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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Byzantium: The Church of the Seven Councils
      • The establishment of an imperial Church
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The establishment of an imperial Church

  Constantine stands at a watershed in the history of the Church. With his conversion, the age

of the martyrs and the persecutions drew to an end, and the Church of the Catacombs became the

Church of the Empire. The first great effect of Constantine.s vision was the so-called .Edict. of

Milan, which he and his fellow Emperor Licinius issued in 313, proclaiming the official tolera-

tion of the Christian faith. And though at first Constantine granted no more than toleration, he

soon made it clear that he intended to favor Christianity above all the other tolerated religions in

the Roman Empire. Theodosius, within fifty years of Constantine.s death, had carried this policy

through to its conclusion: by his legislation he made Christianity not merely the most highly fa-

vored but the only recognized religion of the Empire. The Church was now established. .You are

not allowed to exist,. the Roman authorities had once said to the Christians. Now it was the turn

of paganism to be suppressed.

  Constantine.s  vision  of  the  Cross  led  also,  in  his  lifetime,  to  two  further  consequences,

equally momentous for the later development of Christendom. First, in 324 he decided to move

the capital of the Roman Empire eastward from Italy to the shores of the Bosphorus. Here, on the

site of the Greek city of Byzantium, he built a new capital, which he named after himself, .Con-

stantinoupolis.. The motives for this move were  in part economic and political, but they were

also religious: the Old Rome was too deeply stained with pagan associations to form the center

of the Christian Empire which he had in mind. In the New Rome things were to be different: af-

ter the solemn inauguration of the city in 330, he laid down that at Constantinople no pagan rites

should ever be performed. Constantine.s new capital has exercised a decisive influence upon the

development of Orthodox history.

  Secondly, Constantine summoned the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian

Church at Nicaea in 325. If the Roman Empire was to be a Christian Empire, then Constantine

wished to see it firmly based upon the one orthodox faith. It was the duty of the Nicene Council

to elaborate the content of that faith. Nothing could have symbolized more dearly the new rela-

tion between Church and State than the outward circumstances of the gathering at Nicaea. The

Emperor himself presided, .like some heavenly messenger of God. as one of those present, Eu-

sebius, Bishop of Caesarea, expressed it. At the conclusion of the Council the bishops dined with

the Emperor. .The circumstances of the banquet,. wrote Eusebius (who was inclined to be im-

pressed by such things), .were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the bodyguard and

other troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of

these the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial  apartments.

Some were the Emperor.s own companions at table, others reclined on couches ranged on either

side. One might have thought it was a picture of Christ.s kingdom, and a dream rather than real-

ity. (The Life of Constantine, 3, 10 and 15). Matters had certainly changed since the time when Nero

employed Christians as living torches to illuminate his gardens at night. Nicaea was the first of


seven General Councils; and these, like the city of Constantine, occupy a central position in the

history of Orthodoxy.

  The three events . the Edict of Milan, the foundation of Constantinople, and the Council of

Nicaea . mark the Church.s coming of age.


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