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False Doctrine, Heresy & Schism

False Doctrine, Heresy & Schism

"From all false doctrine, heresy and schism, Good Lord, deliver us".

This petition from the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer expresses the hope of faithful Christians in every age, and has especial resonance today for the Anglican Church of Canada. We hope that the questions and answers listed below will help to clarify our current situation, and put these events and issues into theological, historical and ecclesiastical perspective.

Revd. Dr. Robert Crouse Revd.
David Curry Revd. Gavin Dunbar
Rt. Revd. Malcolm Harding
Rt. Revd. Donald Harvey
Revd. Dr. Murray Henderson
Revd. Dr. James Packer
Revd. Dr. David Short
Dr. Diana Verseghy

How grave a matter, theologically, is the blessing of same-sex unions?

As many theologians have pointed out, it represents a serious departure from historic Christianity, one which cannot be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of Scripture. By consensus the universal Church from its earliest days ruled out homosexual unions, whether casual encounters or more long-term relationships, that involved behaviour analogous to heterosexual intercourse. It was acknowledged that the Bible forbids such behaviour as distorting the order of God's creation and so as displeasing to God himself. The whole church until very recently practised pastoral care according to this understanding, and sought by all means to help people maintain the chastity of sexual abstinence outside heterosexual marriage, which is the only form of marriage that Scripture recognizes.

The general verdict is that those currently arguing for change here have not established their case biblically and theologically. The Primates' communiqué of 2005 asked that both the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Anglican Church of Canada give the Anglican Consultative Council a theologically-based rationale of the synodical action taken, or attempted, in this matter.

How can we put this into context? What kinds of other divisive doctrinal issues have faced the Christian church in the past?

Separation from the universal Church, and in an already divided Christendom from one's own branch of that Church, may take three forms: apostasy, heresy or schism. Apostasy, the most serious, refers to a full, intentional abandonment of the Christian faith. Heresy means an intentional rejection by word and deed of a fundamental truth that the Church has officially and consensually affirmed (for example in the creeds). Schism means a separation from the wider Church through unwillingness to be bound by the discipline of unity. (Schism is characteristically precipitated by some form of heterodoxy, false teaching, on the part of the schismatic faction. This faction, rather than the orthodox majority or minority who cannot now in conscience walk with them, is then the true schismatic.)

One must recognize that not all forms of false teaching are serious enough to lead to schism. The historic, biblically based Anglican ideal is of a consensus on doctrinal fundamentals shared by bishops, clergy and laity, with freedom to challenge and debate any view advocated by anyone that appears to lack biblical justification. All of those holding office in the church are human and fallible, and may fall into error. Charity demands that we must not ourselves be the cause of inflicting further wounds on the Body of Christ. Patience in working through the discipline of dialogue with debate is constantly required.

Where on this doctrinal spectrum does the issue of same-sex blessings fit?

Certainly it does not fall into the category of apostasy. Various individuals who favour it do not perceive the doctrinal problems involved and are still honestly trying to hold to creedal Christianity. Neither is it heresy in the technical, theological sense, since it does not violate a particular, authoritatively defined dogma of the undivided Church. It is a type of heterodoxy, false teaching.

As to what degree of heterodoxy is involved, it has been noted above that same-sex behaviour analogous to heterosexual intercourse is uniformly proscribed in Scripture and in the tradition of the Church. Moreover, other branches of creedal Christianity have expressed their grave concern over this issue. The Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox bodies broke ties with the Episcopal Church in the USA subsequent to the consecration of Gene Robinson. The Roman Catholic Church suspended ecumenical dialogue with the entire Anglican Communion, until the publication of the Windsor Report and the assurance given by the Primates' meeting that the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage remain the teaching of our Communion.

On whether this issue is serious enough to warrant a schism within Anglicanism, some have argued that anything that has not been authoritatively stated by creeds and councils of the early Church is "adiaphora", a matter indifferent, and should not be thought to justify any restricting of church communion. But it is not true that Anglicanism has no doctrine outside of the Creeds. From the Thirty-Nine Articles to the last Lambeth Conference, Anglican doctrines on various points have been articulated from time to time. Anglicanism allows for latitude in belief on a number of issues, but seeks always to uphold the primacy of Scripture, explicated and applied by sanctified reason and the tradition of the Church.

And the stated consensus of the Anglican Communion, expressed through the Windsor Report and the Primates' communiqué, is that same-sex blessings is not an issue on which one province can move forward without breaking or impairment of communion. This constitutes a solemn warning that formal approval of same-sex blessing will in fact be regarded by the Anglican Communion as a schismatic act on the part of the Canadian church. The time frame that has been specified is until 2008, when the next Lambeth Conference takes place; the implication being that it will be there that a formal decision will be taken regarding the continuing membership of the ACC in the Anglican Communion.

What about the Anglican Church of Canada's claim of autonomy, and freedom in decision-making?

The Anglican Church of Canada claims in its Solemn Declaration of 1893 (printed in the Book of Common Prayer on page viii) to be part of the "Church of England throughout the world", i.e. the Anglican Communion. The Solemn Declaration is the founding document of our church, and is unalterably enshrined in its constitution. The church's standards of faith are specified within it as the ecumenical creeds, and the historic Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and Thirty-Nine Articles: all set under, and all expressing, the supreme authority of the canonical Scriptures.

Clearly, the intent of the founders of the ACC was that it should take no action that would call into question its membership in the worldwide Anglican Church. Its freedom in decision-making is therefore constitutionally limited by this founding principle.

What if General Synod goes ahead and formally approves same-sex blessings?

Such a decision, in defiance of repeated appeals not to do so from the highest levels of the Anglican Communion, would signify that the institutional Anglican Church of Canada places its own autonomy above the mutual responsibility and interdependence that are a requirement for Anglican churches in communion (as laid out in the Windsor Report). This would not only be precipitating a formal schism, but would be contrary to its own constitution and therefore ultra vires (illegal). No faithful Anglican should consider himself or herself bound by such a decision.

Would this mean that I myself would automatically be in a state of potential schism from the Anglican Communion?

Not necessarily. Besides the fact that an illegal decision on the part of General Synod cannot be accepted as binding by any faithful Anglican, it needs to be recognized that although General Synod is the governing body of the Anglican Church of Canada, it is not primarily through that body that our relation to the wider fellowship of the catholic and apostolic Church is expressed and signified.

In the first instance it is through our diocesan bishop, whose spiritual duty it is to maintain and uphold the faith and practice of biblical and catholic Christianity in his diocese. As long as our bishop has not himself accepted the potentially schismatic action in question, i.e. implemented in his diocese the decision of General Synod, and as long as he upholds the authority of the Solemn Declaration, he has not moved to break with the wider Church. (Several of the Anglican Primates have already made clear their understanding of the distinction between national churches that are heading towards schism on the one hand, and members of those churches who have declared their wish not to break with the Anglican Communion on the other.)

If, in the worst possible case, General Synod approves same-sex blessings, my diocesan bishop decides to go along with it, and the Anglican Communion declares that the institutional Anglican Church of Canada has become a schismatic body, what should my response be as a faithful Anglican?

On the one hand, we do need to recognize that we participate spiritually in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church through our baptism and true faith, even if our bishops should turn schismatic. Faithful Anglicans who adhere to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ, as set forth in Scripture and received by the Anglican Church in its historic formularies, and who therefore abide in communion with the wider church, may yet believe themselves called by God to continue in impaired or broken communion with a schismatic bishop. Their witness needs to be recognized as a genuine expression of the biblical and orthodox faith.

On the other hand, St. Paul teaches in several Epistles that there exist beliefs and behaviours that are grounds for a breaking of communion. And the councils of the early Church provide a clear precedent showing that the faithful have a duty to separate themselves from a bishop who has broken with the wider Church, and if at all possible to place themselves under the care of an orthodox bishop. If the Anglican Communion, via the Lambeth Conference, makes a definitive pronouncement in the future that the Anglican Church of Canada has become schismatic, this situation will have come to a head. So if you find yourself in such a case, you should seriously consider seeking orthodox episcopal oversight.

What if my diocesan bishop decides to go ahead and approve same-sex blessings without waiting for the decision of General Synod and the Anglican Communion? Or what if he already voted for the "integrity and sanctity" motion at the last General Synod, or has in other ways shown defiance of the expressed consensus of the Anglican Communion?

A bishop who took such action would be expressing his disregard for the Anglican Communion and inviting schism. He would also be lending his sanction to a practice that contravenes the clear witness of Scripture, as well as acting in opposition to the constitution of the Anglican Church of Canada. This would be a very serious situation, and could not be simply ignored; false teaching must always be vigorously opposed. One must therefore decide what form one's principled defiance should take.

Even when such a bishop has not (yet) been formally declared schismatic by the Anglican Communion, one may well decide that one's principled defiance must be expressed by a seeking of orthodox episcopal oversight. The Anglican Network in Canada has taken on the mandate of caring for individuals and parishes that find themselves in broken communion with their bishop. You should be in touch with the Moderator of the Network, Bishop Donald Harvey, who is committed to the arrangement of alternative oversight taking into account the provisions that have been put in place on the one hand by the Canadian House of Bishops and on the other hand by the Archbishop of Canterbury through his Panel of Reference..

What should we be doing in the time leading up to General Synod in 2007?

Pray, of course! And do not give up on the Anglican Church of Canada, but try at all costs to bring home to all of its members the realization of what is at stake, and indeed the heterodox, schismatic and illegal nature of this action. Since (as noted above) the founding document of the ACC, the Solemn Declaration, declares that this church "is and desires to remain in communion with the Church of England throughout the world", and since the Declaration cannot legally be changed, an act that constitutes withdrawal from the Anglican Communion would contravene the ACC's own constitution.

Unity in charity is Christ's will for his Church, and we must strive as best we can to prevent General Synod from taking action which would lead to a state of schism and the institutionalization of false teaching. We must hope and work for General Synod and the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada to pull back from this brink.

Still, we must be prepared for the eventuality that should this happen, it will be our Christian duty to face the situation squarely: to remain faithful, and if necessary, to seek a faithful bishop. We must also bear in mind that circumstances alter cases, and different courses of action are conscientiously advocated by different groups. Mutual forbearance is imperative, lest we ourselves inflict further wounds in the Body of Christ.

(Offered to delegates of the "Open Door" conference in Toronto, June 16-18, 2005.)

Michael G. Daley
Communications Officer
Anglican Essentials Canada

web: http://www.anglicanessentials.ca
email: mdaley@anglicanessentials.ca

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