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20 March 2007

Why we study history

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Epistle of James, 1.27

In the third and early fourth century of the common era, the Christian church underwent significant persecution. Under this persecution, when the authorities came after Christians, the temptation from fear to save one’s own life by denouncing others proved all too great, for clergy and laity alike. Preists and bishops committed apostasy, renouncing their faith. But when the church was made official under Constantine in 313, a significant question arose: What should be done with the apostate clergy? (It’s worthwhile noting here that the issue was one of theology AND of labor supply. There were serious issues around the sacraments, but also around having sufficient clergy to serve in Christianity’s new status.)

One of the primary questions that arose was about the relationship of the sacraments to the person performing the sacrament. One faction, led by Donatus Magnus, contended that when the sacraments were performed by the apostate clergy (also known as traditors), the sacraments were invalid. In essence, baptism and eucharist didn’t really occur if the presider was unworthy. The “Catholic” position was that the worth of the presider didn’t affect the validity of the sacrament. As one reference succinctly describes,

The Donatists held that all such sacraments were invalid: by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This is known as: ex opere operantis – Latin for from the work of the one doing the working, that is, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the worthyness and holiness of the minister confecting it. The Catholic position was (and is): ex opere operatofrom the work having been worked, in other words, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God’s work, so that any priest or bishop, even one in a state of mortal sin, who speaks the formula of the sacrament with valid matter and the intent of causing the sacrament to occur acts validly. Hence, to the Donatists, a priest who had been an apostate but who repented could speak the words of consecration forever, but he could no longer confect the Eucharist. To the Catholics, a person who received the Eucharist from the hands of even an unrepentant sinning priest still received Christ’s Body and Blood, their own sacramental life being undamaged by the priest’s faults.

This is not a matter or merely historical interest. Note an article from today’s Times, something many of us have been talking quietly about for several years now.

As leaders of the Anglican Communion hold meeting after meeting to debate severing ties with the Episcopal Church in the United States for consecrating an openly gay bishop, one of the unspoken complications is just who has been paying the bills.

The truth is, the Episcopal Church bankrolls much of the Communion’s operations. And a cutoff of that money, while unlikely at this time, could deal the Communion a devastating blow.

The Episcopal Church’s 2.3 million members make up a small fraction of the 77 million members in the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest affiliation of Christian churches. Nevertheless, the Episcopal Church finances at least a third of the Communion’s annual operations.

Bishops in some foreign provinces that benefit from Episcopal money are now leading the charge to punish the Episcopal Church or even evict it from the Communion. Some have declared that they will reject money from the Episcopal Church because of its stand on homosexuality.

But church officials say that their donations continue to be accepted in every province but Uganda, and that they do not intend to shut off the spigot.

For many of these churches, mostly in what we now refer to as the “Global South,” the Episcopal Church is unrepentantly heretical and sinful. But they need our money, and they haven’t been able to quite bring themselves to reject it.

After the Episcopal Church consented to the ordination in 2003 of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who lives with his gay partner, bishops in the African provinces declared that their churches would no longer accept money from the Episcopal Church. (One province that would not have been affected by this is Nigeria, whose archbishop has been the most outspoken opponent of the Episcopal Church’s approach to homosexuality. The church in Nigeria, the largest in the Anglican Communion with 17 million members, is largely self-supporting, Anglican officials said.)

So far, the archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi, is the only primate who has actually turned down money from the Episcopal Church, many church officials said in interviews.

In 2004, Archbishop Orombi’s edict led to the shutdown of a community development program financed by Episcopal Relief and Development that worked with families affected by H.I.V./AIDS.

This is quite a bind these churches are caught in. On the one hand, they are convinced that we are irremediable, and for the sake of purity, that they need to cut themselves off from us. On the other hand, they need our money to continue feeding the poor, orphaned, and widowed. James doesn’t give much help here, as he seems to indicate that they must do both–take care of the unfortunate and keep oneself pure. But what happens when these contradict one another?

This is where history and what we call the Great Tradition come in. This is why the warrant of “scripture alone” just does not work. We’ve solved this problem in the past: we came down on the side of doing God’s work through faulty people. Sure, the money comes from the impure American church, but it performs the sacrament of mercy. To insist on the purity of the clergy or the church’s agents at the expense of everything else would be to become modern Donatists, which would put these churches in the bind of being as heretical as the American churches from which they wish to distance themselves.

And this is precisely the bind that we found ourselves in, and find ourselves in, over gay and lesbian people in the church. Would we rather be pure or merciful, both of which are enjoined upon us? Most of us in the Episcopal Church chose mercy and acceptance. It remains to be seen what choice the Southern Hemisphere churches will make.

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