Schism?

Schism?

by The Rev. L. William Countryman bcountryman@gabriel.cdsp.edu

I have some doubts as to whether the neat distinction between those who make experience the supreme consideration and those who do the same with scripture is valid. I think all of us read scripture through the lenses of our experience (including the lenses of culture, race, ethnicity, educational status, etc.), and I don't personally know any Anglicans whose experience (or their interpretation of it) isn't profoundly influenced by their reading of scripture.

I have no problem at all with affirming the centrality of scripture in our tradition, but that doesn't settle the questions. Our reading of the Bible doesn't always lead all of us to the same conclusions. I am distressed when those who invoke the authority of scripture turn out to be unwilling to read it carefully themselves or to enter into honest and open conversation with those who read it differently. In such cases, I suspect that they are invoking scripture as a stand-in for something else--something on the order of received opinion in their particular corner of the world.

Scripture is still and will always be full of surprises. Many if not all the great moments of renewal in our history, starting with Jesus himself, have been inspired by and have generated new reading of scripture. Most of them have been greeted with dismay by those who felt that they broke with received opinion. This doesn't, of course, mean that every new movement is right. It only means that it is a mistake to identify received opinion too easily as an accurate reflection of the authentic meaning of scripture. We are children of the Reformation and our tradition ought to hold us back from making that mistake.

As to 'schism,' I suppose I've usually thought of the term primarily in the context of pre-Constantinian Christianity where it was certainly a possibility--and occasionally a reality. I think any breach of existing communion is schismatic. Is schism sometimes a less grievous sin than countenancing doctrine that one believes is destructive of the Gospel? I suppose so. I think that was the case for our Reformation forebears. On the other hand, I think that the great majority of the schisms that have left Western Christianity so fragmented were premature and ill-advised--even perhaps arrogant. A good many of them have been facilitated by a presumption that it is possible for human beings to know the Truth of God in considerable detail, right down to such questions as whether God likes instrumental music on Sunday mornings. That seems to me a dubious assumption.

Bill Countryman
L. William Countryman bcountryman@gabriel.cdsp.edu
Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies
The Church Divinity School of the Pacific
2451 Ridge Road
Berkeley, CA 94709-1217
(510)204-0719


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