An essay by the Rev. Chuck Collins
The schismatic is the one who causes the separation, not the one who leaves
According to the bishop of Virginia, “Schism is worse than heresy.” He went on to say, “As a heretic, you are only guilty of a wrong opinion. As a schismatic, you have torn and divided the body of Christ.” Many bishops agree with him that it is better to put up with a little false teaching than to split the Body of Christ. This also seems to have biblical support. The Apostle Paul scolded the church in Corinth for its factions and disunity. Jesus in his High Priestly Prayer charged the church to pray for unity. If schism is a sin worse than heresy, then the 16th century Protestant Reformation must be the worse sin of all. By any estimation the Church of England was an intentional tearing away from the fabric of Roman Catholicism. And it then follows that the proper response for Episcopalians is to return to the mother church. Right? Only the Roman Catholic Church can claim to be the undivided church - schismless. Right?
In 1534 Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome to declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Everyone knows his selfish reasons. But the neurotic desire for a male heir to the throne, God used as the occasion for the Protestant Reformation in England. In the years that followed the Church of England fully embraced Protestant theology. To a Roman Catholic, the 16th century Reformation is a prime example of “schism” and among an embarrassing long line of schisms resulting in a different schismatic Protestant church on every corner in America. Protestants, they say, “lack antiquity, universality, and the consent of all places and of all times.” The Episcopal Church has itself experienced other splits in its history, including nine southern dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church to start the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America in the 1860’s, the breakaway in 1873 of the Reformed Episcopal Church, and the departure in 2000 of a group to start the Anglican Mission in America.
The Anglican Divines, theologians who enshrined the beliefs of the Church of England in their writings and ideas, all agreed that schism is a grievous sin. Therefore when the medieval Catholic Church veered away from the “substance of the faith” they called it for what it was: schism. “Heresy is schismatic, according to the Reformers, and hence to be labeled schismatic by Rome was a badge of honor.” The Reformers thought the Catholic Church was guilty of leaving the faith taught in all places and in all times.
The Church of England’s highest value was biblical and catholic Christianity, not the man-made church structures that are supposed to uphold catholicism. John Jewel, the Bishop of Salisbury and author of the magisterial An Apologie of the Church of England (1560), said, “It is true we have departed from them, and for so doing we both give thanks to Almighty God and greatly rejoice on our own behalf. But yet for all this, from the primitive church, from the apostles, and from Christ we have not departed.” He was convinced that the Reformation returned the church to the authority of Scripture and to the teaching of the early church that the Roman Church had walked away from. Richard Hooker, the Church of England’s theologian, called the pope a schismatic idolater “who hath made the earth so drunk that it hath reeled under us.” He went on to say, “that which they call schism, we know to be our reasonable service unto God.” Far from being a schismatic sect, the English Reformers and Anglican Divines saw Rome as schismatic, and the Church of England as faithful to the substance of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
The implications of this are obvious. Schism is sin and heresy is the fomenter of schism. Protestants who left the medieval church were not schismatics. Neither are those in our own day who join new Anglican jurisdictions, nor bishops who cross diocesan boundaries to provide episcopal care for orthodox Episcopalians in hostile dioceses. The Episcopal Church is schismatic in its promotion of heresy, in its readiness to leave the limits of comprehensiveness defined by the Windsor Report and the Primates directives, and in its inability to discipline anyone who continues to break trust with orthodox Christianity. Bishop N.T. Wright (Durham), speaking of the schismatic actions of 2003 when Americans first gave acquiescence to Gene Robinson at their General Convention, said, “There are many in America who are trying to have their cake and eat it, who are doing the schismatic thing and then accusing those who object of being schismatic.”
The Bible teaches “unity,” but not unity at any cost. “For the Reformers, the great criterion was that of truth: Under no circumstances might unity be pursued or purchased at the expense of truth. Unity, if it is unity in error or in unconcern for the truth, is not Christian unity.” Jewel pointed out that unity itself is untrustworthy because “there was the greatest consent that might be amonst them that worshipped the golden calf and amonst them who with one voice jointly cried against our Savior Jesus Christ, ‘Crucify him!’” Jesus enjoined his disciples to pray for unity, but he prefaced it with, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Unity for its own sake - a lowest common denominator unity - is not real unity and certainly not the unity that Jesus envisioned. The English Reformer Hugh Latimer in a 1552 sermon said, “St. Paul to the Corinthians saith, ‘Be of one mind’; but he addeth, ‘according to Christ Jesus,’ that is, according to God’s holy word; else where it better war than peace. We ought never to regard unity so much that we would, or should, forsake God’s word for her sake.”
So, is schism worse than heresy? Certainly not, since heresy is schismatic! This is like saying, “Chewing with your mouth open is worse than bad manners.” Heresy and schism are two sides of the same coin and abhorrent to the Anglican heritage. But the schismatic who teaches heresy and causes schism is to blame, not the ones who, because of conscience, are forced to leave the Episcopal Church. Anyone who agrees that the 16th century Reformers had a right, indeed, the duty, to leave the institutional church that would not reform itself on such fundamental issues as “the formal cause of salvation,” will also agree that unity found in the Bible and creedal faith trumps the institutional Episcopal Church every time. To keep everyone in the shrinking Episcopal boat by edict, by forcing them to pay apportionments to sustain heresy, threatening to take away their property, and warning them about the sin of schism, is the road most traveled today. This is easier than repenting of schismatic actions and realigning with the mind of biblical Christianity and the wider Anglican Communion. If the Episcopal Church will not change its direction this leaves those who love the Anglican heritage with only one thing to do: follow the biblical and consensual Christian teaching that defined Anglicanism before the Episcopal Church left to take another road.
Peter Lee’s 2006 address to the 209th council of the Diocese of Virginia, quoting James McCord (20th century Presbyterian leader): “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy.”
Jeffrey Steenson, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, has written a lively invitation for Episcopalians to come back to the mother church whose arms are open wide to receive them. (Address given to the Anglican Use Society Conference, San Antonio, TX, July 11, 2008 “The Causes for my Becoming Catholic.”) His failure, and it is a big one, is his misplaced loyalty to the apostolic office rather than to apostolic teaching (2 Timothy 2:2) - which defines the office and to which the office is sworn to uphold.
Along with the Great Schism that separated the Western and Eastern churches in 1054, not to mention the Western Schism (or Papal Schism) 1378-1417 when the Roman Church had dueling popes, sometimes three!
“As to the superior antiquity claimed for the Church of Rome, the question was once put by a Roman Catholic to a Protestant: ‘Where was your Church before the time of Martin Luther?’ ‘Where was your face before it was washed?’ was the rejoinder.” C.W. Mullin, Letter to the Editor The New York Times, November 29, 1900.
Even with the extraordinary effort of many theologians to bring the two churches together, Protestants still disagree with Catholics on the fundamental issue of salvation, whether grace is “infused” (we are good when we actually become good), or “imputed” (we are declared good because of God’s goodness, before we start becoming good).
Republished by permission of the author.
July 21, 2008
The Rev. Chuck Collins is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas.