On Schism

On Schism

by The Rev. Richard L. B. Sutter. rsutter@aya.yale.edu

Beloved in Christ, Grace and peace be unto you from our God and Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Happy feast of St Aelred of Rievaulx!

Permit me to share with you a few theological thoughts. There are, we are told, something more than eighty million Anglicans throughout the world. Eighty-plus million! That's approximately the equivalent of the entire population of the United States west of the Mississippi River. Of these eighty-plus million world-wide Anglicans, some 2.7 million reside in the United States, which is approximately the equivalent of the population of the Denver Metro area. Of these U.S. Anglicans, a few thousand -- about the population of Aspen or Salida--have separated relations from the Episcopal Church in the United States.

These relationships have been broken over a variety of issues, ranging from the 1960's civil rights movement and Bp James Pike's denial of the Resurrection of Christ, to the late 1970's revision of the Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women.

The group which left ECUSA in 1978 organized an ecclesial body which splintered into three parts in less than a year. The largest of these splinters underwent more splintering and suffered greatly when a number of its bishops, priests, parishes, and members broke away to merge with one of the groups which had left the Episcopal Church a decade earlier.

The various successive splintering of these Church bodies has continued to this day. While painful for us to recall, and even more painful to read when phrased as if for readers unfamiliar with the circumstances, the facts are nonetheless indisputable. Trying to dignify their existence, several of those groups loudly proclaim that their jurisdiction (whichever one that might be) is the one true Church; a claim ludicrous in the extreme. All the groups in what we call "the continuing Church movement" comprise at most generous estimate less than five thousand individuals in the United States, with a disproportionately high number of bishops and other clergy.

Three-fourths of these five thousand souls are divided among the three primary splinters, with the rest of the individuals accounting for some twenty-plus other splinters. Nearly thirty overlapping and duplicated ecclesial jurisdictions comprising no more than a few thousand souls--hardly the best example of Christian unity that we can offer to the world!

Although the splinter groups prefer the term "Continuing Church" or "Continuing Anglican," yet a more accurate term would be the highly descriptive: "separated Anglicans." This term describes the breakaways not only because of the separation from Canterbury and the rest of the Anglican Communion, but also because separation appears to be our defining characteristic. We are separated in a way we need carefully to examine.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines schism as the "[f]ormal and willful separation from the unity of the Church." This both accurately and perfectly describes our condition. Schism, we dare not forget, is a sin, and a mortal one at that. Those who separate for reasons less than heresy, are guilty, guilty of the mortal sin of schism.

So is our separation justified by heresy? Heresy, you recall, is "the obstinate denial or doubt, on the part of a baptized person, of a truth that must be believed." There is no denial of a dogma on the part of Canterbury or the Episcopal Church. Are some Episcopalians in heresy? Yes, a very few will deny dogmas like the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ, but does the Episcopal Church teach that? No, therefore no heresy is involved, and consequently all of the separated Anglicans are guilty of the sin of schism. The Prayerbook itself warns us, in the prayer For the Unity of God's People, "^EGive us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions." These dangers are to our immortal souls, dangers we risk as long as we permit this unjustified separation to continue. Once it seemed otherwise, but it is presently clear that few, if any pockets of health exist within bodies so beset by self-righteousness, negativity, and a sectarian spirit. If you permit me to use a medical metaphor, the disease of schism is systemic; it permeates the entire body, and encourages more to fall into sin.

Can we be forgiven this sin? Of course we can, but the requirement for forgiveness is repentance. So long as we intend to continue in sin, we are not eligible to be absolved, and forgiveness is far from us. We must firmly resolve to do all in our power, where possible, to end this evil. May God grant us continued mercy so that we have time to show true repentance.

For my part, after many months of long and due prayerful consideration, and after consultation with my spiritual director, I know what steps I must take to forgiveness. Forgiveness, we must remember, is what the Church is all about; it is our sole purpose for existence. Therefore, it is with mingled regrets for the past and great joy and hope for the future that in this season of Epiphany, when the Church celebrates the many ways in which God manifests himself to us in our Lord Jesus Christ, that I announce that I shall heal the sin where I can. I gladly proclaim St Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ, and, effective immediately, I renounce the ministry of the Anglican Catholic Church and engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. I joyously invite all to join in this wonderful healing and come with me to help build Christ's kingdom!

The Episcopal Church welcomes you, and we are going home.

Faithfully,

/s/ (the Rev'd) Richard L. B. Sutter
Priest in Christ's holy catholic Church
Psalm 110.4


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