"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Council of Ferrara-Florence

Councils are a tricky business. In themselves they raise all kinds of problems and often give rise to unintended consequences--to say nothing of the historiographical problems surrounding them, or the debates over their "ecumenical" status (on which I think Aidan Nichols has some typically wise things to say) or lack thereof. Some councils attract enormous attention and have widespread, lasting repercussions; others seem to do little and are forgotten; still others are later denounced as "robber synods" or, if not attacked so frontally, are clandestinely and retroactively rubbished for present felt purposes--as Francis Oakely has so damningly and disturbingly shown with regard to the Council of Constance. Some are studied to death and debates over their meaning are never-ending--as with Vatican II. Others are overlooked and only a tiny handful of specialists could tell you anything about them. Still others are, some would say, simply not "received" by some or most Christians--as the current pope has suggested with regards to the lack of real and adequate reception of Nicaea II in the West with its periodic outbreaks of iconoclasm during, e.g., the Reformation or the 1960s.

And then there is the Council of Florence--or Ferrara-Florence, to give its fuller title. (It started in Ferrara, close to the Adriatic coast in part to facilitate the arrival of various Eastern delegations, but moved further inland and south to Florence because of an outbreak of the plague.)
Cambridge University Press has just sent me a new reprint of the landmark study by the Jesuit Joseph Gill: The Council of Florence (CUP, 2011 [1959]), 474pp.

What to make of Florence? Perceptions of the issues treated at Florence are surprisingly, almost shockingly, different from perceptions of the same issues today. Some, perhaps many, in the East today (including those Orthodox who canonized or commemorate Mark of Ephesus as a "saint") are not unhappy that Florence failed because they regard it (not entirely without justice) as a council to which they agreed from a position of weakness in part because of a need for Western military aid against an insurgent Islam. But no Orthodox can be entirely happy that Florence failed, not least because, in part, it gave rise to a different tactic in the search for unity, leading to, e.g., the Union of Brest and the rise of what has recently been recently roundly condemned as "uniatism" (on which one simply must read Robert Taft's crucial article in Logos 41-42).

And yet it was, at the time, one of the most impressive and truly "ecumenical" councils of all, and in theory accomplished an enormous task--stitching up the frayed bonds between East and West in the aftermath not just of the unpleasantness of 1054, but especially the Fourth Crusade of 1204, which really tore East and West apart after centuries of disaffection most succinctly described in Henry Chadwick's East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (Oxford History of the Christian Church). On paper, Florence was a brilliant success, and had it held, the whole history of the world would have been profoundly different.

Alas, Florence fell apart as soon as its hierarchs returned home and faced furiously contumacious flocks who refused to go along with plans for union. Though, sadly, Florence must be counted as a council that failed, it has, I've long thought, provided one salutary lesson: the search for unity must always carry the people with it and one of its tasks must be the healing of memories and the rebuilding of relationships at the local level. Ecumenism, in a word, can never be an "elitist" enterprise.

Cambridge University Press has helpfully reprinted what has long been the only serious and substantial study, in English, of the Council of Florence, and I look forward to revisiting Gill's important volume.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...