I have been reading Cathleen Medwick’s biography of Teresa of Avila. This describes how St. Teresa founded a series of Carmelite convents in the Spain of Philip II. Each was a return to the primitive Carmelite rule, rather than the rather more comfortable ‘relaxed’ rule then in vogue, and motivated by sincere desire to do what God wanted.
But I was most interested in the mention at the end of a Genoese merchant-turned-friar, Nicholas Doria, who began to be useful as a man of business to Teresa in her last years. His contacts in Rome proved useful to her; but he also had a talent for conspiracy. It seems that this capable man, after Teresa’s death, induced her close friend Fr. Gracian to promote him to the second position in the order. He then outmanouvered the naive Gracian, took over the order himself, and expelled Gracian from St. Teresa’s own order. Thus within a few years the reformed Carmelite order was in the hands of a man who had arrived right at the end, who had taken no real part in its struggles and whose only claim to belong was that his worldly skills had been useful on a couple of occasions to the saint.
Down the centuries, whenever Christian organisations have come to control property or acquired reputation, there have been individuals who have made their way into them for their own advantage. Such people are often very effective politicians; and every organisation that exists in this world has to be aware of politics. But their loyalty is to themselves, not to God.
I believe that something rather similar happened to Methodism after the death of John Wesley; that men who don’t even feature in Wesley’s journal then tried to seize his empire.
Many Christians believe that the church became corrupt during the years after the first council of Nicaea. Once Constantine had legalised the church, being a bishop was rather less risky, and much more profitable. Indeed this process had already begun in the time of Diocletian. Eusebius records in the History of the Martyrs of Palestine, in a sentence often abused to try to prove him a liar, that he proposes to record only those events which are edifying, or that show that the church deserved the persecution.
When the Arian controversy arose, it was a local matter between Arius and his bishop. It was Eusebius of Nicomedia who made it a contest across the whole Christian world. Eusebius had some links with the emperor Licinius, but he had not suffered in the persecutions and became, first bishop of Berytus and then of Nicomedia in 318 AD. Arius appealed to Eusebius for help; and Eusebius deluged the East with letters demanding that bishops support Arius (and, by implication, himself). His quest for power had a set-back at Nicaea, where the vote went against him and he was exiled, but he was soon back — as such flexible men always are. In the years that followed he arranged for the removal of stalwarts of the Nicene party such as Marcellus of Ancyra, on one pretext or another, and the replacement of bishop after bishop with his partisans. He crowned his career by being the bishop who baptised Constantine on his death bed.
Yet within 50 years Arianism was dead. It was never truly an issue. The whole matter was perhaps merely the excuse for the pursuit of power of a man with little interest in what God wanted.
Is the old position correct, that the legal church soon became a corrupt church? There are many who would disagree, not least Catholics and East Orthodox. But when one looks at some of the 5th century councils, the spectacle of worldly men fighting like rats over the church is hard to stomach. If we do not simply take this view — that all of this is merely the triumph of the world over the church — then how do we explain this business?