last July alone. It will indeed be hard to fill our dear friend's place. A brilliant scholar, a devoted and zealous priest, energetic, unselfish, he seemed the very man for the post; in truth, God's ways are not man's ways: His will be done.

The work of the infant mission has been principally that of education, but partly also that of supervision and protection. And I would remind you that that work has been carried on with the greatest difficulty, owing to the very slender support the mission has up to now received. If people in England could only realise what temporal risks the Assyrian Patriarch is running for the sake of the Anglican alliance, and of what paramount importance it is that he should not be discouraged and disappointed at the outset, they would be more careful that the Archbishop's Mission was not starved in the way it is.

A college for priests and deacons and a high-school for boys, especially for those designated for the ministry, were opened last winter in Persia under circumstances of great promise. The Persian bishops each chose certain priests and deacons from their dioceses and sent them for instruction. A few ecclesiastics also came from Turkey, from the dioceses of the Patriarch and the Metropolitan, and the Patriarch-designate himself would have come but for difficulties on the frontier. In the boy's school were no less than four nata kursii, or bishops-designate, little boys who, being cousins or nephews of bishops, are brought up to succeed their relatives, the Chaldean bishoprics having been hereditary for the last 400 years. In this way, it will be readily understood, the future rulers of the Assyrian Church are being grounded in the Catholic faith, and instructed in the duties and responsibilities of their high calling. To give an idea of the kind of education given to these present and future ecclesiastics, last winter Canon Maclean gave a course of lectures on the Nicene Creed, Mr. Browne took certain books of the Bible as the subject of study, Archdeacon Oshanna, perhaps the most learned of the native clergy, a trusted servant of the Patriarch, and secretary to our mission, lectured on the Chaldean liturgies, and gave instruction in the ancient and literary Syriac as well as in the vernacular. Finally, a young Assyrian deacon gave lessons in Persian, Turkish, and, with the assistance of the English clergy, in other branches of secular knowledge.

Besides the purely educational work, our mission clergy exercise the functions of ecclesiastical and temporal judges. Disputes between the native Christians are referred to them; they sit as the bishop's assessors, and decide divorce and other spiritual cases according to the ancient Canon Law of the Chaldean Church. They have lately accompanied the Bishop of Urmi on a visitation of his diocese as councillors and advisers. Being on excellent terms with the Persian Governor, they are able to protect the Christians from the cruelties and oppressions of the Mahommedans, and on the Turkish side of the frontier the Patriarch, when in difficulties [3/4] sends for their advice, and, as the English Consul who visited Mar Shimoon last autumn said, "One thing is certain, the Assyrians are immensely proud of what they call 'our English priests.'"

Suffer me to state as briefly as I can the objects of the Archbishop's mission and its ecclesiastical position.

1. Three priests of the Anglican Church have been sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to assist and instruct an ancient separated Oriental Church, at the request of the Patriarch and bishops of that Church.

2. They have been sent with the knowledge and with the licence and blessing of the Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Gerasimos, one of the four Patriarchs of the Holy Orthodox Eastern Church, and the occupant of the Apostolic See from which the Church of the East revolted at the time of Nestorius.

3. The mission has no intention of making Anglicans of the Assyrians, of forcing upon them our Prayer-book, or of teaching purely Anglican theology. It takes its stand upon the teaching of the universal and undivided Church of Christ, and with this limitation desires to interfere with nothing in this ancient national Church. This will be the plainer if I quote from the letter written by our Primate to the Patriarch of Antioch:--

"Our object in sending out these two priests is not to bring over these Christians to the communion of the Church of England, nor to alter their ecclesiastical customs and traditions, nor to change any doctrines held by them which are not contrary to that faith which the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Oecumenical Councils of the undivided Church of Christ, has taught as necessary to be believed by all Christians; but to encourage them in bettering their religious condition, and to strengthen an ancient Church, which, through ignorance from within, and persecution from without, cannot any longer stand alone, but without some assistance must eventually succumb, though unwillingly, to the external organisations at work in its midst."

4. There is at present no intercommunion between our clergy and the Assyrians. Short of this we are on terms of the closest union. Our priests preach in their churches, celebrate the Holy Mysteries according to the Anglican rite at the Assyrian altars when away from their private chapel in the Mission-house, and allow the native priests, deacons, and boys to sing their daily services in the English chapel. But nothing is done to compromise the position of the Anglican communion as a true branch of the Holy Catholic Church. If not in actual, the Chaldeans are at least in formal, heresy, cut off from the body of Christ. There can be no compromise in matters concerning the truth of our blessed Lord's Incarnation, that truth which the Catholic Church has fenced and guarded by unalterable formulas. In a word, there can be no communion with the Chaldeans until they accept the Council of Ephesus.

And here may I be permitted to speak one word of warning? At the present time, when we have suddenly developed an unusual interest in the separated national Churches of the East, we are in danger of forgetting that they were so separated from the Catholic Church for terrible and soul-destroying heresies which cut at the very root of the Christian faith. We are liable to be carried away by mere sentiment, by the interest we feel in our protégés, to minimise the importance of their errors, [4/5] or even to attempt to reverse the combination of the Universal Church. There is a tendency to go behind Oeeumenical Councils and to re-open questions which have been closed for ever. This is a tendency which is perilous in the highest degree.

Time forbids me to discuss the doctrines and discipline of the Assyrian or Chaldean Church; they are such as we should expect to find in a fourth-century Church, uninfluenced by any of the developments of the Catholic Church since the beginning of the fifth century. An unusual, or rather an ambiguous, canon of Holy Scripture, certain of the Epistles and the Apocalypse being considered of doubtful authority, an enumeration of the Sacraments, which, whilst including Baptism and the Eucharist, and reckoning seven in all, differs from any other Church in Christendom, point to those early times when the Church of Christ had neither definitely settled what were to be called sacraments, nor finally decided upon the authority of her Sacred Writings. The Assyrians maintain the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons; the bishops according to the ancient Christian custom, must be celibates. They observe the Christian fasts with great rigour, and will neither work nor travel on the Lord's Day, except under the pressure of necessity. Their liturgies, or, to speak more correctly, their liturgy, with its three variable portions, is one of the earliest liturgies in existence; it has never been printed. All the Chaldean service books are in MS., but as there are now not enough copies to supply the churches, it has been decided by the mission to begin the liturgical printing at once, and "the Liturgy of the Apostles" has been edited by Canon Maclean, and a copy already sent to England for printing so soon as funds will warrant the purchase of type. Lastly, as to the heresy which separated this Church from Christendom. After what I have said, I do not think you will accuse me of any desire to whitewash the Chaldeans, or to question the finality of the decisions of Ephesus, so I am not afraid of saying that we have hopes of being able to assert that the Assyrian Church is not now in actual heresy. Our clergy are satisfied that Archdeacon Oshanna, their secretary, holds the true faith of the Incarnation--indeed, he is not even prejudiced against the term Theotocos, or Mother of God, that phrase which is the only certain test of an orthodox belief in that transcendent mystery. They have lately had some discussion with the Metropolitan--the second ruler in the Chaldean Church, and first perhaps in spiritual authority (the Patriarch being occupied chiefly with his heavy temporal responsibilities), and of all the Chaldean prelates the most single-minded, earnest, and zealous for the faith--and the result of the conference led our clergy to the belief that he, too, holds the truth. If this be satisfactorily proved, it will be a great step towards future reunion.

Reunion! Does not that word bid us remember the life-dream of many and many an earnest soul? A dream it may be, or the foreshadowing of a great reality--God knoweth. And by that one word I have shown you what it is that makes us enthusiastic about the Assyrian Mission. For over half a century the name of England and of England's Church has been connected with those Western sectarians who strive by every means in their power to tear down and destroy the walls of those little Oriental Zions, which have kept securely the faith of Christ amidst infidel invasions and awful persecutions, which would have swept most [5/6] Western communities from off the face of the earth, connected with those sectarians who strive beyond all to harass and weaken the great Catholic Church of the East, or Orthodox Eastern communion, which some who judge only by hearsay, or by an external and prejudiced survey, call a "dead Church." In truth, it is vast dead weight of faith and religion which neither Turks nor Persians, Asiatic barbarians, civilised conquerors from Arabia--no, nor yet Satan and all his angels, have been able to overturn. When, travelling through Mohammedan countries one reaches at nightfall a Christian village, it is not pleasant to be refused admission, as I have been, "Because you are an Englishman, and Englishmen only come to proselytise." Rome is a word hated and feared throughout the Christian East; let us take care that England is not held in equal abhorrence. The worst, I hope, is over. English churchmen are beginning to take a more intelligent interest in Oriental Christianity, and not only Anglican proselytism, but, what is as bad, Anglican sympathy with proselytism in the East, are things of the past. If there are any here to-day who do not follow me in my condemnation of proselytism, to them I would commend the following considerations. There are in every part of the East Roman missionaries, clever, self-sacrificing, zealous, devoted. By weakening the Oriental Churches you are doing their work. Secondly, an Oriental is unlike a Western in this marked peculiarity, that his moral character depends wholly upon his religion. Destroy his respect for the customs of his fathers, his respect for his clergy, his reverence for his Church and her teachings, and you take away the support of his morals. His moral character cannot stand alone. He may have the outward appearance of a good Christian--an Oriental picks up with lightning rapidity the shibboleths of a new creed. But the chances are that, although he may impose upon you for years, he is in truth nothing better than a consummate hypocrite.

As I have said, we may hope that Anglican proselytism and Anglican sympathy with proselytism are things of the past. And the Assyrian mission is not merely a sign of this new departure, but a definite step in the direction of Christian unity. There are some of us who dare to hope that, in God's mercy, it may be the first bridge thrown over the gulf which for centuries has separated Eastern from Western Christendom. It is in the fullest sense a mission, not of destruction, but of edification, not of disruption, but of peace and good-will. For, consider for a moment what it is we are doing. We are bringing back an ancient Church into the way of truth, and so preparing for its union with its mother Church, the Orthodox Church of the East. Should our mission be successful, is it too much to hope that we may one day, and perhaps, at no distant day, have a Church, not only in visible communion with the See of Canterbury, but also bound to it by the deepest ties of gratitude, a Church which, at the same time, shall be united with the Holy Orthodox Eastern Patriarchates? In Lambeth chapel on the morning of the departure of our mission priests for Assyria, our Primate used these memorable and solemn words, and with these words it is fitting that I close this paper:--"Who shall tell what may come of it? He would be a bold man who should say that nothing great is near, that no morning is at hand."

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