Better Heresy than Schism?

It is often said, “Better heresy than schism.” The point is that, while heresy is always a mis-stating, mis-understanding, mis-representing of orthodox (in our case, Christian) teaching, it has always been present — to one degree or another — within the Church. However, since the Church is “indefectible” (meaning that God will preserve it ultimately from error, even if not at any given point in time — which would be “infallibility”) it is better to remain within the fellowship, standing for the truth, than to fracture Christ’s Body once again, making it all the more difficult to discern the truth together and to eventually get on with the mission Christ has given to the Church.

I have some sympathy with this position. While I do believe that the contributions of the Continental Reformers and the theological components of the English Reformation itself were a necessary correction to certain developments in medieval Catholicism, I continue to wonder if it would have been possible to bear patient, heroic, even sacrificial witness to those same truths within the context of the one (Western) Church. Politically, sociologically, it was probably impossible but, theologically, ideally, would it not have been preferable to the continual splintering of Christ’s Body which has been going on ever since?

Certainly, in the microcosm of The Episcopal Church today, I have great respect for the so-called “Windsor bishops” (Canterbury hates that self-designation and prefers “Camp Allen bishops”!) and others who absolutely refuse to compromise their theological convictions, are committed to remain “Windsor compliant” (meaning that they will live by the requests of the Windsor Report) and who yet remain loyal and supportive members of The Episcopal Church.

For surely, while there is much within The Episcopal Church with which they disagree — the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, the blessing of their committed unions, even overseas “interventions” into US dioceses — there must also be much with which they agree — the preaching in congregations all across this land of the Gospel of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ, the celebration of the Sacraments, the corporal acts of mercy, Episcopal Relief and Development, the United Thank Offering, monastic communities, even the Millenium Development Goals (as long as they are seen as examples of, and not identical with, Christian mission). And many, many more things.

No one — primate, bishop, priest, deacon, or committee — can force a conservative Episcopalian to compromise any of his or her deeply held theological positions. (Sadly, I’m not sure the reverse is true.) But conservative Episcopalians can remain within this Church, bear patient, heroic, and sacrificial witness to the truth as they understand it (as “progressive” Episcopalians have done in decades past) and trust God to “sort this out” over time.

I frankly do not believe that our disagreements today even rise to the level of “heresy.” We are not talking about creedal orthodoxy here but about matters of doctrine and discipline which are nonetheless important. But, even if we were talking about heresy, I’m not sure that schism is any better.          

6 Responses to “Better Heresy than Schism?”

  1. JCF Says:

    “No one — primate, bishop, priest, deacon, or committee — can force a conservative Episcopalian to compromise any of his or her deeply held theological positions. (Sadly, I’m not sure the reverse is true.)”

    CF “B033”? The September ’07 HofB “clarification”?

    Both were “compromises”, at the highest level of TEC, which wounded me deeply. But I am one progressive who CONTINUES to “bear patient, heroic, and sacrificial witness to the truth as (I) understand it”. Come, Lord Jesus!

  2. rwkachur Says:

    First, I really had to step away before I could decide what I wanted to say. Much of the argument and counterargument on this issue has been hashed through on a dozen different sites all over the internet. Honestly, I don’t think anyone is listening anymore. I’ve decided to take a different tack.

    I have tried to engage in the “listening process”. I have asked on this site and on others for someone to actually talk to me and not at me, one on one. Nobody has ever taken me up on the offer. If you’d like to engage one on one and privately I will offer my e-mail again Just headline it “Let’s Talk”.

    JCF — While I can appreciate that the “compromises” of the TEC leadership have wounded you deeply it is important to remember that the “New Thing” TEC feels it is called to do is wounding others deeply as well. I would add that while you probably see your “Promised Land” in sight just on the other side of the Jordan many of see it as the Exile.

    +Epting, if you can find a counterpart for me to talk to, I would appreciate it. This breach, and it is a very real and substantive schism, will only be healed from the bottom up, not the top down.

  3. JB Says:


    I would think, bishop, that you would realize that for the “conservative Episcopalians with deeply held theological positions” the presenting issue does speak to creedal orthodoxy. “Ought we bless something for which He died?” is the question that those of us who have chosen not to leave keep asking. And before I get slammed as being whatever anybody wants to accuse me of being, I think the church may actually be forced by God to re-examine its theology of marriage. I know many of us think it is settled, but it has been only 30 years or so. Most of our discussions in the history Church have taken far longer.

    I personally wonder that we are not now being forced to reconsider our stance taken on divorce. For all the far right’s blather about SSB’s and +Robinson, they are woefully silent on Jesus’ equal condemnation of divorce and remarriage. Can a deacon, priest or bishop truly model the life to which all are called if they live a lifestyle which He condemned?

    I know it makes life unfair for the clergy in the church because they are held to a higher standard, but do we not say it is a calling by God? We lands hands on our clergy in public. We make them dress differently with a collar. We make them preside at worship. Why should they get to hide at other points in their life. That same set-apartedness is what makes their betrayals (affairs with parishioners/embezzlement/etc) so damaging to the life of a church community. It might be unfair to hold clergy to Godly standards, but it was not fair to Him that He had to die for any of us.

    I continue to think that the best way for both sides to be forced into dialogue is to open the issue of marriage back up. Did we make a mistake condoning remarriage? Are we making a mistake condoning SSB? Should individuals in either situation be ordained and set apart for leadership in His church? It might seem unfair to those impacted, but He did promise His followers crosses before glory.

    And it seems to me, in our current discussions, few are seeking their own crosses, and far too many are seeking glory. We have a church hierarchy that claims that the Holy Spirit inspired their actions when they gathered and prayed and considered +Robinson; yet that same hierarchy refuses to accept that the Holy Spirit might have been behind SC’s election of +Lawrence or the actions of other dioceses. We have a group of splinters who are quite good at explaining why they refuse to accept +Robinson, but are amazingly silent on why they themselves are immune from the same charges and ought to be accepted. We have pew sitters holding tight to their wallets rather than pouring out the storehouses of heaven so that those who are doing ministry can get about their jobs with the financial needs provided.

    Like you, I myself am unsure at this time whether heresy is worse than schism. I look back at how Luther or Wesley wanted simply to reform the errors of their own church and how poorer we are for not having heeded them and solved the disputes internally. But I also glance back at heretical sects which died out (eventually, anyway) and wonder at our own growing insignificance in American Christianity. But, as we know, the dark of Good Friday is met by the glory of Easter Sunday. He will redeem this too!


  4. ecubishop Says:

    Thank you, JB. I think this is just the kind of discussion we ought to be having — thoughtfully, prayerfully, and from within one church.

    I’m sure you do not mean to equate divorced and remarried clergy (or laity for that matter) with those involved in “affairs and embezzlements”. (If so, you have certainly never agonized as a pastor with persons caught in destructive or abusive marriages). Or those who fall in love again after a failed first marriage.

    As to double standards for clergy, it is a complex issue. Vestments and clericals are uniforms worn for identification not badges of some kind of superior spirituality or holiness. Yet surely we have promised to be “wholesome examples” to our people. What that looks like, in specific pastoral situations, takes careful discernment and a non-judgmental attitude all around.

    Nonetheless, you make some good points. Points to ponder…

  5. JB Says:

    I have been involved with all, and I know the pain involved. But because something is painful does not mean we should shy away from His teaching. My thought was that B033 would be applied to people on both sides of the current disputes (I think G/L individuals rightfully condemn the church for having made them a scapegoat when other actions on the right are just as challenging to much of the communion) and that both sides would be forced to talk seriously rather than lob bombs. Imagine, persons on the far right having to explain to the church why their second, third, or forth marriage following prior divorces is acceptable in light of the “plain teaching of Scripture.”

    It may be that some in the situations you describe would desire the relationship over the vocation; others might value the vocation over the relationship. Certainly, it would be a tremendous area in need of discernment. Maybe we allow laity to remarry, but not clergy. Maybe we allow both to remarry. Maybe we allow neither. In any event, if we recommitted to taking marriage seriously within the church, maybe our parishioners would have better than a 50-50 shot at a successful one.

    I think it is worth pondering, given the early fruits of our actions. And, as you say, it must be done prayerfully and respectfully and with no grandstanding.

    Have a blessed retreat in Rome!

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