As a non-binding dialogue between representatives of completely unrelated faiths, this week's Millennium World Peace Summit is by no stretch an ecumenical council. However, it got me thinking, what exactly is an ecumenical council, and when was the last one held? Not surprisingly, the answer to both questions depends on one's perspective.By way of definition, my handy Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (which insists on "oecumenical") says they are "assemblies of bishops and other ecclesiastical representatives of the whole world whose decisions on doctrine, cultus, discipline, &c, are considered binding on all Christians."Key in on "whole world" and "binding." At best, "whole world" meant whichever invited parties were willing and able to make the trip; it later shrank to "whole Western world" (beginning with the Fourth Council of Constantinople, 869) and "whole Roman Catholic world" (beginning around the Council of Trent, 1545-1563). "Binding" is also slippery. Protestants tend to consider the councils and their rulings binding only insofar as they stick to Scripture. Some Catholics wouldn't be bound either: the 1409 Council of Pisa lost its bid to make the all-time list when neither of the men claiming to be pope obeyed it. Ecumenical councils trace their lineage back to the First Council of Nicea (325), which is most famous for giving us the Nicene Creed (which is considerably shorter than the version we often recite), and being called by Emperor Constantine. Of the 1,800 or so bishops he invited, fewer than 400 came; nonetheless, this was considered a quorum, and the authority of the council has never been seriously questioned. Oddly enough, one of the bishops who didn't make it was the bishop of Rome, Sylvester I. In other words, this momentous council was held without the pope—though calling him the "pope" in 325 would have been premature, since many early senior bishops were called by the same title, "papa," and the Roman see could not yet claim primacy in the empire.Dicier questions of authority have been raised about the second ecumenical council, the First Council of Constantinople (381). According to The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, edited by Henry R. Percival, Constantinople I was not intended to be an ecumenical council at all, as only 150 bishops attended and neither Rome nor any other Western see was represented. Regardless, it made the list, and its expansion of the "Son" and "Holy Ghost" sections of the Nicene Creed remain with us. Divisions mounted with the third ecumenical council, held in Ephesus in 431. Make that "councils," because bishops representing two major schools of thought on the nature of Christ (the Alexandrian and Antiochene, for those of you keeping score) regarded each other with such animosity that they met separately. The two sides excommunicated each other, and Emperor Theodosius II weighed in to pick the winner. He sided with the Alexandrians, who chalked up an even more decisive victory in the rematch, the 451 Council of Chalcedon.So when was the last ecumenical council? Protestants, who aren't your biggest fans of all-church councils to begin with, often draw at least a dotted line after Chalcedon. The Church of England, for example, stated in the sixteenth century that general councils are regarded with honor—though they "may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God"—and the first four councils in particular are "accepted and received with great reverence." The Orthodox church draws its line after the Second Council of Nicea (787), recognizing only the first seven councils as truly ecumenical, even though Eastern and Western churches weren't utterly split until 1054. Roman Catholics consider Vatican II (1962-1965) the most recent, though not necessarily last, ecumenical council, bringing the total to 21. Constantine, opening the Council of Nicea, offered this: "When I gained my victories over my enemies, I thought nothing remained for me but to give thanks unto God and to rejoice with those who have been delivered by me. But when I learned, contrary to all expectations, that there were divisions among you, then I solemnly considered them, and praying that these discords might also be healed with my assistance, I summoned you here without delay. I rejoice to see you here, yet I should be more pleased to see unity and affection among you. I entreat you, therefore, beloved ministers of God, to remove the causes of dissension among you and to establish peace." If only it were that easy.

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Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.

Related Elsewhere

For a council-by-council summary through Vatican I see Documents from some early councils are available online.Find descriptions of Nicea and other early councils in Christian History issue 51: Heresy in the Early Church (also available for purchase).Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage | How the government manipulated division in the Russian Orthodox Church. (Aug. 18, 2000) Sacrifice at Sea | The story that wasn't in James Cameron's Titanic. (Aug. 11, 2000) Colonial Soul | The Cross and The Tomahawk series examines our nation's past from many perspectives. (Aug. 4, 2000) The Fifth Evangelist | Johann Sebastian Bach was a musician "who lived the Bible." (July 28, 2000) How the Other Half Lived | Chronicling the forgotten gender in the Bible and church history. (July 21, 2000) A Cure for Cliophobia | While not for "dummies" or "complete idiots," a new guide introduces church history to the beginner. (July 14, 2000) New Stabs at Old Wounds | Why Northern Ireland doesn't always love a parade. (July 7, 2000) Camp Fire | The earliest recorded Methodist camp meeting in America took place 200 years ago this week. (June 30, 2000) For Better or Worse | The diaries of a frontier missionary couple reveal starkly differing perspectives. (June 23, 2000) Like Father, Like Son | The Mather men followed the faith—and career paths—of their fathers. (June 16, 2000)

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