We are in a grave but modest moment in the life of our treasured church. Grave but modest and this is driven home to me as I remember.
In 1999 I visited Nike (Nicea). It was the past coming to meet me from the future. When I was 12 our pastor, recognizing my interest in theology and my father’s competence to assist me, asked that I write an essay on the formation of the Nicene Creed as my capstone exercise for confirmation. It was in this exercise that I met Athanasius and Arius and developed my nose for Gnosticism. So it was with particular eagerness and sense of grace that I traveled from Istanbul across the Marble Sea up over the mountains and down into the valley along what is likely the same road that the bishops took back in 325. Unlike them I did not travel by a white donkey or on horseback. Someday perhaps that particular pleasure will be afforded me or one of my children.
We are uncertain where the site of the church of the first council was located but quite certain of the church of the second council and it remains standing albeit as a ruin. Since 1453, just days after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, this church has functioned as a mosque. Then in 1935, if my memory serves me, an earthquake toppled the dome. It has stood empty every since. It is a modest church and now some 20 feet below the ground level. The dome peaks up above the ground and I drink latte with my colleagues in the courtyard café just behind the dome and we look down on this ancient stone structure and our memory, nurtured by the church, moves back to those extraordinary days when Athanasius and his Bishop may have sat where we sit. I thought of Athanasius (more likely his bishop) and Arius drinking coffee or wine together and seeking to make sense out of their difficult and enduring and profoundly substantive dispute. The very formation of the Church’s self-understanding was at work in those conversations. More important our understanding of the meaning of the Incarnation was being hammered out. A moment like few others for our spiritual ancestors. That is why we treasure it.
In the church at Nike you can now see the symanthrone made of stone with two tiers, an arch shape surrounding the holy table. Perhaps 21 bishops could sit here while the proceedings were taking place. Close to the entrance you can see the decorative tile making the place where the Emperor sat during the gatherings. Obviously not all the bishops who attended could be accommodated on the symanthrone. Only the metropolitans, I suspect, would take up their place behind the holy table. Whether this was also the place of the first ecumenical council or only that of the second makes no matter for the gravity of what this place has come to mean for our understanding.
Remembering Nike brings the modesty of our grave deliberations at the All American Council into focus.
We are in a grave but modest moment. It is important to remember and hold tenderly our jurisdiction, our bishops and clergy and all our sisters and brothers who, first and foremost worship with us. It is important to hold firm our understanding of the Church knowing how it is held together. As the next few days unfold they may challenge many of us and challenge the fabric of our jurisdiction. No matter how our life together unfolds we all need to redouble our work and marshal our skill for the life of the world and re-member our life together within our particular liturgical family. One thing, and, perhaps one thing alone, is clear because it is always clear even when we forget it. We are not going to harm the Church, the Body of Christ, since it holds together in Him who was before the foundations of the world. Our appetites and fears, our hurts and dreams are not at the centre of the Church but in each of our churches we are called to have them healed. Our union with Christ is a matter for each of us to consider and we are called to do so with the confidence that the lover of the world does not depart because of our missing of the mark, but rather embraces us in our struggles, broken covenants, in all our folly. As we are taught in every liturgy, it is not our sin that is the problem. Our sin is not unique to us. It is not unique to those who we imagine have let us down. How lovely it would be for some sin to be unique, for the sins of our shepherds to be unique. It is an old story and the questions that are before us are whether or not we will find the words, the melody, to sing a new and life-giving song based on the renewal of our mind.
We are in a grave moment. We are in a modest moment.