31 July, 2008

A Modern Donatism?

Many, in discussing the trials and tribulations of Anglicanism in the 21st Century have compared those exiting The Episcopal Church to the Donatists of the 4th Century, and not without cause or justification. A little history here will suffice.

About a.d. 303, the emperor Diocletian embarked upon a systematic persecution of the Christians, at first demanding that they surrender their bibles, and then demanding that they offer incense to him, both intolerable to the faithful. A number of Christians, however, did in fact offer up the books, turn in other Christians and offer incense to the emperor in an effort to save their own lives. Some avoided having to make the difficult choices and simply fled for their lives. In the year 311, many who had not succumbed to the pressures of the pagan emperor were outraged that a bishop,
Felix of Aptunga, had consecrated Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage. They felt that Felix, by having bowed to the pressures to save his own life, had become apostate and therefore unworthy of his episcopal ministry. A schism ensued which lasted for the better part of a century.

Sound familiar? Many of the themes that played themselves out in the Donatist schism are at work in Anglicanism today, and unfortunately, those of us on the "reasserter" side of the argument are all too open to the siren song of our ancient brethren who, rather than accept the fallenness of their brethren simply wandered off and established their own jurisdiction.

Let's see where this can take us. Are there substantial differences between the Donatist schismatics 800 years ago and now? If so, what are they?

We can start with the fact that those who came to be labeled "tradators," those who offered up the books and incense, did so out of a genuine fear for their lives. Books are replaceable, my life isn't, they seem to have reasoned. In all honesty, while it is easy for us to sit back and judge their actions harshly, who among us cannot understand their impulses, their fear and their very human response? Would we have done any differently? Would we be willing to offer up our lives for a book which would be destroyed after our demise anyway? Are we that brave? Many were. Some weren't. This was the dilemma facing the Church in the wake of the Donatist schism.

The Donatists not only refused to keep company with the tradators, they required that anyone baptized by them undergo a re-baptism because the Church they came from had lost any and all rights to administer the Sacraments by their apostasy. Only the pure church had that right, and the Donatists represented that Church! This was and is problematic on many levels. First, it is not the righteousness of the celebrant of the Sacrament that ensures its efficacy. If it were, then it is difficult to see how any Sacraments could have been validly administered in the history of the Church! It is God in Christ acting through the Sacraments to administer His grace to us. The Sacraments convey grace ex opere operato -- by virtue of the work done. The worthiness or attitude of the minister celebrating or administering the Sacrament matters not (as long as certain conditions are met, of course. A layman cannot validly ordain or celebrate Mass, for example). This, of course means, much to the chagrin of many conservative Anglicans, that even those baptized, confirmed or ordained by Gene Robinson or Jack Spong are recipients of valid Sacraments! Sorry, but that's the way it works out.

This, of course, has echoes in our own Articles of Religion. Article 26 reads in part as follows:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

While I would certainly refrain from characterizing Bishops Spong or Robinson as "evil men," I certainly have problems with their theologies as expressed in print. Nevertheless, even our own historic Anglican faith allows them a place at the table, as does the history of the undivided Church, but with some caveats.

We will recall that Augustine's first response was to reason with his Donatist brethren, figuring that there was something reasonable in them that he could address, something that could convince them to return to the fold peaceably and amicably. It was not to be because their position was too firmly entrenched. A pox on your house! But what of the tradators? What was their status to be in the renewed, post - persecution Church? Augustine reasoned that the clergy who had given up the books, fled or offered incense were to be allowed back into the Church after a time of penance. The Church, he reasoned, is a hospital for sinners, not an ark for saints.

How does this all too brief history lesson relate to Anglicanism today? Many of the parallels are too obvious for me to point out. Some, however, may be a bit more subtle.

In the first place, even those who accuse the Episcopal Church of apostasy on the scale of the tratadors cannot draw an exact parallel because no one in this country is in danger of losing his or her life because of their religious beliefs (Branch Davidians excepted, and then under a previous administration). The same cannot, however, be said of the Church in Uganda, for example, where the faithful have given their very lives for their faith in Christ. Whatever error the Episcopal Church has slipped into has been entirely voluntary, and not because of any threat to the lives of individual parishioners or clergy. The causes of said errors are a subject for another day and discussion, but suffice to say that whatever errors and however grave they may be, they do not affect the efficacy of the Sacraments administered by those in Episcopal Orders, no matter how grave our disagreements with them might be or how comforting it might be to sit back and hurl invective at those liberal heretics! Christ can even work through them -- or us!

Several of the African primates might take issue with some of the above. "After all," they might reason, "our people have died for their faith, which you Americans and Canadians have simply walked away from in favor of the liberal social cause d' jour. What makes you think that you can be on a par with these Anglican martyrs of the 20th Century? What arrogance!" To a large degree, I would almost have to agree. Again, however, their argument misses the point somewhat. Setting aside for the moment the issue of female ordinations and consecrations (an entirely different can of worms), if the worthiness of the minister of the Sacraments does not, as we have seen, affect the efficacy of the Sacraments he administers, can we avoid indictment for the sin of pride when we issue mutual condemnations?

Perhaps avoiding schism over these issues is too much to expect or hope for, failing direct divine intervention. The cynic in me says that it is, that both sides of this debate are hell bent for leather and that nothing short of unconditional surrender will satisfy either side. This seems to be the case. Maybe we are in fact headed for a century long schism like the 4th Century Church was forced to endure. I pray not. The tragedy, and the truth, is that both sides are wrong in this tragedy. Both sides are anxious to excommunicate the other, to declare their opponents apostate, heretical, and either behind the curve or not even in the ball park. Can the Episcopal Church survive? It will in one form or another. Will it be part of the Anglican Communion in 10 or 20 years? We'll find out together. Does it matter to the Episcopal Church? Ah, that's the question.

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