There have been many Councils called in Christian churches through the ages but only a few are referred to as General (or Ecumenical) Councils.
The subject of General Councils is addressed in Article 21 of the Thirty-Nine, which makes two broad claims:
- First General Councils must be called by the Commandment of Princes, which means the political rulers of the day. Thus there is a requirement for them to be called by due authority.
- Secondly it is stated that General Councils can err because they are made up of fallible human beings and therefore what they decree must be subject to Scripture, and if it is not then it is not to be accepted.
To these can be added two further requirements, that they be representative of, and recognised by, the whole Church.
The meeting described in Acts chapter 15 is often referred to as the Council of Jerusalem and was a model for the General Councils although the term Council is not found in Acts 15. The authority of that gathering, however, rests on the fact that it is recounted in Scripture and also on the fact that it included the Apostles.
In general the protestant churches recognise six General Councils and the Orthodox churches eight whilst the Roman churches continue to hold what they consider General Councils, the last being Vatican II. Neither protestants nor orthodox thus recognise any council since the great schism between east and west, though the Romans, considering themselves to be the whole church, blithely continue.
The Anglican recognition of General Councils is not stated in the formularies of the Church themselves but is assumed and referred to in Homily 14 on the peril of idolatry. In fact what is referred to is the fact that Bishop Constantine of Rome ‘caused the images of the ancient fathers, which had been at those six councils which were allowed and received of all men, to be painted in the entry of Saint Peters Church at Rome'. This acceptance of the first six Councils is reflected in the historic formularies including the acceptance of the Nicene Creed.
Although protestants ‘allow and receive’ six General Councils it is generally recognized that the fifth and sixth were supplementary to the first four. Many of the Protestant Reformers sought to convene a General Council of East and West in order to resolve some of the issues which gave rise to the Reformation, in particular the false teaching and corruption of the papacy. Thomas Cranmer also desired to convene a Council of all the Protestant Churches in order to agree a common doctrinal statement but although he laid some of the groundwork for this the death of Edward VI and ascension of Bloody Mary put an end to his ambitions.
The six General Councils
- Nicea AD325
- Constantinople AD381
- Epehsus AD431
- Chalcedon AD451
- Constantinople AD553
- Constantinople AD 680-681
Rome and the East also recognise:
- Nicea 787
- Constantinople 869
There were many other Councils held particularly in the period between the General Councils and some of these are very important historically whilst others were little more than a farce.