In the hymn which begins, “The Church’s one foundation…,” we eventually reach the words,
Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schism rent asunder,
By heresies distrest,
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, ‘How long?’
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
These lines were written well over a hundred years ago when European and American Protestantism was on the move in missionary work all around the world. Yet the writer, S. J. Stone (1839-1900), a C. of E. clergyman, is not in this hymn viewing the Protestant advance but the fact that the Church of God, centered in heaven, which has “One Lord, One Faith, one Birth” and blesses “One Holy Name” and “partakes One Holy Food” and presses on to “One Hope,” is on earth in the West torn apart by schism and distressed by heresy. So much so that the real saints of God long for the Parousia of the Lord Christ to judge the living and the dead and inaugurate the kingdom of God to bring to an end this situation.
The sentiments of S.J. Stone could well be those of godly American Christians today as they look into the vast supermarket of forms of Christian religion that exist across and through the U.S.A. “Surely,” their mind and heart cry out, “the Church of God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, was never intended even in this evil age on earth to be sub-divided into so many and various competitive groups with a massive assortment of emphases and with each majoring on its favorite minors!”
Further, and most regrettably, the sentiments could well be [are] those of godly American Anglicans/Episcopalians as they look at the daily-increasing variety of forms of Anglican groups, jurisdictions, denominations, parties, and congregations, which are coming into existence as the result of (a) the innovations in doctrine and practice of The Episcopal Church from the 1970s, (b) secession from this Church; (c) the endemic individualism and rights-culture of the U.S.A., and (d) the American tradition of denominationalism and sectarianism of the last two or three centuries.
Looking back to the exodus from The Episcopal Church of primarily Anglo-Catholic priests and laity in 1977, two things of note happened. First, the determination of the group to stay together as “the Continuing Anglican Church” did not last long. Internal disagreements over this and that led to further schism, this time from one another, rather than from The Episcopal Church. Secondly, Anglo-Catholics within The Episcopal Church began to use the slogan, “Schism is the worst kind of heresy” and this was a kind of call to stay loyal to The Episcopal Church through thick and thin.
Since the splitting of the original Continuing Church into several parts from 1978, those several parts have spawned others and to these have been added further groups of continuing Anglicans, not necessarily Anglo-Catholic but of varying churchmanships. At the same time, some of those of Anglo-Catholic mindset, who remain within The Episcopal Church, have allowed the idea that schism is the worst kind of heresy to cause them to accept some or all of the innovatory doctrines of The Episcopal Church.
Over the last few years, and particularly since the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in mid 2006, there has been a noticeable amount of schism by Episcopalians leaving the Church to create independent congregations, which invite an overseas bishop to be their bishop in the emergency situation. It is difficult to keep up with the number of such congregations and their adoptive bishops. At the same time the Anglican Mission in the Americas (with three branches) and the Convocation of Nigerian Church in America, along with associations of churches supervised from India by Anglican Communion bishops, add to the results of schism. It is a very complex picture that few have a full handle on!
One problem with schism—as the original Continuers found out and know daily—is that once you engage in schism it is easy to engage in more of it, and it is easier to justify the second and third time than the first. With this goes the right commonly assumed by local Anglican churches to choose one bishop and/or jurisdiction and, on not liking the arrangement or man, to switch to others. The new extra-mural Anglicans, who are mostly Evangelical and Charismatic types, have yet to learn the results of schism but they will do so, and it will probably not be good learning.
And then we must not forget that this mindset and these practices are being exported to other countries by American Anglicans.
Bearing all this in mind—and taking into account the most powerful evidence visible in the American supermarket of religions—one has to say that the possibility of there being One Anglican Way serving One Lord and worshipping One Father is remote indeed. It is also to indulge in optimistic thinking that there will be two only—one supposedly orthodox and the other supposedly progressively liberal. Perhaps the so called “orthodox” dioceses of The Episcopal Church will get to create a new Province and invite some others like say The Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Mission in the Americas to join them, but that will leave much Anglicanism outside.
Schism, undertaken even for good reasons in a crisis, seems to have effects that are impossible to control. That is in the words of Stone:
Yet Saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song—(when the Lord comes!).
Unity will only be achieved, it seems, by the glorious Parousia of the Lord Jesus and the completion of the redeeming work of God in space and time.
However, this is not to free us of the obligation to do all we can to unite Christians and this means, as Anglicans, beginning with uniting Anglicans first. This duty seems to be virtually wholly over-looked today.
Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Feb 2. 2007
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)