In the traditional Roman calendar, May 9 is the feast of a great Doctor of the Church, St Gregory of Nazianzus (d 389 – also known as Gregory Nazianzen). In the newer calendar he is fêted on January 2. The Orthodox, who rightly call him Gregory the Theologian, and various Protestants honour him on other dates. Gregory was Archbishop of Constantinople in times of fierce theological turmoil. He is one of the “Cappadocian Fathers”, together with St Basil the Great and Basil’s younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa.
When we attentively watch what is going on in the Church these days, we might imagine that we have it tough, and in some ways we do. We do today especially, because it seems that very few take our faith seriously enough to learn it well and to have the discussions and, sometimes, the fights which ensure that sound doctrine is defended. In Gregory’s time, Christians took the faith seriously and even had physical fights over it.
Speaking of fights, in the 4th century Constantinople was dragged back and forth between warring theological factions: the Nicene party (the good guys) and the Arians and Eunomians (bad guys and heretics). Gregory was sent by a synod in Antioch to Constantinople in order to sway it back to the Nicene faith. To great effect, he preached sermons in favour of the orthodox position about the divine natures of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, drawing ever greater crowds.
Gregory was so successful that in 379 an Arian mob stormed his church during divine worship for the Vigil of Easter. Gregory was wounded and another bishop was killed. The city remained in great unrest, divided by orthodox and heterodox camps, until the Emperor Theodosius came and straightened the place out in Gregory’s favour.
Given the turmoil that we have today over certain questions that arose from the two most recent synods of bishops on the family, and given the decision in Antioch to send Gregory to Constantinople, here is one of my favourite quotations from the great Cappadocian, who knew a thing or two about synods: “If I ought to write the truth, I am of the mind that I ought to flee all meetings of bishops, because I have never seen any happy or satisfactory outcome to any council, nor one that has deterred evils more than it has occasioned their acceptance and growth” (Ep. 131).
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