Things weren't looking good for Nicene Christians in the 360s and 370s. Everything had come together so well only forty years before. The Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity, encouraged its growth and had even convened the Council of Nicaea to settle the outstanding disputes in the Church, especially Arianism. Out of that council came the Nicene Creed which was supposed to settle the vexed question of Jesus' nature once and for all.
It didn't turn out that way. First, Constantine began to backpedal to keep Eastern bishops, who thought the Creed unscriptural and theologically unsound, happy. Then, his son, Constantius II began to try to impose a new creed on the Church and began to exile Nicene leaders. Worse still, the Nicene movement was splintering; the West, dominated by Nicene Christians, quarrelling with Eastern Nicene leaders over who the proper Nicene leader in Antioch was, Meletius or Paulinus. Amid all this, relentless imperial pressure from the Eastern Emperor, Valens, especially, was grinding the Nicene supporters.
From this unpromising situation, three friends ( St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa) from the remote province of Cappadocia emerged to give the Nicene movement a new boost. These Neo-Nicenes supported the Nicene view that Jesus Christ was consubstantial with God the Father, but equally firmly supported the view that the three persons of the Trinity were also separate persons which was at the centre of their moderate opponents' concerns about the Nicene Creed. Ultimately, they managed to win enough support that, at the Council of Constantinople, their Neo-Nicene view carried the day and the Nicene Creed was reiterated as the official creed of the Church.
So, I'm sure you're asking that this history lesson is all very interesting, but what is my point? What I find interesting about these events is how the Nicene orthodoxy emerged. A lot of people merely assume that the Nicene Creed was accepted without difficulty or challenge right at the Council of Nicaea. Not so. It took almost sixty years of ecclesiastical conflict to establish that creed as authoritative. Indeed, for much of this time, it looked like the supporters of Nicene orthodoxy might well lose. Indeed, it wasn't until moderates (the Cappadocian fathers) emerged who would firmly defend the authority of the Nicene creed, but would interpret it in a way that was widely acceptable to even their moderate opponents, that the Nicene orthodoxy became well-established. The brilliance of the Cappadocian solution was that it navigated between the extremes of Arianism and modalism to emerge at the head of a new coalition which would affirm what would become the orthodox Christology. Orthodoxy, as the Cappodocian Fathers well knew, is rarely found in the extremes, but rather navigates between the extremes of theological thought.
It is this recognition which set me to thinking about the current controversies in the Anglican Communion. In the past few years, the theological realm of the Anglican Communion has become very polarized. You can tell that both in the interactions of Church leaders and in Anglican blogosphere where extreme liberals and extreme conservatives only agree on one thing: they are sick and tired of each other and they see no other option but to separate. Conservatives are splintering on the issue of when or if to leave. Ecclesially, it seems like the 360s and 370s all over again.
Still, just as in the 360s and 370s, there are signs of hope. For one, there is the Windsor Report which, for all of its flaws, has attempted to give an even-handed attempt to map out the conditions needed to work out the current chaos. There is the Covenant ideas of the Archbishop of Canterbury who, even if the devil in the details, is trying to find a way to ease the tensions. Furthermore, there are the voices of Windsor conservatives, Bishop Tom Wright, the Anglican Communion Institute, who, while retaining a vigorous defence of the traditional views on homosexuality, are refusing to leave without making their case and listening to liberals do the same. All of these give me hope that we can find our way through this crisis with a renewed sense of our mission and our faith.
Of course, there are profound differences between the struggles today over homosexuality today and Christology then. For one thing, the latter struggle was more fundamental. For another, a change of emperors opened the opportunity to consolidate the Nicene position at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. Yet, that earlier crisis has taught us that extremes don't work in theology and that a real solution must navigate between not one heresy, but two. May God be with us as we navigate between the Scylla of permissiveness and the Charybdis of judgementalism.