What Constantine could teach Rowan Williams

August 4, 2006

The Roman emperor faced similar problems to the Archbishop in dealing with internal divisions, says Averil Cameron

In his present travails, the Archbishop of Canterbury might be well advised to look back to the example of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor credited with setting Christianity on the way to being a state religion. Rowan Williams faces problems of internal division and of authority within the Anglican Communion very similar to those that confronted the fourth-century monarch.

Constantine, who was proclaimed emperor exactly 1,700 years ago, also had to contend with divisions among his fellow Christians. He responded by establishing a link between Church and state that changed the nature of Christianity forever. But Constantine also encountered problems. In practice, his major initiative, the Council of Nicaea, remembered as the first ecumenical meeting of the church, did not achieve the lasting settlement of internal disputes he had sought. Indeed, his death in 337 heralded further intense struggle between emperors and rival bishops.

Constantine was hailed as emperor at York by the troops of his dead father on July 25, 306. The anniversary of his accession has prompted special religious services, academic conferences and a fine exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum, curated by Elizabeth Hartley. But his proclamation was only a beginning: it was six years before he defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and 12 more before he eliminated his last rival, Licinius. Faced with the heady religious atmosphere of the time, Constantine gave his support to the small but growing number of Christians, and his long reign and unchallenged position between 324 and his death in 337 gave him an opportunity for direct intervention in church affairs.

However, Constantine's enthusiasm for Christianity immediately led him into difficulty. He wrote that God had given him personal responsibility for establishing the true religion in his empire. But he quickly found he had stepped into a situation in which there were wide differences among believers. Christians were divided on doctrine and practice (such as celebrating Easter at different times in different parts of the empire), and between rigorists and liberals. Ironically, it was Constantine's well-meaning attempt to give Christian clerics financial privileges that made this apparent to him. His solution was to get the bishops to decide; like Williams, he himself would step back and abide by their judgment.

Unfortunately, this optimistic idea did not work. The rigorists in North Africa, followers of the schismatic bishop Donatus, insisted that Christians who had lapsed after persecution could not be received back into the universal Church without rebaptism and refused to accept the verdict of episcopal meetings held in Rome and Arles. There was also a matter of church property. The emperor had provided local Christians with a new church at Cirta in modern Algeria, but it was seized by the local Donatists; in the end, Constantine had to accept the status quo and provide another new church on state land for the mainstream Christians. Similarly, clergy opposed to women bishops in the Church of England are threatening to take church property with them into a new, third, ecclesiastical province, while the fear of the appointment of an openly gay bishop led some parishes to threaten to withhold their financial contribution to the diocese.

Constantine tried sending in the troops. Force is hardly a contemporary option but some see the answer in increased authoritarianism and an enhanced role for the Archbishop.

At the Council of Nicaea, Constantine adopted an ambivalent stance, suggesting a formula himself, but refusing to lead from the front. Like the emperor, Williams too would prefer the factions to agree between themselves. But in Constantine's time, as today, the bishops did not speak with one voice. Naturally, both groups and individuals sought to influence the emperor. The council reached agreement about the date of Easter and issued a statement of faith, and the few who refused to sign were sent into exile. All seemed set fair. But soon afterwards the emperor listened to other voices and restored the exiles, was later baptised by one of their number, while in turn Athanasius of Alexandria, champion of Nicene orthodoxy, was banished.

Constantine's problems were about the definition and locus of religious authority, and in that they resemble those dividing the Anglican Communion today. He tried to find a way to bridge disagreements, but did not succeed in leaving behind a lasting settlement either of internal Christian disputes or in the relations between the emperor and the church. His ambivalence and his deferential manner towards the bishops left them confused and uncertain, and in practice encouraged further division. Is there a message for Williams in this?

Averil Cameron is professor of late Antique and Byzantine history and warden of Keble College, Oxford.

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