Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Haec Sancta

Today is the anniversary of the passing of what J. N. Figgis, the early twentieth century historian of political ideas, and an Anglican priest, termed " [p]robably the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world."

What is this revolutionary text? The American Declaration of Independence? The Declaration of the Rights of Man? THe Communist Manifesto? The Ninety Five Theses? Magna Carta? The Edict of Milan?

No, none of the above. What Figgis had in mind when he wrote Political Thought from Gerson to Grotius: 1414-1625: Seven Studies (1907) which had been originally delivered as the Birkbeck Lectures at Trinity College in 1900, was the Decree Haec Sancta voted on by the Council of Constance in its Fifth Session, on this day in 1415.

Haec Sancta states that:

"Legitimately assembled in the Holy Spirit, constituting a general council and representing the Catholic church militant, it has power immediately from Christ; and that everyone of whatever state or dignity, even papal, is bound to obey it in those matters which pertain to the faith, the eradication of the said schism and the general reform of the said church of God in head and members."

Figgis'complete comment - a typically provocative rhetorical flourish - is as follows:

" Probably the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world is the decree of the Council of Constance asserting superiority to the Pope, and striving to turn into a tepid constitutionalism the Divine authority of a thousand years."

Haec Sancta was therefore the charter for Conciliarism, but it remained and remains a dead letter because although the Council of Constance was summoned by Pope John XXIII of the Pisan obedience it is only those of its Acta and decrees after it was formally summoned on July 4th 1415 by one of the other rivals for the Papacy, Pope Gregory XII, of the Roman obedience, after the Council had deposed Pope John in May, which are accounted canonical and binding.


Constance Cathedral where the Council met
A view showing it before nineteenth century restoration and improvements - there is more about the cathedral here

Image; godzdogz,op.org

All the decrees of the Council can be seen in translaton or summary at Council of Constance 1414-18

There is a brief note about Figgis and his work here and more can be found by following the link to Mark Chapman's 2001 book The Coming Crisis: The Impact of Eschatology on Theology in Edwardian England.

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