Lent: Day 12 of 40 - Cyprian of Carthage

If there’s no salvation outside the church, make a revolving door!

Cyprian was stuck in the middle. Student of Tertullian, who you met last week, and Bishop of Carthage in north Africa, he’s stuck with the pure and the backsliders, with the hardliner Donatists on one side, and the moderate mediation of Novation for mercy on the other, amidst nationalist sentiment against imperial Rome.

Cyprian dithers, a good politician. Some of the faithful who had suffered, who had more moral authority, took it upon themselves to exercise authority to hear the repentance of the backsliders, and welcome them back into the fold. These heroes of the faith were called ‘confessors’. Imagine all this in the context of 20th century genocide, torture, post-traumatic stress, and refugee resettlement.

Cyprian opened the door a crack, permitting rebaptism of those who had renounced the faith. Clergy who had done so could be members of the church, but not resume their pastoral vocations. This seems pretty hardline to us – but in context was a moderate compromise.

‘No salvation outside the church’, or in Latin, ‘Nullus salus extra ecclesiam’ is the doctrine credited to Cyprian. If you want shelter for your soul, you need to get inside the tent. In the context of our liberal multicultural ecumenical reality, this seems a horrible flashpoint for the abuses of the medieval and modern churches, mutually damning other heretics to hell.

Cyprian also built the revolving door of confession, repentance, and absolution by any priest, not just the heroic confessors of the faith, as a necessary pressure valve on this claim, and all arising from the experience of Donatists and backsliders after persecution. Does that moderate bureaucratic response get you any empathy for his heresies?

Cyprian survived to 258, beheaded under Valerian. Stuck in the middle, Cyprian was never going to please everybody, and neither will we. Remember the Far Side cartoon on the cover page of this study: ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’? His legacy for us is mixed – do you see it?

Are you ever stuck in the middle, in religious or political or economic issues and conflicts? Do you ever feel that the choice is between good and better, or bad and worse? Have you decided, and learned the ‘law of unintended consequences’?

Crude creeds do not provide truth or justice, any more than any legislative or judicial proclamation. They may be better understood as providing workable justiciable certainties among sinners and heretics like us.

Have you shown mercy – and needed mercy?