Schism and Separation

schism One of the topical issues in the church today is whether one group of Christians can stay in the same communion with other Christians who think in a different way from them. The particular example I have in mind is the fragmented state of the Anglican Church over the situation of gay sex and the ordination of practising gay people. In the past Christians separated over differences of doctrine, especially, in the first five centuries, when there were different views on the nature of Christ and his relationship to God. In 1054 the Eastern Church formally separated from the West over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father or from the Father and the Son. Obviously there were other cultural and political factors at play, but there were some serious theological issues to be resolved. Maybe they would have been but for the enormous issue of the fact that hardly anyone in 11th century Rome was familiar with the Greek language. It was never going to be easy to discuss erudite the theological points that were outstanding between the churches, when the language of one was so little known by the other.

The differences that exist today between Anglicans in different parts of the world is, arguably, quite a different kind of separation. A large group of Anglicans stretching from Sydney in Australia to sub-Saharan Africa with supporters in Britain and America have chosen to withdraw from association with other Anglicans on the grounds that some Anglican churches are turning their back on centuries of Anglican tradition by tolerating a gay life-style and ordained gay clergy. Although formal separation has not yet taken place, the rhetoric put out by GAFCON, the conservative Anglican grouping, in 2008 and 2013 makes it unlikely that a full gathering of Anglicans will ever take place again. This is tragic but we need to understand that unlike schisms in the past, the differences are not matters of theology. They should be seen as divisions that involve visceral dislike, even disgust, on the part of one group of Christians for the acceptances of another.

The Christians represented by GAFCON affirm that they are minded to separate from the wider Anglican body because they find it impossible to receive communion, or share it with someone in a gay lifestyle. This extends, not just to gay ministers themselves, but to entire church bodies which are tolerant on the gay issue. Although the expression is used ‘unfaithful to Scripture’ to justify this stance, one suspects that here, in this area, theological issues are not in fact high on the GAFCON agenda. In the past Christians did argue and separate on theological questions and some of us have had to revisit the finer points of Arianism or Monophysitism as part of our theological training. But I am suggesting that in this case Christians are separating because of an intense dislike of the lifestyle of others. The separation is wrapped up in theological language but psychological issues seem to be pre-eminent in this case.

If we have to find a theological/historical precedent for the present schism, we need to go back the heresy of Donatus in 4th century North Africa. The issue was about the acceptability of certain bishops who had handed over their books to the persecuting emperor Diocletian as a way of warding off martyrdom. As far as Donatus and his followers were concerned, this bishop had for ever cut himself off from the Christian body, and thus would never again be able to administer valid sacraments. This presumption that valid sacrament could only be offered by sinless clergy was clearly unacceptable to the wider church. St Augustine, a century later, in particular stood out against this puritan rigorist idea. It made the institutional integrity of the wider church impossible to sustain if a group of Christians could declare a sacrament invalid because they did not like the lifestyle of a particular bishop or clergyman. The validity of the sacraments had to depend on the action of Christ, not the moral rectitude of the individual priest.

Thanks to Augustine in particular, Donatism was defeated decisively even though it lingered right up to the time of the Arab invasions of North Africa in the 7th century. We do however seem to be having a re-emergence of the Donatist heresy in the actions of GAFCON today. They disapprove of the life-style of certain bishops and clergy and for them that is a reason for splitting and schism. It is not possible for Anglicans beyond GAFCON to allow one group to decide what is and what is not acceptable behaviour on the part of clergy. If such decisions are to be made, it must be with the mind, wisdom and understanding of the whole church. Anglicanism along with most of the rest of Christendom has firmly rejected Donatism. The present splitting is at heart not theological but, as I have said, ultimately to be understood through psychology, history and culture. If there were real theological issues but genuine goodwill on both sides, then the theological issues could be unpacked and, hopefully, resolved. Psychology and visceral hatred however are not so easily resolved. The issue is further complicated by the way that conservatives appeal to a unworkable pattern of reading Scripture. This sometimes claims that a single text, even taken out of context, can be made the foundation for a complete theological system. That problem goes on raising its head every time we try to understand and respond to conservative Christianity which, according to this blog, uses and abuses Scripture in a flagrant and unhelpful way.

6 comments

  1. haikusinenomine

    An interesting post and I agree with most of it. However, although there is some parallel, I don’t think the GAFCON stance is exactly the same as the Donatist heresy. As far as I can see, they do not deny in general the principle that sacraments are still valid if administered by sinful humanity (or am I wrong here?). The issue is more about the degree of sinfulness they ascribe to homosexuals. They appear to regard them in about the same way as most of us regard murderers. Thus the actual objection is really more strident – that they see it is ok to separate from churches that do not agree that being gay is sinful, and extremely sinful. For them it’s a matter of principle in the kind of degree that we might be horrified if a church said murder was ok and priests who are murderers can carry on without sanction. But I agree with you that this issue is in reality psychologically, culturally – and politically – driven. It’s also about control – opposition to gay sex is one of the lynchpins of clerical control of all forms of sexuality, which the liberal churches have abandoned to a considerable extent.

  2. Stephen Parsons

    Thanks Haiku. I think the point I wanted to make is not that the GAFCON lot reject the sacraments in a theological way, but they behave as though they might be contaminated if they attend the same gatherings, Lambeth especially. The GAFCON conference in 2008 in Jerusalem was held at the same time as Lambeth. It was saying something quite definite about what they FELT about the Lambeth bishops and their gathering. Not theological but, as I said, deeply political and psychological. They wanted to express something quite profound and rejecting.

  3. Chris Pitts

    I think it needs to be pointed out that for centuries the organized version of the Christian faith has held the position that homosexuality is sinful.
    The Catholic Church believes in biblical inerrancy and can never (Presumably?) change its mind on this issue.

    To avoid martyrdom by committing a certain act is one thing, but to normalise something that has been considered a sin for such a long time is an impossible thing for many people?

    There will be thousands of followers who have believed they have been faithful to the church, who will be more than confused over this issue?
    And what of the ‘Don’t knows’ like myself? I think we need to tread very, very carefully here.

  4. EnglishAthena

    I have had much cause to contemplate Article 26, “Of the unworthiness of the minister”, the Church of England’s official position on this. And it is quite correct. But, just a few points. Sex is not a human right. So maybe it is right that gays are asked, or even have dumped on them, celibacy. Plenty of people are celibate. The single, the newly single, disabled, almost anyone with babies! the very old. Gays may, or indeed may not, be being asked to abstain. But they are not alone in this, if so. As to the idea of keeping one’s faith or oneself pure, many free churches try to do this. People are only allowed to be full members if they hold to certain beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily imply a feeling that others are somehow inferior, just that one does one’s best. The good old CofE is viewed as dangerously lax. I find the openness attractive. Other churches can come across as thinking themselves infallible. But you can see the point.

  5. Chris Pitts

    Celibacy and hypocrisy?

    The idea of celibacy as an enforced rule is something I find very harsh.
    What I would like to see more of is a real debate about homosexuality.
    It seems to me that there is an ongoing debate among men and women of ‘science’ as to whether it is brought about by environment, or, a genetic condition (Something of which I have no knowledge).

    This issue seems like a kaleidoscope of complexity, in religious terms it can be read like this, ‘Choose a theologian, and he will prove your doctrine to be biblical’?
    I admit that it was a good few years ago now that I saw a televised debate that was headed by the banner of, ‘Straight from gay.’ A large number of people were claiming to have become ‘straight’ after falling in love with a person of the opposite sex.

    I personally have known ‘Gay’ people who later (Apparently), changed their minds and are now married to a member of the opposite sex.

    There has to be more shared information on this, or are we at the point of ex cathedra statements from the media or a version of science?

  6. EnglishAthena

    I think society is talking more about human sexuality, now most don’t feel they have to be in the closet. And this will help understanding. I know two people who were married, and are now in same sex partnerships. There is no suggestion that the marriages were fake or unsatisfactory in some way. I think it is just that for some people, the situation is fluid, because they’re not strongly one way or the other. And, as with most human characteristics, we will probably find it is a mixture of nature and nurture.

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