Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jeff Murph: The Lesser of Evils: False Teaching or Schism?

The following is an original piece by The Rev. Jeff Murph, Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church Oakmont PA. (Diocese of Pittsburgh)

The Lesser of Evils: False Teaching or Schism?

Peter Lee of Virginia elicited howls of protest and outrage a few years ago when he observed that heresy was better than schism. In fact, though I have known and loved and respected Peter for decades, I was pretty sympathetic to his critics, mostly because I believed that he was being rather self-justifying (to defend his decision to give consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson—which the ensuing years have clearly revealed to be a schismatic action) as well as my concern that he was awfully quick to accept that the “lesser evil” of false teaching was necessary (since the lives of the ordained are supposed to be an example to the faithful then living in a sexual relationship outside of marriage constitutes an implicit false teaching).

Though I still think Bishop Lee was being disingenuous, in the light of impending realignment in our own diocese, I have begun to reflect on his claim from a different perspective. For years, I have prayed and counseled and spoken and voted against the drift of the Episcopal Church toward simply reflecting the cultural norms of our society. That certainly is not because I hate those who disagree with me (in fact, often I believe they are motivated by a sincere commitment to a particular biblical interpretation). It is just that, as hard as it sometimes can be, I still have personally seen the power of God’s Word written, interpreted by the apostolic tradition which has been passed down to us as a precious legacy, to renew and transform individual lives and even institutions. A commitment to a desire for holiness, whetted by an obedience in accord with that of the saints and by the help of the Holy Spirit, has led to the change even of nations over the course of Christian history. To depart from this inheritance, on the basis of culturally influenced values, seems a dangerous and precipitous decision to make. As the Anglican primates have said, the onus to justify such changes clearly lies upon the innovators. So, as a consequence, I view the lobbying agenda of certain interest groups in TEC with intense dismay and as being, at the very least, insensitive and unfaithful.

Many, at least in our diocese, sharing this dismay, have concluded that the jig is up, the battle lost, the retreat sounded. No longer is an “interior” strategy viable, my friends say. And based on this argument, they enthusiastically support realignment, which is a fancy way of describing the decision to split from the American Church and connect with the Argentine Church. Many have even argued that it is not really a split because they are just unplugging from the Anglican Communion in one room and plugging back into it in another. I have not been able to buy it. The vast majority of Americans, among whom we do the ministry of Jesus Christ, can only see this move as a church split. There has been no endorsement for this action from the Anglican Instruments of Unity (that we used to say were agents of accountability for us). And clearly it will represent a break, for the clergy, in our ordination vows to conform to the discipline of TEC. My critics, of course, retort that the leadership of the Episcopal Church has broken so many promises and vows themselves as if they were pie crusts. Yet, does that justify similar behavior?

Reflecting on all this, I began to re-examine Bishop Lee’s supposedly cynical self-justification. Looking through church history, clearly there have been unfaithful leaders in the church from the very beginning (just read Paul’s letters). Sometimes, in fact, these unfaithful leaders were in great majority and power (read about the life of Athanasius). Yet as history has proved, despite these terrible times of error, the Holy Spirit has always been faithful to bring the Church of Jesus Christ back into truth and unity, a tremendously hopeful witness that Jesus is indeed Head and Sovereign over his Church. Yet, on the other hand, when human leaders have divided the church because of disputes, then those divisions seem to calcify and remain (as if the spiritual baggage the leavers take with them acts as an obstacle from ever coming back together). So I have begun to see that perhaps Bishop Lee’s message should have been that schism simply compounds the evil of false teaching. It is using another wrong to combat a wrong. As messy and as infuriating and as terrifying as living in the Episcopal Church is for an apostolic and biblical Christian, breaking away is not the answer that the catholic witness of the saints throughout the ages have given—especially for those who still can worship in faithful parishes.


Aquila said...

Interesting post, with much of which I agree in principle. Perhaps Fr. Jeff will eventually reconsider the separation of the Anglican Church from Rome in the same light.

Celinda Scott said...

Fr. Murph's comment that "schism compounds the evils of false teaching" is very helpful. Schism is a result, partly, of impatience and distrust; false teaching is a result, partly, of ignorance and pride. It takes patience and perseverance to counteract false teaching, but it is possible. -- After centuries of violence and hatred, many Roman Catholics and Protestants presently value our common Christianity, and what we learn from each other, more than our differences. It would be better to avoid the enmity and destruction of schism in the first place.

Bob G+ said...

A very nice post,thank you. As one who has a foot in both sides of our present troubles, it is good to hear from someone who will continue on, despite the machinations of our present leadership.

Bruce Robison said...

To respond to Aquila, I think it is important to note that the separation of the English Church from Rome came about not because the English "left," but because the Roman Church enacted an excommunication. In this case, then, we might even say that it was an issue of "purity" (purity on the issue of papal primacy) that led the Roman Church to separate from the English, and not the other way 'round.

There was, in any case, plenty of sin to be observed on both sides of that divide. Some have felt that the strong interest and leadership in Anglican circles in the rise of the ecumenical movement through the 19th and 20th centuries was and is in some sense a way of "doing penance" for the sins of that historic fracture . . . .

William Tighe said...

"I think it is important to note that the separation of the English Church from Rome came about not because the English "left," but because the Roman Church enacted an excommunication."

This is factually and historically incorrect, however you look at it. If it is a reference to the "original split" under Henry VIII, then the pope excommunicated Henry and Cranmer only in 1534 when, in defiance of Canon Law (accepted in England as well as in Rome), Cranmer in May 1533 presumed to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and Henry (who had secretly and bigamously married Anne in January 1533) and Henry proclaimed Anne his queen and wife in June 1533. Cranmer was excommunicated for granting Henry the annulment in defiance of the fact that the annulment case was pending in Rome, and Henry was excommunicated for not breaking off his connection with Anne and returning to Catherine whan the pope upheld the validity of Henry's first marriage, as he did in late 1533. Henry's respionse was to get Parliament pass legislation repudiating the authority of Rome, and making it treason to uphold it. So clearly the initiative for schism was Henry's, not Rome's.

But if you are speaking of the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, the case is no better, indeed, worse. In Henry's case one could argue that the Church of England at least "went along with" Henry's break with Rome. But when the Act of Supremacy (which repudiated papal authority over the Church of England) and the Act of Uniformity (which replaced the Latin services with the Book of Common Payer) were making their way through Parliament in 1559, the Elizabethan government consulted the clergy and bishops assembled in the Convocation of Canterbury in 1559 about the proposed "reforms." The convocation's response was to pass five articles (1) upholding the Sacrifice of the Mass, (2) upholding transubstantiation, (3) upholding papal supremacy and (5) denying that secular authority had the authority or competence to "reform" the church. Elizabeth went ahead anyway, signed the bills when they passed Parliament, removed all but one of the Church of England's bishops and apponted others in their place; and all English c;ergy and bishops were required to sware an oath rejecting the "pretensed authority of the Bishop of Rome." This is clearly schism, and clearly the initiative for it came from the "Anglican" side. The papal excommunication of Elizabeth I did not come until 1570, too late to do any good; and the desire of a number of English bishops in early 1559 to excommunicate Elizabeth and her principal officials, once their intention to break with rome had become clear, was frustrated by thr cautious Archbishop of York, Nicholas Heath.

These are the historical facts, and it is hard to see how the contention that the schism was Rome's fault can be sustained in their light.

Bruce Robison said...

Dr. Tighe,

I think it's something of a fine point. The excommunication of 1570 was both an affirmative act of separation initiated by the Roman Church and a simple recognition of a reality of separation created eagerly and enthusiastically by at least the hard core of the English reformers. My intended main point, to restate, was

plenty of sin to be observed on both sides of that divide.

Which is, of course, true now as well. The notion that the schism implicit in the catastrophe of the 16th and 17th century Church of the West somehow provides a rationale or support for schism today just seems to me to be off base.

Bruce Robison

Aquila said...

Thank you, Dr. Tighe, for amplifying my point far better than I could do. Also, thanks to Mr. Robison for his thoughtful comments.

Perhaps I was too brief in my own comment, however, for there seems to be a suggestion that I was using separation of the CofE from Rome as a justification for the impending schisms in the Episcopal Church. My point, imperfectly made, is that the same reasoning Fr. Jeff used for the Episcopal schisms is applicable in the larger context of the separation of England and Rome. The implication I was attempting to draw is that a schism in the Episcopal church will lead to many bad unintended consequences, perhaps worse than heresy, just as the schism from Rome did. Hence, separating Anglicans need to be prepared for unforeseen and unpredictable consequences of their actions, and that it is likely that more schisms will occur in the future, just as the Anglican (and larger Protestant) movement has split and created hundreds of denominations (and non-denominations!) over the centuries since the original schism from Rome. To use an old saw, the cure may be worse than the disease. If anything, I would argue that events are moving along very hastily in the Anglican Communion and that much more prayer and debate is called for. Heresies are not easily defeated but if the Holy Spirit is truly present in the church, then truth must eventually overcome error, even if not in our lifetimes. Don't forget that at one time, most of the bishops of the Catholic church were heretical Arians, but that heresy, too, was eventually recanted and overcome, even though it took decades to accomplish.

As a further point, if the schisms in the Episcopal church are wrong by Fr. Jeff's reasoning, then perhaps debate is called for about the relationship between the Anglican Communion and Rome, and whether that split was not a worse cure than the disease it was supposed to heal.

Tony Seel said...

The appeal to instruments of unity (or communion)is weakened by the fact that the instruments have been ignored by pecusa, as well as have made statements regarding actions and not followed through on those actions.

We also have one instrument of unity (the Archbishop of Canterbury) contradicting another instrument (the primates) on a firm deadline. When the instruments don't follow through and aren't in agreement themselves, they hardly stand as instruments of unity or communion.

We have also seen the decision-making ability of another of the instruments (namely, Lambeth) stripped by the ABC in conjunction with pecusa and others by design. It should be obvious to the author that the instruments really have no power to do what the author claims they should be allowed to do.

Tony Seel said...

Bishop Lee’s dictum that when faced with the choices of heresy and schism we should choose heresy has been much discussed over the last four years or so. The fact that the apostolic church never chose to live with either does not dissuade those who hold firmly or tentatively to Lee’s construction. As the early church understood, living with heresy is a form of schism. Heresy divides.

At those junctures when heresy arose in the apostolic church, heresy was removed from the church by removing false teachers and reaffirming the true faith. Do we see the removal of false teachers in pecusa? Hardly - it is the false teachers who are in charge. It is the false teachers who are persecuting those who stand in the mainstream of traditional and contemporary Anglicanism. The unity that exists in pecusa between the orthodox and the innovators is a false unity - it is a fiction. We cannot have genuine unity with God and unity with each other in God’s Church while we are joined with those who promote false teachings, what the Apostle Paul called "another gospel."

(This is an edited version of a longer response at my blog - dcny.blogspot.com)