Monday, November 13, 2006

The more things change...

I just had a most enlightening couple hours in Patristic Theology. We learned about the Donatist controversy. It was mid-4th century, following a persecution during which some had apostasized and others not. Those who were more rigorist in their definition of church rejected the apostates after the persecution ended. Others, the Catholic church among them, believed that the apostates could repent and return to the flock. Their baptism made them members of the Church, and their sin, horrible as it was, didn't change that. Basically it came down to what sins can be forgiven.

So by the time Augustine came along, the Donatist church had become this place where holiness was held as the standard and any person not baptized into their holy, pure church by their holy, pure priests was not a true Christian. Their Church was the one true body of Christ on earth.

Augustine argued against them that the unity of the Church is more important than the sin of individual members. He had the Donatist's favorite guy, Cyprian, on his side here - Cyprian actually said that schism is a worse sin than apostasy. A crime against love for another brother or sister in Christ, no matter what he or she has done, is the worser sin.

And this just got me thinking about my church worldwide, and especially those congregations in my diocese who have decided that the rest of us aren't holy enough for them anymore and have split off into a "true" "pure" church. Now we know who won in the end back in the day (that would be Augustine and the unity folks), but what I can't figure out is how to actually resolve it this time, without an Augustinian authority, without that voice that both sides would listen to.

It is also extremely difficult to woo back those who have left because they think you are not a Christian anymore. How do you love them back into unity? They are the ones who left. It would seem they have to choose to return. I don't know. I want us to be a unified communion. But how can we be when people don't stay and discuss the issues - they just up and leave?

I guess I could quote Augustine at them: “Whosoever has separated himself from the unity of the wheat on account of offenses chargeable against the tares . . . will be unable to defend himself from the charge of murder which is involved in the ‘mere’ offense of dissension and schism, as [1 John 3:15] says, ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.’”
[Contra litteras Petiliani Donatistae 2.21.46, in NPNF 4.541.]

I mean, I'm not trying to be a jerk here. This kind of talk is what kept the church together. It sounds offensive to our ears, because we don't like being told what to believe and we'd rather avoid conflict than possibly admit we are wrong (or admit that we can live together in disagreement). Of course lots and lots of groups throughout history have separated over some sin or another and determined that God is only with their group. But that feels like an awfully small God.

Ah, the one true thing is that really it was us Episcopalians who schismed first. The people leaving our church are (attempting) to return to mother Anglican church. Fair enough. Perhaps we shouldn't have done what we did, that upset so many people. But then again, we never wanted to leave the Communion - we just got shut out. I suppose one answer would be to deny our changing congregations and return to the conservative beliefs. Perhaps that would be the loving thing to do.
(except it wouldn't be loving to our own people...argh!)

This stuff is really hard. I guess what I'm aiming for is an agreement to at least sit at the same table - and eat at the same table/altar - instead of leaving the room (or diocese). Those of us who offended others with our "sin" have not left the discussion. We are open to the discussion. But how can you discuss when the offended party won't speak to you?


Edette said...

The minute I read Donatist, in your first sentence, I laughed. I was thinking about that very issue yesterday in our discussions about the church! I like how you put it, "A crime against love for another brother or sister in Christ, no matter what he or she has done, is the worser sin." It is a good modern summation of Augustine. One thing I have come to believe is that the suits over property rights between the churches in LA that have left, and the diocese claiming they still own the property, were not a good way to go. I certainly understand the anger, hurt, and frustration I think the suits really communicate. But the loving thing to have done is say, "We do not agree, and this split hurts us to the core, but if you must leave at least leave in the grace and peace of the Lord." This slamming of the door in a fight is understandable, but one would have hoped for better from our leaders. And it makes their return to the table almost impossible. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer: the sad thing is the amount of hatred on both sides of the argument. There seems to be no higher ground, no higher road. The way of love seems abadoned by all. That is human nature, but it is not the better angels of our nature. The devil is in division. This I know coming from an endlessly fractured tradition. The devil has used us all. And now for the other equally true side of the coin: One of the most memorable moments I had in a classroom at Fuller was in my Theology of Asia/Africa/Latin America class. One of the students from northern Africa said that much of the fall of that part of the continent to Islam, from the faith of Augustine, came because the church allowed such 'lapses.' He named the Donatist movement. The people of that part of the world have always been formed by their harsh environment. Strict living is a must, and we lost them when we said strict living is not necessary. The truth is we always must be calling one another to strict (holy) lives, and we must do so in love. Neither are easy, we all tend to one end of that spectrum or the other. And we all always fail at both. But ultimatley it is the body of our Messiah that suffers long and hard for our error in both directions.

Stasi said...

VERY well put Edette. And I can't even claim credit for the phrase you's Thompson's.

Anonymous said...

Beloved younger sister, I do agree. I even raised it with Bishop Sisk during the formation of the Windsor Report.

He reminded me that, Augustine's authority notwithstanding, the Donatist Controversy lasted a generation, and the similar Novationist movement lasted at least three. Sadly, that suggests that this will not be settled easily or quickly, regardless of any authority we might raise (for example, clearer statements from Canterbury).

I've watched over the last generation those who left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women and revision of the Prayer Book. They aren't unified, but neither have they shown any inclination to reconsider their decisions. We'll ride this out, and Gamaliel's wisdom will show through: that which is of God will stand. I firmly believe we'll still be here, and still be proclaiming the welcoming Gospel of Christ.

Edette said...

Thanks for the reminder about Gamaliel!

Anonymous said...

I've never been in favor of churches splitting, whether at a congregation, diocese, or denominational level. But I think that many in the Episcopal Church (my wife's parents and grandparents, one of whom is a priest, particularly) who feel that they sat at the table and ate at the altar and laid their beliefs and convictions out and were met with some form of passive-aggressive hostility. They were considered "reactionary", called "literalists", and decisions about the issues were made without them and against their objections. Also consider that Bp. Schori stated in an interview that those in the Communion who have a theological problem with the ordination of women will have to "get over it." Is that the picture of tolerance and a desire for conversation?

None of this doesn't excuse the split, but it shows that those who eventually left made a concerted effort to have dialogue. They didn't just "up and leave" when something happened that they disagreed with.

Part of the difficulty of the discussion is the truth in the fact that many of us don't have proper respect for the tension between grace and law; between the call to a holy life and our utter inability to achieve it. We tend to one side or the other, as you said. And we who place the authority of the Bible above our own reason find resistance and ridicule from many who say that the Bible's call to love supersedes its moral code.

But that isn't so...they are coequal: The righteousness of the Father, the freely given grace of the Son, and the love and comfort of the Holy Spirit exist equally in this world. We cannot love someone while allowing them to do things that the Bible prohibits. Accountability is part of love. Accountability for our purity, for our discipline, and for our attitudes toward others are all important.

The growing theology of the Episcopal church (as I've perceived through family and the news, as work at a Lutheran church) is that love and forgiveness are more important than repentance. But do we believe that there is forgiveness without repentance? I'm not sure that I do.