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Intercommunion with the Assyrian Church
by William Ainger Wigram, D.D.

London: Faith Press, 1920.

In these days, questions of intercommunion are in the air, and an understanding seems to be possible with various members of that federation, of self-governing Churches which we call "the Orthodox Church," with the separated national churches of the East, and with some, at least, of the "Dissenting Churches" at home.

The problem of re-union is one throughout the world, but it has many aspects, each one of which presents its own peculiar difficulties, and calls for peculiar knowledge, if it is to be approached with profit. We propose then in this booklet to discuss the question of intercommunion with one only, and perhaps the smallest, of the separated national churches of the East, viz., the Assyrian or Chaldean body of Mesopotamia and Kurdistan.

The sole difficulty in the way of relations between the Church of England and this church, concerns the Christological doctrine of the body. There is no question of jurisdiction, for neither church would dream of challenging the independence of the other: the Nicene Creed, as used by Assyrians, is doctrinally though not verbally identical with that used in the west, excepting of course the "Filioque clause." This is a point which no western would wish to force on an eastern, and which these easterns at any rate do not challenge in us. On the Sacraments and ordination there is no difference of importance between the two churches--perhaps because circumstances did both of them a good turn, in preventing them from defining their own doctrines too pedantically. On the Christological point, it is well to be clear. The popular idea about this church's teaching, and position, now current, is one thing. The actual position and teaching is quite another.

The popular idea has been well stated lately, by no less a person than his Beatitude Mar Emmanuel, patriarch of that "Chaldean" portion of this church that has submitted to the jurisdiction of the Pope. He says that everybody knows that thus church embraced Nestorianism early in the fifth century, and broke off relations with the Holy See and Christianity at large, thus falling into open and avowed heresy. The Patriarch does not define the heresy further, but he would probably not quarrel with the statement that it consisted (i) in the declaration that there are in Christ "Two natures, two 'Qnumi,' and one Person." (2) In the use of the term "Mother of Christ" for the Blessed Virgin. (3) In the respect shown for certain so-called "Greek Fathers," and in the repudiation of the name of Cyril.

Now clear-cut theological statements like the above are very nice indeed for elementary, students, but unluckily the facts of history do not square with them, and indeed we must be allowed to express a feeling of surprise that a man holding his Beatitude's high position should not (seemingly) be aware of the results of the research of such Roman Catholic scholars as Chabot and Labourt. Putting aside the question of the Holy See (though we must be allowed to point out that these historians never refer to the existence of any relations to break), the statement is far too drastic. As a matter of fact, the question whether the "Church of the East" was in or out of Communion with Constantinople and the Greeks at large, was indeterminate till a much later date than "the early part of the fifth century," and Rome had never risen above their horizon till mediaeval times.

It is true that they did not accept Ephesus, but there is no evidence that they were ever asked to do so, and it is not impossible that a church that was forgotten at Nicaea, and had no official knowledge of that council till "the early part of the fifth century," i.e., until the year 411 A.D., might get forgotten again at a less elaborately organised council.

We must admit, too, that however full our acceptance of the doctrinal pronouncement of Ephesus, yet things were done at that council which it is hard to defend. Nestorius was summoned to take his trial before it for heresy, at the accusation of Cyril. He may or may not have been guilty--we touch on that point below--but ought Cyril the accuser to have been also president of the court? And if it was really necessary to unite the offices of judge and accuser, surely it was improper under those circumstances to dispense with the presence of half the jury, and of the only members of it whom the accused was not disposed to challenge. Is it surprising that people who have a prejudice against 'the decision, should ask whether a council that acted so, has any real claim on their reverence? Naturally, the reply is, that what orthodox folk stand for is, not the manoeuvres of Ephesus, but its doctrine, and that it is that alone which gives the council value. Accepting that position, the advocate for this Eastern Church points out that if the body did not accept Ephesus as a separate council, it accepted Chalcedon, and that the later council formally and carefully accepted Ephesus and the letters of Cyril, endorsing all that was laid down doctrinally at the earlier gathering, and leaving the methods discreetly alone.

This statement sounds remarkable, for the thought of an autocephalous church being left out at one council and yet accepting the next, is contrary to our cut-and-dried, but quite unhistorical, notions of Church history. Be it therefore understood that there is no question as to the fact, though it was not realized till a few years ago. Chalcedon most certainly stands among the western councils accepted by this church and is referred to, as of authority among them, in at least one local council of later date, that of Mar Aba, in 540 A.D, The date of its acceptance is uncertain, but it must have been later than 480 A.D. when the Christological controversy first began to trouble them, and earlier than 540, when it is referred to as stated.

In fact, it is very hard to say whether this church was or was not in communion with the Greeks at Constantinople, at least until the year 612, or indeed at the period a little later, when the Mussulman conquest swept the Christians of the East out of Western ken. It was in 612 that they first accepted the doubtful technical term, "two Qnumi in Christ" referred to above. At that period, the only western form of Christianity known to them was Monophysitism, and Constantinople was much more concerned to conciliate those separatists than to deal with Assyrians who were hidden from her by the interposition of that schism.

How indefinite their status was, appears in a strangely picturesque episode of mediaeval times. It was in the days when the Khans of the Mongols were ruling in Mesopotamia and abolishing the faineant Abbasid Khalifs. In other words, at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Argun, then Khan of the Mongols, had a war of his own with the Fatimid Khalifs of Egypt, and had enough knowledge of the crusades to be aware that there were Christian rulers somewhere in the west, who had given quite a lot of trouble to this enemy of his in their time. An alliance seemed indicated by all laws of policy, and seeing that Argun had plenty of Christian subjects himself, their headman was the obvious person to send. As a result, the then Patriarch of the "Easterns" found himself summoned to "the great camp" of his nomad ruler and given instructions to go generally to the setting sun, to find these Christian rulers, and make alliance with them in the name of his master! Strange mission, and stranger missionary, for the patriarch thus sent was--of all incredible things--a Chinaman, born in Pekin, a fruit of the ancient "Nestorian" missions in that land.

It is true that he was too infirm to go himself, but he sent as substitute his "syncellus" and archdeacon, a certain Rabban Soma who was a Chinaman too. The man accomplished his journey, and arrived at Rome where he presented himself to the Cardinals, the Papacy being vacant just then; seldom surely can a body of respectable ecclesiastics have been more amazed than were their eminences, when this Chinaman turned up from well beyond the limits of the known world, and proclaimed himself ambassador of a potentate of whom they had scarce heard, and a high dignitary of a church of which they had never heard at all!

"What is this church of yours," they demanded, "and how do you hold the faith? As our Lord the Pope holds it, or otherwise"? And they got the answer, thus--"Never came there a man from the Pope to us Easterns. The holy apostles taught our fathers and as they gave us the faith, so we hold it to this day." A prelate from Mars would have been a less astounding phenomenon, but the cardinals rose to the new fact nobly: they accepted the confession of faith which was given them--which by the way is voted heretical to-day--as perfectly orthodox, they allowed their visitor to celebrate the Eucharist in St. Peter's, and on a subsequent visit the newly elected Pope himself gave him communion. His political mission came to nothing, for the day of crusades was over, but in the course of his wanderings the Chinese archdeacon had an interview with Edward I. of England, and heard that monarch say that it was the dearest hope of his life too take the cross once more in his old age as he had done in his youth; the visitor was allowed to celebrate the mysteries according to his own Liturgy of SS. Adai and Mari before the greatest of English kings, who received the elements at his hands. One would like to believe that this most interesting service took place under the newly finished arches of Westminster, but of that one cannot be sure. In the fourteenth century then, it was at least not certain that the Assyrian or Chaldean church was heretical!

As to the other points on which their teaching is considered defective, it is certainly the fact that they reverence the names of men counted heretical elsewhere; Nestorius, Theodore, Diodore.

In the case of the most important of these, Nestorius, recent discovery has made the old principle clear, that no man ought to be judged by citations chosen from his works by an enemy. The controversialist is quite likely to misquote; e.g., the. statement held by Dr. Bright to be clear proof of the heresy of the man, is now admitted to have been a misquotation: in any case, the hostile witness usually succumbs to the temptation to draw an opponent's statements out to their logical and intolerable conclusion, and then to present that conclusion to the world at large as what the opponent unquestionably holds. It is certain then that Nestorius has been much wronged in the minds of his fellows.

Not, however, that he can be considered a safe guide, by any means. True son of the Antiochene school, he puts all the emphasis on the reality and distinctness of the humanity of Christ, and stresses this point to an extent that might well have seemed heretical to an Alexandrine. Each of these two rival schools developed into heresy when left to itself, and each needed the influence of its complement to correct it. Nestorius asserts that he worships one Christ, but he goes so far nevertheless as to assert the existence of two persons (Parsopi) in Him! Still, he had the right to complain that he received injustice, and that not only in the admittedly iniquitous procedure of his trial. He was condemned in fact for maintaining positions which greater men had taught before him, men who had nevertheless gone uncondemned to honoured graves. He was disgraced and exiled, for teaching what Theodore had taught. Personally, persecution seems to have been the saving of his soul; the process hardens many, and Nestorius does not appear in too attractive a light as the "firebrand" bishop of Constantinople, the persecutor of the quiet Novatians. Yet, as a persecuted exile, a dying man in that worst of Roman Siberias, "the Oasis," being done to death and got rid of in much the same way that his predecessor, John Chrysostom, was martyred, Nestorius can rise to something very near true saintship in conduct, and to unimpeachable orthodoxy in word. Martyr for what he held--no matter how mistakenly--as the truth of God, he has been always known to be; but unselfish joy in the triumph of that truth, when the triumph can only be attained at the price of his own disgrace, and abandonment by his own friends, is a rarer gift; and the captive of the Oasis rises to this, on hearing that his cause is won. He can rejoice in has own personal condemnation and abandonment, on hearing that the cause he stood for has been secured, by the Concordat between Cyril and John of Antioch, and by the publication of the Tome of Leo, though he did not live, seemingly, to hear of the sealing of it at Chalcedon.

''By the Anathema pronounced on me, may they be saved from blaspheming, that so Christ may be confessed as God and Man in truth and in nature, immortal and impassible as God, mortal and passible as man: Let Nestorius be anathema, if only they will say of God what I beg them to say." It does not seem very heretical, to hold that one who wrote that of himself in suffering and exile, is worthy of personal reverence, though it is one thing to revere a man for personal sanctity, another to regard him as a type of orthodoxy.

Yet, most members of the Church of England would say, perhaps, "We are all agreed that personal anathemas on any men, and more particularly on dead men, are evil, are things to be dropped. This is a question of doctrines, not men; not a matter of what men have taught in past ages, but of what a certain body teaches now. What is the present teaching of the Assyrian Church on the Christological point?"

Here, we are in a position to gave a definite answer, for the question has been formally put, and formally answered. The Lambeth Conference of 1908 debated the problem of the relation of the Church of England to these "Separated Churches" of the East, and came to a resolution on the point (Res. 63, 64, 65). This was, that a Commission should be appointed to examine the matter, and to draw up a statement of what 'the Church of England regarded as the Catholic doctrine, on the one point on which they were accused of heresy and error, viz., the Christological question. This was to be drawn up in non-technical language and submitted to the authorities of the churches in question, and on acceptance of it, what was described as "occasional inter-communion" might follow. The last phrase was admittedly awkward, for any formal intercommunion is a concession of the principle involved, but the "occasional" character of the intercommunion was a mere matter of convenience.

The Commission met, under the presidency of the Late Bishop of Salisbury, John Wordsworth, and Bishop Collins, of Gibraltar; after long discussion it was decided that the statement of the Catholic Christological doctrine to be put forward by the Church of England, should be those versicles of the Quicunque Vult which deal with that problem: that is to say, vv. 30-38. "The right Faith is,"--"God and Man is one Christ." Trinitarian doctrine was not in dispute, and the rest of the document was therefore not ad rem in the matter.

This was intended for presentation to any one of the "Separated Oriental Churches," but in light of the fact that one important point on debate with the Assyrians was not raised in the wording of the Quicunque, it was decided to ask the authorities of that church the additional question, "In what sense do you use the term 'Mother of Christ' for the Blessed Virgin?"

The matter was put before the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church by the writer--acting as representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury--in the year 1910, and a formal answer was despatched in the following year, 1911. The delay was caused by the fact that the answer was submitted to every one of the Bishops of the Church concerned, and was approved by them, arid so was as nearly synodical as circumstances would permit. The answer consisted of a full and unreserved acceptance of the "Quicunque vult," as representing what that church had always taught, and what it regarded itself as having received from its own fathers in the past. Reverence paid to any name, it was explained, was so paid because the name was taken as symbolizing that teaching. The title, "Mother of Christ," given to the Blessed Virgin, was explained as follows: "Concerning the blessed Saint Mary, we confess that she is the Mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, in that, from the commencement of the conception of the humanity of our Lord, God the Word, the second 'qnuma' of the Holy Trinity, was united therewith, and became one Son, one Person, to all eternity."

The answer was despatched to England, discussed at length there, and the decision was reached by the commission that in their opinion the Church had passed the test proposed, and proved itself to be clear now of the heresy of which it had been accused in the past; therefore, there seemed no obstacle to further action. No action was taken, however, partly because the Commission had just lost its two most active and learned members, and the men most interested personally in this matter, viz., Bishops Wordsworth and Collins, partly because of certain semi-political dangers that were feared.

Since then, much has happened. The people of this church have fought through the war--in which, we may say en passant, their record is a singularly fine one--and there is ground to hope that they may be free of the Turk at last, and probably in closer touch than before with British influence. It is a matter for the coming Lambeth Conference to debate, whether it cannot authorise a move forward from the point reached before the war. If the question stood alone, and could be decided as it were in vacuo, there might be no doubt on the matter. As it is, however, the question of our relation with this Assyrian Church is closely connected with the parallel question of our relations with the other "Separated Churches of the East" (Armenian, Jacobite, Coptic, and so on), and also with the various national churches of the great Orthodox Communion.

Certainly it is a matter for earnest prayer that those on whom lies the responsibility for making the best and most right use of this unparalleled opportunity, may be enabled to see the right and to do it, without rashness, and without fear.

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