Sunday, October 15, 2006

Further Thoughts on Schism

I've been thinking about some discussion I've been having about schism; one on Orthodox Episcopal Board and below one in the Kigali thread. I've rightly been taken to task about my arguments about schism, largely because they can be misunderstood as meaning that there is no right for anyone to leave a heretical church. So, I need to clarify my argument.

I think we do have to understand first what we mean by schism and how that applies to the current conditions in the Anglican Communion. So, what is schism? Alister MacGrath (Christian Theology. An Introduction, p.502)) defines it very simply as a deliberate break with the unity of the church and notes it condemnation by Sts Cyprian and Augustine, among others. That seems clear enough.

The problem, of course, is just what constitutes a deliberate break with the unity of the church and how to define that unity. Dave Williams in the Kigali conversation rightly pointed out that, in our current multi-denominational universe, schism doesn't make too much sense. What unity are we talking about? Dave is right, of course, although I note that the current state of church division (fragmentation?) while it has been normalized, these schisms can hardly bee seen as a good thing. Variety of worship and theology is good, certainly, but the lack of charity and lack of concern with underlying unity which produced the denominational divisions in the first place was sinful. We can talk about who is to blame for this or that schism, of course, but I suspect we'll find that the sin is distributed fairly equally among the participants. Yet, schism, like any factionalism in the church, is the result of human willfulness and sin.

Yet, I hasten to add, we live in a mixed church- partly sinful and partly saintly-which means we have to confront the problem of disunity in the church. Here the question is what is the boundary point between staying in unity with the church and stepping outside of it. Here, I submit that a decision to enunciate or, worse, act upon a position not accepted by the church (i.e. before the rest of the church is convinced of the rightness of a position), this is already a schismatic act. It is a stepping out of the church (whether we are speaking of the universal church or a particular denomination). In the case of merely enunciating such a position, we can and should employ persuasion to draw the person back to unity. Yet, a stubborn refusal to listen to such admonishment or deliberate action in line with this position is harder to reconcile. At the end of the process, an acceptance of this schism implied in the initial action may prove necessary.

Of course, this whole argument is made in the context of the current situation of the Anglican Communion. I would agree with conservative arguments that General Convention 2003 and the decision of the Diocese of New Westminster to sanction same-sex blessing were schismatic actions. This means that what we have to decide as conservatives is what to do about this schism. Some conservatives have argued that we've done all the admonishing needed and we should just let the schism happen and harden. That is a compelling position, but one that I disagree with.

My own decision to stay with AC of Canada over the past years is based on the belief that I have to earn my way out. That is, I have to continue to admonish the liberal position of my church where I am until I believe that the schismatic impulse has hardened to the point that there is a refusal to listen. I very simply don't think we've reached that point in the AC of Canada. In fact, I would argue that the events of the last few years with the Windsor process has given me more hope that AC of Canada can be salvaged. This is why I don't think this is the time to leave because, by leaving, I believe I would be simply enabling the liberal element in the church in their error by enervating the conservative opposition. We can see the results of this in General Convention 2006 because the conservatives were simply too weakened by the exodus of conservatives after 2003 to make a real fight to support the Windsor process. The result is deepening schism in TEC.

I am a stubborn man, I have to say, so I may well be holding on longer than I need to. Yet, this is what I see out there and holding on is what I believe I'm called to do.


1 comment:

Dave Williams said...


Fair comments. I guess the important thing is that we must spend as much time considering how we are going to build unity as how we are or are not going to break away. What I mean is, there is no point stepping outside of the Anglican Communion or asking others to leave without first of all saying who and how am I going to be united to -how does that affect accountability -what is the nature of my ongoing relationship to those that I leave? Is it one of true church to heretic, of disciplining church to sinning christians, of christians united on essentials but prefering diversity on other matters... For those of us who are sitting outside of the anglican church these questions are then of equal importance