Tuesday, August 02, 2005

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."

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