Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What's Your Favorite Heresy? Or, Heresy vs Schism...Which is Worse?

Having recently been called a heretic on an ultra-conservative "Anglican", anti-Episcopal Church blog, by a particularly mean-spirited opponent of the Presiding Bishop, I feel as though I've earned my stripes. Paul Zahl, in his book Grace in Practice, suggests that if people begin to call you "antinomian", it probably means that you are beginning to preach Grace correctly. "Heretic" is a strong word. It has, and in some cases still does, get one burned or stoned or hung or pinned, and sometimes not just figuratively. I never thought I would be called a heretic. But I was. So I thought I would deal with this misunderstood, over-used and too-easily tossed about new favorite "cuss-word" of many of today's "champions of orthodoxy" (to be specific, what I mean here by "orthodoxy" is a particularly virulent sort of modern, neo-Calvinistic evangelicalism that seems to have lost confidence in God's ability to save, correct, or guide His church, and so adherants try to do the job for Him). I was called a "heretic" in a blog response for remaining in the Episcopal Church and then a second time for stating that I pray daily for the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts-Schori. From the start, let me say I don't accede to the accusation at all, of course, but not for the reasons you might think. I also don't grant any credence to this angry person, at least on his use of the word "heresy", because he is obviously misinformed about many things. And if he finds Bp. Jefferts-Schori to be his enemy (which I don't), I wonder how he justifies his own potentially heretical (better, "schismatic") flaunting of Jesus' command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, if that is, indeed, how he sees her.

A former bishop of mine (and I don't know whom he was quoting or borrowing from) used to say we all have our "favorite" heresy, that is, a preferred construct toward which one "leans" in a good-hearted desire either to "protect" God (as if He needs us to or as if we could). Or perhaps it stems from our well-intentioned motives to protect and defend people from "harsh-sounding doctrine." In this sense, then, my "favorite heresy" is Marcionism. Marcion was a scholar who taught that the God of the Old Testament seemed so arbitrary and capricious, so cruel, even, toward people, indeed so inconsistent with retribution and wrath, inconsistent with faithfulness, love and mercy, that He could not possibly be the same God portrayed in the New Testament who is Love personified, self-sacrificing and humble, loving and  graceful toward Jew and Gentile alike. Of course, I do not subscribe to this heretical view that the Gods of the Old and New Testaments are not the same person. But I must say that I do not recommend the Old Testament (except maybe the Psalms or some choice passages of tender mercy) to seekers. I always point them to the Gospels first so that they might experience Jesus and walk with Him awhile.

Certain "heresies" are sometimes proffered as an explanatory, or simplifying measure of how we think about God. The Trinity, for example, is nearly an impossible concept to understand mentally. Who among us has not, in our attempt to explain it to little children,  used a "pastoral heresy", either by using the heresy of "partialism" (the Father is the match stick, Jesus is the flame, the Holy Spirit is the heat generated by the flame) or "modalism" (I can be at once a father, a son and a husband).  So I am fond of the collect in our BCP  For the Church: "Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it." The implication of the prayer is that God is capable
of caring for His church and does not need for us to act in proxy for Him.

In 1999 The Reverend Pierre Whalon (now Bishop in charge of Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, based in Paris, France ) pointed out that schism causes a lasting scar to the Body of Christ. Heresy, on the other hand, forces the church to articulate its message more accurately. He argues that heresy dies out. Schism lasts for centuries. Heresy invites its own reversal by awakening a dynamic orthodoxy. Schism freezes doctrine, interferes with its healthy development. Heretics, after all, passionately want to improve the church's teaching. Their passion ignites a new passion in the church. Schism only provokes the passion of hatred, and its concomitant, war. Schism seems always to be worse than heresy. For heresy is about doctrine… while schism is about abandoning the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. Schismatics have to justify themselves for their grievous actions.  "This is dangerous", they like to say of some "new" (there is nothing new) thought or teaching. My question to that statement (which betrays some sort of fear) is, "And what would the danger be?" When is free intellectual thought, hammered out in community, "dangerous"? The danger comes from those who, out of desire for "doctrinal purity" or who have a need for power and control, or out of fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, split from the body, thus short-circuiting any chance for free intellectual exchange, worked out in relationships of mutual trust and in the bonds of love.

As a member of the "national church", I have been lumped with those who have been deemed by schismatics as those who "subscribe to a different religion" and who do not warm ourselves "by the same spiritual fire" (write me and I will give you the source). I remember years ago hearing a sermon delivered by a young priest who is now an "orthodox" bishop. Some months later when we met again, he beat himself up over that sermon, saying, "Man! I am embarassed by that sermon. I don't know what I was thinking or where that one came from." Perhaps he was trying out a new idea. Maybe he stretched a point. It's possible  he was wrestling with an ambguity or an apparent contradiction.  I remember thinking, "Dude, chill! Don't take yourself so seriously. Most of us weren't listening anyway!" Seriously, though, there was an angst there that is shared by too many "champions of orthodoxy". An angst that smacks of the pharisee. I recognize it because I have been there. A youthful zeal greatly in need of the merciful mellowing of heart that is a gift of mid-life. But there was more.

This schism in South Carolina knocked me back and gave me great pause.
An old friend of mine likes to say, "Wise men know that it is better to stay married than to be right." But this time it seems that being right ("orthodox"), and winning were too attractive for some to stay in the marriage. I think the damage from this will be incalculable. But then again, God is able to raise up new life from tragedy and mistake. That's why I hold to the hope of reconciliation. But what do I know? I'm just a heretic.

CH +

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in  want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.    --BCP p.816


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  2. Chris – I love your take on this. Very thoughtful and meditative. I especially resonate with your comment about the incalculable damage this schism will cause in South Carolina. It doesn’t seem that long ago that 10-15 of us were at St. Christopher with you leading a section of our Youth Minister Certification program. If I remember right the room had personalities from Roman Catholic backgrounds, Calvinist reformers, High church “smells and bells” folks and Baptists dipping their toes in our pool. Yet we were all in the yokes together pulling in the same direction. There was a camaraderie forged by being in the same “conservative” corner of the TEC circus tent. Seemingly overnight (literally) the ground opened up and a chasm now separates us. Such a shame that the unity we once had locally has devolved into name calling and ostracism.

  3. Thanks, Randy. It is a shame. The chasm caused by the schism (pun intended) will widen with time, I fear. But maybe someday there will be reconciliation. For the sake of the Body, I hope so.