The Last Refuge

Recently, the weekly e-mail communiqué of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas (#293, dated Thursday, November 29, 2007) was forwarded to me, wherein the bishop, Larry Benfield, states

This week I have read several books about a fourth century group of North African Christians called the Donatists. What brought them to the attention of the rest of the Christian world is that they were upset with the actions of certain bishops. During Christian persecutions these bishops had caved in to pressure and had turned over copies of the gospels to the authorities for destruction. Now that the persecutions were over, they attempted to return to their job of leading congregations and ordaining new bishops.

The North African Donatists were furious, so furious in fact that they refused to be in communion with the bishops and refused to be in communion with anyone the bishops had ordained or even baptized. These Donatists established their own churches, ordained their own bishops, and for almost one hundred years became the predominant expression of Christianity in that part of the world.

Finally the larger church, especially in the person of Bishop Augustine of Hippo, brought an end to the madness. He stated that the church’s life is not dependent on the purity of its clergy. Our common unity as Christians is more important than the purity, or lack of it, in our individual actions. As a commentator on the crisis stated, what the Donatists failed to do was to choose Christian charity over truth, his way of saying that the Donatists failed to recognize the power of unconditional love to trump our fallen human condition.

It is a story that every Christian needs to hear, no matter in which age we live. Unconditional love trumps fallen humanity, as it trumps everything, even death itself. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent appearance to his disciples as they gathered together is testament to that truth. Too many of us harbor old grudges and ignore others. Too many of us get mad at the church (or mad at God) and stay away from the connection with others that we as humans need so much. In their own ways, such actions turn us into Donatists.

The bishop writes that he has read “several books” (in a week!). Which ones, I wonder? I’ve read a few myself, and none of those with which I am familiar even come close to making the category confusion shown here by the Bishop of Arkansas. The Donatists did not refuse to be in communion with the rest of the church. They declared that there was no “rest of the church” with which to be in communion. The distinction is vital.

Donatism arose over sacraments celebrated by those who were alleged to have cooperated in Diocletian’s persecution. Donatists insisted that such cooperation rendered these sacraments invalid, and that this taint of invalidity infected all but themselves, the true (donatist) church in North Africa. The contrary catholic doctrine of ex opere operato, famously championed by St Augustine and repeated in Article 26, held that the sins of the celebrant did not affect the validity of a sacrament. The Donatist controversy was therefore never a contest between truth and charity, but an argument over truth, pure and simple.

Bishop Benfield does not say so, and I do not want to put words in his mouth, but I cannot help but suspect that behind his concern about those who absent themselves from the churches in his care lies the current unpleasantness over gay bishops, same-sex “blessings,” yadda yadda yadda. If not, then who are the “too many” who “get mad” and “stay away”? But if so, then some further comments are in order.

Donatism was not a difference over morality—no one in Christian antiquity, Catholic or Donatist, thought that cooperating with persecuting authorities was without moral significance—but an error about validity, an error that dissenters within and without the Episcopal Church have not made. No one has argued that the episcopal orders of the consecrators of Gene Robinson were subsequently rendered null and void by Gene Robinson’s sexual habits, but that these bishops have, by their doctrine, broken communion with the rest of us. We, on the other hand, are not simply asserting that homosex is wrong—we are insisting that the claim that homosex is morally neutral is itself a falsehood, an untruth, and we will not have communion with a lie. We are not breaking fellowship with sinners (we’d all be in a lot of trouble if we did), nor are we declaring anyone’s sacraments invalid. Rather, we are refusing communion with heretics, something which St Augustine, even in his most rabid anti-donatist diatribes, never confused, never lost sight of, and would never have condemned.

If this comment by the Bishop of Arkansas is connected with the controversy ripping apart the Anglican Communion—and I find it hard to believe that it is not—then it is of a piece with other recent utterances by North American Anglican Officialdom. The Presiding “Bishop” of the Episcopal Church is fond of citing “ancient principles,”  while Fred Hiltz, the Primate of Canada, refers to “ancient canons” and Michael Ingham, the Bishop of New Westminster, pleads “ancient traditions.”

Having by now written on this quite a bit over the last few years, I find that part of me regrets more deeply than ever the lack of access to my blogging archives occasioned by the hacker of CaNN. It would be so easy to simply link to all the articles demonstrating that the continuous claims about “ancient traditions” or that “schism is worse than heresy” and the constant charges of “donatism” are all examples of ignorance or sophistry. But another part of me thinks, why bother? Those who make such claims or charges are either disingenuous or delusional, and mere facts or logic will not change them.

I am reminded of a famous passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined voice, an apothegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made cloak for self-interest.

Well, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then the cloak of catholicity these bishops wear shows that catholicism is the last redoubt of the desperate.

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20 Responses to “The Last Refuge”

  1. Rev'd Richard M. Bruton Says:

    Kendall,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  2. Walter Says:

    The bishop’s apparent surprise at discovering the Donatist Controversy demonstrates a total breakdown of whichever seminary he attended. I hope that today’s “orthodox” seminaries in the Episcopal Church are doing church history justice. Though I have my doubts…

  3. Jordan Stratford Says:

    Unconditional love trumps fallen humanity, as it trumps everything, even death itself.

    which is met with

    we are refusing communion with heretics

    At the end of the day we will see two churches, and here we find the mottoes of each.

  4. trog Says:

    “Unconditional love trumps fallen humanity, as it trumps everything, even death itself.” might be better written as:

    Unmerited love trumps fallen humanity, as it trumps everything, even death itself when one chooses to response to that Love.

    Good notes on the subject and sound conclusion in response to the bishop.

  5. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    It is amazing what modern secular churchmen and women can do to Church history. They are reflecting the medium in which they live and breathe. All these non-reality schemes and notions are to justify a worldview that de-thrones the Trinune God. One doesn’t have to scratch the religious language very hard to see the spiritual rebellion shine through.

  6. Revamundo Says:

    Oh ‘fer crying out loud. You guys just go out of your way to find fault. Repeat after me…I will not be such a huge ass & dreadful bore again.

  7. Gawain de Leeuw Says:

    Rather not,

    What does homosexuality have to do with the nature of the Trinity?

    But based on what criteria do we call homosexuality a lie? Scripture? I suppose if we have a Koranic understanding of scripture you might be correct. But a Catholic understanding of scripture – that hesitates to assume our modern Paul has much to do with what the Ancient paul was really talking about – might lead us into a different direction.

    As far s refusing communion with heretics, I think of Schleiermacher who noted that yesterday’s heresy is today’s orthodoxy. In fairness, your use of “heresy” sounds like “person who doesn’t think like I do.”

    Galileo, after all, was a heretic.

  8. Katherine Says:

    “a Catholic understanding of scripture – that hesitates to assume our modern Paul has much to do with what the Ancient paul was really talking about.” What this means is not at all clear to me. Does it mean, as in modern literary criticism, that the words of the text and their original content have no meaning, but only assume meaning as read by the present reader, and in the present reader’s context? One does not have to take a Koranic view of scripture to believe that its content has meaning because of the One who is revealed there, and under whose guidance the scriptures were written and preserved. The content, in the present arguments, is a consistent and logical and reasonable presentation of human nature and the purposes of our existence as we are created, and the fact that we are created. But you know this is the argument, Gawain, since you’ve been reading the conservative blogs for years. It is in the rejection of this consistent view of human nature and our relation to our Creator as revealed in Scripture, tradition (and reason!) that the heresy lies. You reject the authority of the content of the scriptures. “He spake through the prophets,” but not for you.

  9. Matthew Says:

    Gawain,

    I think you’ll find a catholic understanding of Scripture can not be separated from a catholic understanding of tradition and authority. Which leads right back to the whole ‘sex outside of marriage is wrong’ meme that you lot find so distasteful.

    Good luck with justifying it.

    IRNS,

    excellent essay as always.

  10. Douglas Lewis Says:

    I am surprised that such a straightforward and clear explanation should be parried with comments like ‘At the end of the day…’ and ‘yesterday’s heresy is today’s orthodoxy.’ The first rule of reasonable argument is that you attend to, and try to understand, what your opponent is saying. Evidently these commenters haven’t heard of that one…

  11. The Anglican Scotist Says:

    The distinction between truth and charity is merely a rational one on the part of the creature, as these are not really distinct in God. It is simply obscene to see such attempted elevation of mere creaturely distinction to absolute status–implying the impossible: a realm of autonomous nature. \

    You say the donatist controversy was not about morality, when a few paragraphs earlier you noted it arose out of controversy around emperor worship. That sounds like self-contradiction: the author is speaking nonsense.

  12. James G Says:

    Gawain,

    What you are getting at with your argument? Who is calling homosexuality a lie? No one is denying that it exists. If you meant to say “based on what criteria do we call [affirming homosexual sex as good and moral] a lie?” then you might have had a point. However, there are many sources beyond just scripture that calling homosexual sex immoral is based on. They could be enumerated but I’m sure you have already been told them and have rejected them as well because you disagree.

    Saying that someone who reads the condemnations of homosexual practice in scripture as showing it to be immoral has a “Koranic understanding” is an intentionally inflammatory remark. By makings such a statement you have already taken yourself out of the debate by making it obvious that you will not listen to the argument of the other side.

    You write “a Catholic understanding of scripture,” what do you mean by that? You use big “C” which means the Catholic Church. If you’re looking for support from the Church for your argument that homosexual sex is good then you are looking in the wrong place.

    Finally, what does Galileo have to do with anything? Next time make a cogent argument if you want people to seriously engage your statements.

    James G

  13. I'd rather not say Says:

    You say the donatist controversy was not about morality, when a few paragraphs earlier you noted it arose out of controversy around emperor worship. That sounds like self-contradiction: the author is speaking nonsense.

    Actually, I didn’t say it was about emperor worship, but about cooperation with the authorities during persecution. In any case, donatism was not about morality per se because no one disputed that such cooperation was immoral. The dispute was over the ecclesiological consequences of such immorality.

  14. An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy » Blog Archive » Donatism it ain’t Says:

    […] with those who reject the traditional catholic teaching of the Church is not, is Donatism. Rather Not spells it out again very clearly: Donatism arose over sacraments celebrated by those who were […]

  15. I'd rather not say Says:

    The distinction between truth and charity is merely a rational one on the part of the creature, as these are not really distinct in God. It is simply obscene to see such attempted elevation of mere creaturely distinction to absolute status–implying the impossible: a realm of autonomous nature.

    I don’t know about “obscene,” but otherwise you are technically correct, although your observation is beside the point. The distinction between truth and charity was made by the bishop and his unnamed sources, and from a creaturely standpoint is discussed by, e.g., Aquinas, as I am sure you well know.

  16. Allen Lewis Says:

    “Unconditional love trumps fallen humanity, as it trumps everything, even death itself.”

    And here I was thinking that Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics had been declared “dead and buried” back in the late 1960’s! But apparently it is alive and well and running rampant through the Revisionist Camp (or is that Cant?) Fletcher erred then in forgetting that to say “God is love,” does not imply that “Love is God.”

    Those who invoke him today – whether they acknowledge that they do or not – are forgetting the same principle. The claim that doing things out of Love make them automatically blessed is an obscene lie, foisted on us by the being who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.”

  17. Jeff in Ohio Says:

    My understanding of the Donatists is they denied the sufficiency of repentance. Mind you, I’m just a layman with a third grade education and might be wrong. No one involved thought that apostasy in the face of persecution was moral. The bishops who had done this had confessed and repented prior to being restored. The Church held that this was good enough, the Donatists denied that it was. When I hear VGR and the bishops and priests that support his elevation repent their actions, I will agree they’ve done enough to restore communion. That is all it will take, plain and simple.

    Jeffrey A. Roberts

  18. Dr Tighe responds to misconceptions about Donatism « The Confessing Reader Says:

    […] Yesterday the professorial weblogger of the Rather Not Blog weblog posted an entry entitled, “The Last Refuge“, concerning the Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas’ misunderstanding of what […]

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