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After the assembled primates of the Anglican Communion had discussed the problem posed by the ordination of an openly gay American bishop, they issued a statement containing a striking phrase. They said that the ordination threatened to ‘tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level’. From an ancient Greek word, skizein, originally meaning ‘to rip, tear or cut cloth’, comes the word to which the Anglican primates thus delicately allude: ‘schism’.

As a technical term of theology and canon law, ‘schism’ means an organizational rupture in an ecclesiastical unity, turning one church into two or more. From the earliest times a distinction was drawn between heresy and schism, the former defined as perversion of dogma, the latter as separation from the Church. But as St Jerome recognized, heresy-involving differences over dogma are the chief reason for most schisms anyway. ‘By false doctrine heretics wound the faith,’ said St Augustine, ‘by iniquitous dissensions schismatics deviate from fraternal charity.’

Well might these early Church Fathers ponder such matters, for their religion is a ferociously schismatic one. As early as ad 63, just thirty years after the death of its founding figure, the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem split from the gentile church then being built by St Paul. The unedifying tale is told in the Acts of the Apostles; a sticking point, so to say, was the vital question of circumcision. While that was happening St Paul was writing to the chronically argumentative and fissiparous Corinthians, ‘I beseech you, brethren ... let there be no schisms among you,’ for the process threatening the Anglican communion, which in recent times gave us the fragmentation of the Church of Scotland into a Free Church, a Wee Free Church and a Wee Wee Free Church (like a set of acrimonious Russian dolls taking each other to court over church property and funds), had already begun.

So many were the schisms of the early Latin Church, no century passed without at least two major cases. Typical in their causes were, for example, the schisms of Hippolytus in ad 217 and of Novatian in ad 251, namely, their conviction that their respective Popes did not punish sinners and apostates harshly enough. Doctrinal quarrels involving Arians, Gnostics, Nestorians, Pelagians and many more - each of these labelled ‘her­esies’ by the side that won the argument - resulted in schisms and persecutions, the latter intended to nullify the former.

But the two greatest schisms in Christendom did not prove amenable to punitive solutions. The first is the Great Schism of the East, in which the Latin Church of Western Europe parted from the Orthodox communions in the east. The separation of the Roman Empire’s western and eastern halves, and the increasing importance of Constantinople thereafter, was the starting point, although the process was a long and gradual one. It was only formally accepted after the failure of the Council of Florence in 1439, despite having been de facto the case for seven centuries. Greek, Russian, Serbian and other Orthodox communions looked to the Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople as their primi inter pares, but the Patriarchs never had the authority of Rome’s Popes, who for their part thought that the whole Church, east and west, owed obedience to them as St Peter’s linear successors.

The second Great Schism is usually regarded as the circumstance of the Latin Church having two Popes, one in Avignon. But in reality it was the Reformation. The Protestant churches that came into existence after Luther’s nailing of theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517 have never ceased to proliferate. Multiplying like bacteria by constant fission, there are now over 20,000 separate Churches in the United States alone. Accordingly the Reformation should perhaps be renamed the Great Ongoing Schisms. In accordance with the truth that ‘divided they fall’, for most of the period since the Reformation the west’s churches have been diminishing forces. Even where evangelical versions have lately flourished, as in America and West Africa, it is on the seductive basis of treating material prosperity in this life as a divine reward, in defiance of scriptural teaching to the contrary.

The threatened schism within Anglicanism turned on a scriptural teaching which some Anglicans are not minded to defy, namely, the proscription of homosexuality in Leviticus 18: 22. Here schism seems to be the right answer, for a church which does not accept a gay person seems well worth schisming from.


                                                            From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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