Over the last few weeks, I`ve been thinking about St. Cyprian and about the way forward in maintaining unity in an already broken and divided church. I am, of course, thinking of the current state of the Anglican Communion and the coming General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, at least in part; but not completely. The general state of Christianity remains that of deep and unresolved divisions: between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western churches, between Roman Catholicism and Protestants, between the multiple Protestant groups. This has rightly been characterized as a scandal because how can we talk of Jesus' Good News to the world when we are unable to agree on what that news is? Non-Christian friends have asked me which church is the one true Church and I have no other answer than "none of them, potentially", because we have failed to maintain those bonds of love and unity which characterized the early Christian communities. And "all of them, potentially" because we are all, nevertheless, the Body of Christ. That is, of course, paradoxical, but it is as close as I can get to affirming the unity that Christ has called us to here and now.
This lost unity is, of course, why I turn back to St. Cyprian and to a time before the major church divisions we take so much for granted were even considered. Cyprian lived way back in the 250s AD and was just appointed Bishop of Carthage, one of the larger Western dioceses, a year before the outbreak of the Decian persecutions. These persecutions were rather different from those persecutions which had proceeded them. The earlier persecutions tended to be localized and short-lived. The Emperor Decius instituted the first empire-wide persecution by demanding that everyone in the Empire had to sacrifice to the Emperor cult or face the state's wrath. Not surprisingly, large numbers of Christians, facing not only financial/social ruin, but even martyrdom, chose to sacrifice or pretended to sacrifice. The result was total chaos in the Church as large numbers of Christians lapsed and large numbers were martyred or suffered for their faith. No one had expected the empire-wide demand to sacrifice and no one had had to deal with the aftermath of the widespread lapsing of even mature Christians. By the time the persecution died down in 251 AD, the church was in chaos and this chaos was only going to get worse when the surviving bishops and clergy began to grapple with the problem of the lapsed.
To say that there was disagreement is an understatement. Rigorists insisted that the lapsed were simply damned for deserting Christ and there was no way for them to make sufficient penance to allow them to return to the church. They were out. Less rigorous leaders felt that there must be a way for the lapsed to make penance and find forgiveness. There didn't seem to be much room for compromise.
In many ways, the rigorists were represented by the Roman presbyter, Novatian, who was, by all accounts, a brilliant and orthodox leader in the fragmented Roman church, who had even been a candidate for the Bishop of Rome in 251 AD. He lost, and almost immediately, he led his followers in schism from the rightfully elected (and orthodox) Pope Cornelius. In doing so, he began a schism which would last for several decades and which was particularly troublesome because accusations of heresy were hard to make stick since Novatian had impeccable orthodox credentials.
The other side can be represented by some of the confessors of Cyprian's own church, who took it upon themselves, in Cyprian's absence, to forgive the lapsed without any real inquiry into the circumstances of their lapse. They felt their authority greater than their bishop, who, after all, had fled the persecution, while they stayed and suffered through it. They were trading on their spiritual status as confessors and were willing to make exceptions among the lapsed almost immediately on the end of the persecutions and without much or any investigation of the circumstances of their lapse.
Cyprian, in many ways, was probably more sympathetic to Novatian than to his own confessors. He did think that the those who lapsed during the persecutions had committed a grave sin and could only be reconciled with the Church with great difficulty. Yet he shied away from Novatian because of his high view of the episcopacy (like most Church Fathers) which caused him to back the legal ordination of Cornelius and because of his view that it was impossible to go into schism without falling into heresy. He never really goes so far as to define the heresy, but I think he sees Novatian's decision to split the Roman church as betraying a heretical understanding of ecclesiology. This is intriguing, but I suspect tangential to what I'm trying to say here. Perhaps I'll pick that point up in a separate entry.
In Christianity today (and in my own church), we have very many Novatians and very many confessors, who are perfectly willing to drive their agendas to the point of schism. Yet I offer Cyprian's solution to the problem for us all to consider. While sympathetic to rigorism, he didn't rely only his own opinion. He called a council of African bishops. He consulted with his fellow bishops, especially with the Bishop of Rome. He adopted a solution which recognized the importance of the lapses, but also recognized the power of true repentance.
We need Cyprians today in the churches; people who take seriously what the Bible and tradition have taught them, but are willing to reflect carefully over the new situations each generation presents and to try to maintain unity by finding common solutions to shared problems. Cyprian has his rough edges, of course, and he was fiercely aware of his own prerogatives as bishop, but his example in the matter of the lapsed presents us with an approach to disunity which we modern Christians would do well to imitate.