Sunday, March 11, 2007

O'Donovan on schism and unity

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart. God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the Gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come! There is no right, or duty, of schism. As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment. But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity. The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.

- Oliver O'Donovan, Ethics and Agreement: Sermons on the Subjects of the Day (2), final paragraph.

I'd love to hear some reactions to this quote. It may help to also read this paragraph from a little earlier in the sermon:
In the view of the New Testament, what grounds justify a deliberate breach in communion within the church? Two contradictory answers press themselves on us, each with apparent inevitability. On the one hand, we are never justified in breaking communion within the church of Jesus Christ, for schism is sin; on the other hand, communion implies and requires fundamental agreement in the Gospel. Those who "go out" from the church of Christ declare that they were not of it (1 John 2:18). Yet disagreement is not something we are free to relativise or set to one side. So unity in the truth turns out to be a commitment that may pull us in opposite directions to opposite conclusions: there is no communion-breaking moral disagreement, on the one hand; on the other, any disagreement is potentially communion-breaking. The one answer we cannot find is the answer we set out to find: this, rather than that, is the specific cause that will justify a breach.


Unknown said...

Am I the only "Sydney Anglican" scratching their head at the moment?

I'm getting a bit confused about all this schism talk, mostly because it seems to imply that moving anywhere outside of Anglican communion is stepping outside the will of God... Was I a sinner as a Presbyterian? Should I repent of my Brethren years?

Guy Davies said...

I think that separation is not schism when fundamental gospel truth is at stake. If a church or denomination has largely departed from the gospel, then separation is a sad necessity.

AndrewE said...

Hi Byron,

I think these quotes are from sermon 2, The Care of the Churches.

Joanna, O'Donovan certainly does not regard being an Anglican as the only option. Earlier in this very sermon he writes, "being an Anglican is simply a specific modulation of being a Christian." What he does think is that for Anglicans to split, declaring some to be outside communion (i.e. not just not Anglican, but not Christian), is a sin if it is a positive step. It can only be right as a sad recognition of what has actually happened.

byron smith said...

Andrewe - yes, my mistake. The link was right, just not the number.

Guy - Was this Paul's approach in Galatians with a church that had largely departed from the gospel?

Guy Davies said...


Good question. The church at Galatia was very young. Wasn't Galatians one of Paul's first epistles? Paul acted to bring the church back to the gospel and warned them in no uncertain terms that false teachers lie under God's anathema.

I seems that Paul was able to bring this immature church back from the brink with instruction and admonition. This must always be the first recourse when confronted by serious error. But if a church or denomination persists in gospel-denying heresy, how can fellowship be maintained?

Paul told the church at Rome to separate from heretics (Rom 16:17 & 18). Similar strictures are found in 3 John.

michael jensen said...

Well, it is certainly NOT the case that the C of E is guilty of gospel denying heresy... Though it is has some errant leaders, granted, they are do not speak for the official line. We wouldn't want to be Donatists either, or course...