Perhaps it’s an issue between South Carolinians – a vocal progressive minority in the Episcopal diocese and their theologically conservative bishop and, let’s be honest, most likely the bulk of that diocese. In October 2012, after the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence (SC) had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry. Immediately, the South Carolina Standing Committee announced that that action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.” On Nov. 15, the Presiding Bishop offered a pastoral letter to the faithful in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church, a letter which affirmed our much-treasured Anglican comprehensiveness and offered a compelling vision of the contested core at the center of our lively tradition. That being said, the Bishop of Springfield is also correct to assert that Jefferts Shori offered a fairly one-note legalistic document when a message of nuance and grace and love was best intended. And on Nov. 17, the majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina voted to affirm the actions of their bishop and diocesan leadership and disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.
The issue, as I’m sure it’ll be reported, is going to be about yet another fight between a liberal Episcopal Church and conservative Diocese of South Carolina, or between a left-leaning bunch in the diocese and their right-wing bishop, or between those who uphold biblical faith and others who are theological revisionists. Yet not one of those interpretations would really get to the core of the issue.
This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church — and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.
This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter. In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church. The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.'” In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”
From the Greek, schisma, meaning to tear, shism is an intentional separation from the body. The New Testament records the apparent tendency of some believers to focus on particular theological sticking-points and isolate those issues as the issue — in turn, establishing that those who disagree with them are the false believers. That’s why there’s no biblical distinction between schism and heresy. The Greek verb ‘aireomai (from ‘airesis, heresy) means to choose or to prefer, a tendency in theology, according to Karl Rahner, of taking “a truth out of the organic whole which is the faith and, because [one] looks at it in isolation, [one] misunderstands it.” There is no right theology without right relationship or, in hip seminary-speak, no such thing as orthodoxy without orthopraxis. That so-called ‘false brethren’ were separating themselves from the body and setting up churches and interpretations of their own in early Christianity seemed an established fact (Acts 20:30, Col. 2:18), and Jesus himself predicted that that would happen (Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:39). Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament literature is concerned with community formation and ensuring that churches stay together, no matter what, and only when significant brokeness is at hand and the offender is unrepentant shall the bonds of fidelity be severed. This is a constant theme in the letters of Paul, whose own ministry was constantly undermined by those who came in after he left and un-did what he worked so hard to build, and the Gospel of Matthew, in particular; see Matthew’s entire 18th chapter about community norms and, with specific reference to a process by which offenders should be heard and tried, Mt. 18:15-20.
Outside of the New Testament, the technical term, schism, first emerges in Irenaeus’ c.180 CE polemic, Adversus Haereses, written against the popular gnostic heresy. “Schism” shows up in book IV, chapter 33.7, and yet that entire chapter is a case-in-point of this larger issue — namely, that relationship with the whole body, no matter whether you may disagree about particular points of interpretation, is an essential ingredient to right belief. Needing a better editor, the chapter is entitled: “Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both testaments, and diligently reads the scriptures in company with the presbyters of the church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament.” Section 7 continues: “[The true spiritual disciple] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, — men who prate of preace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.”
Although some will argue, today, that schism and heresy are two quite different things — heresy having to do with issues of doctrine and schism having to do with relationships — that distinction is nowhere found in early Christian literature. Further, I’m not certain how that distinction can be maintained with theological integrity, even today. In the modern era, we’ve seen the Roman Church try to do so with a certain, um, clunky-ness. The Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offered a well-intentioned olive branch to the Eastern churches and Anglican Communion, trying to straddle a fine line between welcoming them, even accepting them, but not accepting that they are fully members: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” In this painstaking attempt to distinguish between heresy and schism, I have to say I’m even more confused about my standing in their eyes: I suppose I’m one of their brothers, though an imperfect one. (Once, I flippantly said to a member of the Roman church, “I guess to you all we’re a bunch of heretics,” to which he replied: “No, you’re just schismatics.” Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse and neither ‘welcome’ is better.)
The irony in this, for some, is that I, an Episcopal priest and, therefore, schismatic, am writing about the sin of schism. But my own faith journey led me to accept my Protestant heritage and yet seek Communion in apostolic, catholic Christianity. For me, it was the Episcopal Church which helped me find a voice and a home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It could’ve been the Roman Church, I suppose, but in the course of my desire to connect my life to an apostolic, catholic body the real issue I confronted was what issues I wanted to struggle with over the course of my life and ministry. As a Roman Catholic, I suppose, I would struggle with issues of theological exclusion and doctrinal uniformity. As an Episcopalian, I would struggle with conflicts caused by being too inclusive and, sometimes, doctrinal sloppy-ness.
It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church. Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.” All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self. Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.