In 325 AD Christianity took one of its bigger steps toward becoming a major faith in the ancient Mediterranean. Under new sponsorship by the Roman emperor Constantine, hundreds of bishops gathered in Nicaea in Asia Minor for what is now understood as the first "ecumenical" Council of emergent Christianity. At that Council the bishops composed and promoted the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief, which--although at first rejected by many and perhaps most churches--eventually became a standard for Christianity up until recent times.
Now earlier this month from a meeting of Pope Francis' recent meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew have come murmurs about a new Council of Nicaea in 2025 on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of the original formulation of the Nicene Creed. A closer look at such a possibility brings both strong promise and worrisome threats to Christian integrity.
The real promises for such a new Council are:
• We need new perspectives on what it means to be Christian in the 21st century. So many aspects of life have changed since the first Nicene Council, and new or adjusted ideas by a new Council could help people make more sense of Christian teaching and practice.
• Similarly, and especially in the spirit of the first Council of Nicaea which introduced new ideas about Jesus, a new Council could provide perspective on who Jesus is for the 21st century. Our modern consciousness of a very different world and the existence of other authentic religions around the world have changed the questions and thoughts we have about Jesus. The new Council could help formulate meanings Jesus carries for the 21st century.
• The most recent Roman Catholic Vatican II Council in 1962-65 provides a fine model and creative results for such a 2025 gathering. Vatican II changed a great deal about Christian (and especially Catholic) life. The mass began to be celebrated in the languages of the people rather than Latin, the study of the Bible was opened to lay people, and the role of women's leadership grew. Vatican II also invited many Protestant and non-Christian leaders to join as official observers.
• Most of the world now recognizes that allowing Roman Catholic priests to marry and women to be ordained would make life more full of God's grace and love. A new Council could provide these and other key reforms.
• Since Councils of churches throughout history have been a way to show that Christian meaning-making is an on-going process, rather than a once-and-done proclamation; this new Council could serve as a dramatic reminder of the ever-unfolding nature of truth.
The threats to Christian integrity by a new Council are:
• One of the real strengths of Christianity in our day is its diversity. Life around the globe needs different models and teachings from Christianity, not just one way. Passing new instructions for everyone could undo some of the advantages of Christian diversity.
• Display of the current exclusive male power and leadership at the new Council would be at least embarrassing.
• Despite the fresh wind blowing with the arrival of Pope Francis, it is not clear that church--in both Roman Catholic and other forms--is healthy enough to model honest and open-minded dialogue and decision-making.
I have had experience of convening important Christian leaders to break new ground in Christian belief and practice. In 2012, with the help of a major publisher, I invited 19 well-known spiritual leaders to study recently discovered documents from the Christ movements of the first and second centuries and to decide which of them might be added to a new expanded version of the texts from these first and second century movements. Heads of different denominations, bishops, famous Christian authors, and several New Testament scholars were joined by two nationally known rabbis and two yogic scholars in this study.
As this group worked to make this momentous decision on adding newly discovered ancient documents to the traditional New Testament, we argued with each other, had long talks around good food and drink, became friends across major differences, agonized about right decisions, and ultimately added ten new books. As women and men from very different spiritual paths from many different cultures, we never all agreed. But listening carefully to one another, reading the new documents with open hearts and critical perspectives, and thinking together about the spiritual needs of the American public made us excited about providing new resources for spiritual practice and clear thinking about Christianity.
What I know already about this 2012 process of adding books to the traditional New Testament is that the decisions we made were almost certainly not all correct. I am quite sure, for instance, that adding The Gospel of Mary will help many thousands of people in their relationship to each other and God. On the other hand, our decision to add The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, another ancient document recently discovered, has not yet proven nearly as helpful as The Gospel of Mary. And, it seems probable that other books we added may inspire many people for a period of time, and then cease to do so.
A new Council of Nicaea could make major contributions to Christian meaning for the 21st century, even while risking presumptuousness, minor and major mistakes, and solutions that only last for a certain season of time. With careful preparation, bold initiatives, attentive listening, and a spirit of openness, the potential for such a Council probably outweighs its problems.
Hal Taussig is a United Methodist minister, professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and author of 14 books, including A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.