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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 165

The first big schism



In this article I want to look at the nature of schisms by looking at what I consider to be the first great schism. And I am not referring to the great schism after a thousand years of Christianity, when the Roman Catholic and the Eastern churches separated and went their own ways. The first schism happened long before that.

In fact, the first schism happened within a few decades of the death of Jesus on the cross. We are not sure of the date exactly, but it was around thirty or forty years after the crucifixion. And it is very profitable to look at what happened because it can teach us, I think, a lot about the nature of schisms.

I define a schism as something that involves division - both intellectual (of the mind) and of the heart. It is disagreeing and deciding to separate. It is where one side or both feel they can no longer stay in fellowship with the others. Lets see what happened in that first century.

Some things about the first schism are clear. What are less clear are exact dates and places and subsequent relationships. So what happened? Very simply they disagreed about how to deal with newcomers to their new faith. Who were ‘they’? They were the people who made up the earliest church in Jerusalem - the church that was created in Jerusalem at Pentecost. After Christ died there was Pentecost when the Spirit fell upon the people and the ‘church’ was launched in a burst of joy and excitement. The excitement of those days come through very clearly in the Acts of the Apostles - which is worth reading in a modern translation such as The New Living Bible or the Message as these convey the excitement very clearly.

In those very early years the Christian Church grew in an organic way - that is to say, they grew because their faith was infectious and others ‘caught’ it. It did not appear to be intellectual - there were few creedal statements coming from those early years. Perhaps the best known was the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ or somesuch.

The early Christians in Jerusalem experimented with communal living - sharing their money and assets and living together as Christians. Numbers were added each day - and as they grew they had to organise themselves. They became the Church of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and had to start to create some organisation. We don’t know much about how they regarded themselves, nor about their organisation except that eventually James, the brother of Jesus, seems to have been the head of the church there.

In the first two decades (as I said, a lot of the detail is missing!) a brilliant Jew was converted. His name was Saul and he was renamed Paul - as a Christian - and started to take the good news of Jesus Christ to those outside Israel - to the non Jews.

This was a new and revolutionary development - and must have seemed risky to the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Gentiles had a completely different way of looking at things - they were not Jewish in any way. Their outlook was completely different and we can imagine some of the older Jews who had adopted Christianity thinking that no good would come of it.

Paul steamed ahead and travelled all over the Roman World - and in each place he preached and, following his visit, a small group of Christian believers would become established. Soon Paul was writing to these little groups, as well as sending members of his preaching team over to them to help them get established and to grow as Christians. In effect Paul and his team were shepherding many of these new little communities of Christians.

It was at around this time that the schism occurred. It has been the constant experience of the church through the ages that at any one time there are always two groups of Christians. One group always wants to hold onto the faith ‘as received’ - the faith of their forefathers. They consider it so precious and so important that no part of it must be lost or altered. The essentials (usually understood quite widely) must be preserved - so that it can be handed on through the generations intact.

But then there is also a second group. They are those who look outwards and try to relate the new knowledge gained in each century to their faith. Not necessarily changing the essentials - but certainly being prepared to let go of parts of the old faith to take account of new knowledge and concepts.

Paul was grappling with new people, new ideas, new beliefs, new technology, new concepts of the world. He, like so many Christians since his time, want to preserve the essence of the faith but they are prepared - indeed, ready and willing, to let go of certain aspects that they consider out of date or now superseded. Such Christians - often living at the perimeter of Christian tradition - have a better perspective from which to see that some of the old faith that has been preserved can now be released without any fear of the essential message being corrupted or curtailed.

So this is the cause of the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem Church. They drifted apart in their thinking. The Jerusalem Jews tried to preserve the faith they had learned from the beginning, and Paul wanted to release the faith from what he saw as impediments - aspects that held back the spread of the essential faith to all people everywhere.

It is clear from the Acts of the Apostles and from Galatians that there was a head-on clash. A conference was called (no, not at Lambeth!) and the matter thrashed out. Should the Jerusalem Church refuse to accept the insights that Paul had? Or should they send him on his way without their blessing.? Could they preserve their unity - even though they differed?

The outcome can be read in Acts, but one should also read Galatians because it can be construed that Paul and Peter went their separate ways after their disagreement - it was in effect a form of early schism, although the Jerusalem Church had come up with a compromise formula to prevent an open schism.

Very soon afterwards the Jerusalem Church was shattered into a thousand pieces when the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. The Jerusalem Christians were scattered across Asia Minor - and as we know Paul and his team went on to birth the Christian Church we know today.

But surely a schism is always about doctrines? Surely it is about changing something that has always been believed? Well - yes, that is correct. But not the whole truth. Schism is much more than a doctrinal disagreement. It is also about the heart.

Christianity is about mind and heart. “ The greatest of these is to love the Lord…all your heart and mind’ If we may break fellowship because of a doctrinal belief it is also because in our hearts we have resiled from open loving and accepting fellowship with the other Christians with whom we disagree.

And that is what happened with the first schism. Clearly there was a breakdown not only over the intellectual and doctrinal problems of gentiles coming into the faith - but also there was a breakdown of fellowship. They parted company. There was a lack of heart-unity. That’s how I read the New Testament.

And that same double effect - severance of heart and mind - can be traced all down the centuries in the schisms that have happened - and they have certainly been frequent.

So how does the great homosexuality debate of the twenty first century show up in the light of the past schisms?

Well - it is abundantly clear that, despite the expressions of fellowship (shown by assurance of prayers) - the two sides no longer trust or even like each other. It is clear when you read the blogs. It is clear when you read the pronouncements by African Bishops. It is clear that they have closed their hearts to their brothers and sisters who think differently on the liberal side? It is clear in the superior tone adopted by some liberals. I detect a firm conclusion on both sides of the debate that the other side has closed its mind and that they will never change - indeed, are incapable, in their environment, of ever changing. On both sides there is a hopelessness and a finality about the whole affair.

So what about the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC)? Where does he stand? Clearly he stands in the middle, hoping and believing that somehow these two groups can be brought to a place where they agree to go forward together. His job is to try for unity until all hope is gone. And then his job is to effect as clean and as satisfactory a break as is possible. The key question is - how do you decide when all hope is gone?

I suppose you accept defeat in the compromise stakes when one side or the other makes a decisive step that completely shuts the other side out from their fellowship. After all, fellowship with one an other is the very essence of Christianity. If one side takes decisive steps to shut the other out, then although you can go on trying, an important staging post has been passed. After that point it is surely right to start to plan for an orderly separation and so make the best of an impossible situation.

Has that point been reached?

On the one side - the liberals - it is now unclear whether those in charge of the churches with a liberal agenda have enough power to stop their members breaking one or more of the three moratoria laid down. These are no gay blessings, no gay ordinations, and no incursions across boundaries. Although it is not yet decided or clear - it seems probable that there will still be some gay blessings and some gay ordinations in the American Church - possibly with official sanction.

On the other side - the conservative evangelicals - it is very clear that not only are they determined in their refusal to even have fellowship with those with whom they disagree, but they have now set up an organisation in competition with the existing structure of the Anglican Communion - which is, to say the very least, provocative.

So has the point of no return been reached? When does the ABC say ‘enough is enough’?

Pause for a moment to think what you would do if you were the ABC. Is it even possible for the powers that be to make what is called ‘a clean break’? How can one deal with this situation other than trying to bring harmony and compromise out of the discord? That means that the ABC has to go on trying to talk and reason with the breakaways - the Gafcon faction - trying meanwhile to hold the rest of the Communion together.

And that is exactly what we see the ABC doing. Next round in this dispute will be the Primates meeting next February.

So it is all going to go on for a time yet, while we all see what actually transpires. No one can foretell what will happen. No one is powerful enough to resolve the differences. No one can produce a workable compromise, because the two sides are diametrically opposed.

But sooner or later the matter will be resolved. Those who want to stay with the faith inherited from our fathers will hang onto their ideas and priorities. Those more prepared to adjust to modern day discoveries and new insights and knowledge will continue to work at preserving the essentials of the faith while taking into account all the new knowledge we have obtained.

So we are at point of schism again. Efforts will no doubt continue to find a compromise solution until it is seen as impossible by everyone. The break could come anytime soon - or in five years time.

Meanwhile gay people continue to be regarded by ‘the church’ as of dubious worth. They are considered at best sinful and at worst possessed by evil forces. In many nations of the world homosexuality continues to be a crime. In even more countries it is discriminated against in one way or another. Sometimes people are killed because they are gay. Often they are put in prison. And meantime the Christian Church is divided on whether gay people are acceptable to God or not. What a tragic situation!

There is one incredibly bright spot in all of this. It is that the more advanced societies - and I count the UK among them - civil law has recognised the acceptability of homosexuality and the rights of gay people. It really is a case of the church struggling to catch up with the true insights of society and of ordinary people.

Tony Cross

August 2008


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