Sam Edwards takes an historical perspective on a pressing current problem for Traditionalist Anglicans
Without question, the subject of the nature and limits of communion has the highest degree of contemporary relevance to traditional Anglicans. It is a topic which has become more urgent as the disintegration of the dogmatic and moral teaching and practice of the Anglican Communion (at least in the “First World”) has continued over the last quarter-century.
The February 1997 resolution of the Standing Committee of the Province of the Church in South East Asia declaring that it is in communion “with that part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principles aforesaid [i.e., the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality] and not otherwise” is but one indication that this is so. Another is the resolution of this June’s [African] Great Lakes Regional Pre-Lambeth Conference in Kampala, Uganda.
A recent letter from the Bishop of Shyira (in Rwanda) to the Bishop of Arkansas lays out the principle upon which such declarations are made: “The Unity of the Church is centered only in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, who died for our sins, rose from the dead and lives (as we have it in the Christian creeds). So the issue of boundaries and collegiality can not hold when the central Unity in Jesus is damaged. We have to revisit some issues. Faith is our priority and the rest are supportive measures.”
As we shall see, this way of thinking is not new in the Christian tradition, nor is it an aberration. It is not the result of a pietistic perfectionism, nor is it a reincarnated rigorism. In fact, it is clearly grounded in the New Testament vision of the common life in the body of Christ. That it seems so strange to us who inhabit the “First World” is a testimony to the pervasiveness in our culture both of a man-centered institutionalism and of a gooey sentimentality concerning the nature of the Church’s unity and of the Sacrament of Unity. It is we who are the aberrant.
The conflict between the erroneous assumptions picked up from the prevailing culture and an aspiration to orthodoxy causes considerable anguish, particularly on the part of those within the overlapping conservative and orthodox parties of the “traditional resistance” in the Episcopal Church in United States of America.
This tension was particularly exposed in March of this year in the wake of the revelation that traditionally-minded bishops, including the four diocesans belonging to the Episcopal Synod of America, had received communion from Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold at the House of Bishops meeting at Kanuga, North Carolina. This was especially problematic for the ESA diocesans, given that Griswold was (and remains) a signer of the revisionist “Statement in Koinonia” and since for nearly two years the ESA has had as an official policy statement “A Declaration Recognizing Broken Communion” (Legislative Body Resolution 1-96) which stated that, “Those who sign the ‘Koinonia’ statement, or who knowingly ordain practicing homosexuals, authorize the blessing of same-sex unions, or teach the same, have broken communion with orthodox Christians, until and unless they publicly recant” and that, consequently, “We should not receive into our congregations or receive the Holy Communion from any member of the clergy who concurs with such false teaching, unless that member of the clergy openly and specifically disavows that error and affirms the traditional teaching of the Church.” One of the bishops involved has since conceded that he made a mistake, though others have sought to defend the action by citing a desire to avoid being seen as making a political statement, by making a distinction (which this writer believes in the end to be artificial) between public and private celebrations of the Eucharist, and by appealing to a strict doctrine of ex opere operato.
While it is impossible for me to approve or defend this action, I find it difficult and undesirable fiercely to excoriate the bishops involved: They were in a difficult position with few resources in the contemporary social and theological environment (which is characterized by corporatism, politicization, and sentimentality) that would have induced them to take what I would characterize as a more traditional course of action — namely, non-reception. For all our sincere desire and intention to adhere to the tradition of the Church, many of us have a less-than-clear notion of what the tradition has to say to us about the kind of situation which confronts the Anglican Churches of today. To put it another way, we are at risk from traditionalism, which (like all “isms”) eventually consumes what it purports most highly to value.
To this is added the complication of the fact that the general understanding of the Church is in transition between the Christendom model, which was in place roughly from the reign of Constantine to the early part of this century, and a post-Christendom model, which has more in common with the self-understanding of the Church in the pre-Constantinian period and which is better able to deal with our secular and increasingly profane social context (and for which the current politically-correct description seems to be “multicultural”).
My basic assumptions
First, I approach the problem from the belief that the Holy Scriptures are the word of God, given through and quickened by the Holy Spirit, that they contain all things necessary to salvation, and that because of their divine origin their witness is fundamentally coherent, discoverable, determinative, and self-consistent. (Vide Article XX.)
I further believe that God keeps and has kept his promises, one of which is that he would give to us the Holy Spirit as a Counselor to call to mind all that he has taught us and to guide us into all truth. [John 14: 26, 16:12-15] Since that truth is Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and who is the beginning and the end of all things, I believe that it is a reasonable conclusion that the material that God has given us in Scripture (and in the Tradition, which is founded upon and consonant with Scripture) is entirely adequate to guide us, not only in our present situation, but in any other conceivable situation. If this is granted, then it inevitably follows that the guidance of Scripture ought to be followed without regard to the temporal consequences.
Finally, I am assuming that a genuine commitment to the catholic and apostolic faith demands of all of us an honest and wholehearted attempt to see that there is integrity between what we proclaim and how we apply it.
The basic question
At present, we are very exercised (or ought to be) by practical questions concerning with whom we ought to consider ourselves to be in communion. In what sense and to what degree can I consider myself in communion with, say, the Bishop of Newark or the Presiding Bishop or the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of Edinburgh? Can I, or ought I, to be in communion with those who are in communion with them?
If my bishop has orthodox positions on everything except the ordination of women, am I more in communion with him than with a bishop who has signed the Koinonia Statement? If one believes that women’s ordination is possible in the long run, provided the proper degree of ecumenical consensus can be reached, he will come to a different conclusion than another who holds that it is clearly proscribed in Holy Scripture and that, because of this, no agency of the Church has any authority to alter it (which is my own position, as well as that of, among others, the Pope).
Are there really degrees of communion, or is being in impaired communion rather like being a little bit pregnant? Is it accurate or useful to describe all church relations in terms of communion, or is the sharing of baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity a necessary but not sufficient condition for eucharistic fellowship? Is not the notion that sharing in baptism necessitates eucharistic fellowship rather like in principle the idea that ordination is a right inherent in baptism?
The permutations of such questions are large in number and their practical consequences very serious.
It is my conviction that all questions of practice which concern the nature and limits of communion sooner or later come down to a fundamental question, which can be variously stated: In what does the unity of the Church consist? What fundamentally constitutes the Church? Who gathers the Church, God or ourselves? Is there a genuine difference between thinking of the Church as a communion (communio) and thinking of her as a fellowship (coetus)? Is her unity fundamentally from above – sacramental and mystical – or from below — liturgical and institutional? Does the sharing of sacramental communion cause or signify the Church’s unity?
The nature of communion
in the Old Testament
Israelite religion knew of no meaningful distinction between doctrine and practice: Belief expressed in proclamation but unexpressed in action was not faith, but hypocrisy. Belief was to be acted upon, and action was to be rooted in faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
That said, we must recognize that, as integral as faith and action are, faith has the pre-eminence. Saint Paul emphasized this when he pointed out that Abraham was reckoned righteous before God because of his faith prior to the outward expression of that faith in the ritual of circumcision. In like pattern, Israel receives the Covenant of the Law before the system of worship is outlined in detail. Faith not only requires but directs and corrects action.
Nowhere are the consequences of the integration of belief and practice more evident than in the sacrificial worship of Israel. It will be helpful here to remember that the primary purpose of sacrifice in Hebrew religion (as in Christianity) is to establish and renew covenant communion with God. The removal of sin is an essential means to that end (because God is holy), while the union of the worshipers with one another is a consequence of the divine life in which they share.
Worship is not seen primarily as a celebration of community, fellowship, or nationhood: The worshipers have communion with one another only because they first are joined to the Lord in the sacrifice; they have community or national identity only because the One whom they worship has made them who were no people into God’s people.
Correctly appreciated, worship expresses faith and orders the community, but neither the community nor its worship changes the content of faith. The idea that worship can actually develop or substantially alter the content of the faith is not utterly foreign to the experience of Israel, but it is worth noting that, whenever it takes root among the people, it quickly results in the worship of other gods in addition to or in place of the Lord.
When this priority of faith over worship and community is forgotten, as repeatedly it is during the history of Israel, the prophets are sent to recall the people to the proper order of things. [cf. Isaiah 29:13; Amos 5:Hosea 6.6]
The New Testament witness
We find no discontinuity between the priorities of the Old Testament and those of the New: If anything, the centrality of the principle that faith has priority over works (which include the worship of the people of God) is intensified. The connection with the prophetic tradition of Israel is evident in the ministry of John the Baptist and is central to the teaching of Jesus, who quite explicitly states that he has come not to abolish but to fulfill the Law. He participates in the liturgical life of the people of God, while at the same time inveighing in the strongest terms against the ritualistic formalism that smothers the intent of the Law to form for God a people after his own heart: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees,
So far as our specific topic is concerned, it is when we come to consider the writings of the Pharisee’s Pharisee, Saint Paul, that we find the clearest guidance on the nature and limits of communion. In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “but even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema esto). [1:8, 9] (The term Paul uses — anathema esto — involves excommunication, and it is worth noting that this exclusion is for teaching false doctrine, not for the immoral action which led him to excommunicate the incestuous Corinthian.)
It is when we come to look at the letters to the Corinthians, however, that we find the most assistance in discerning the Scriptural understanding of the nature and limits of communion. The key passages are found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 2 Corinthians 6.
In chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his discussion of the problem of meat sacrificed to idols by pointing his readers back to the Exodus from Egypt. He notes that even though all of them shared the experience of escaping from Egypt and being protected and provided for by God in the wilderness, most of them displeased him with their idolatry, immorality, presumptuousness, and ingratitude (all of which, not incidentally, were widespread in the Corinthian Church, not to mention our own). As a result, they were overthrown in the wilderness, and Paul tells his hearers that this is a warning to them.
He then exhorts them to “shun the worship of idols.” Immediately he goes on to ask rhetorically, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a communion (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a communion in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we share in one loaf.” To refresh the memories of his Jewish readers and to continue the education of the Gentiles, he points to the practice of Israel, asking “are not the eaters of the sacrifice sharers in the altar” (and by extension, in him to whom the altar belongs)?
In like manner, those who knowingly eat meat that has been offered in sacrifice to idols are partakers in the idols’ table. (It is worthwhile to note that the distinction moderns would make between the worship service in which the sacrifice was offered and the meal at home using that which previously had been offered would probably not be understood or appreciated in first-century Corinth.) While Paul hastens to deny that an idol represents a divine being, he is equally emphatic that the pagans offer sacrifice to demons (probably mistaking these for gods) and not to the One God. Christian worship must be offered in purity of heart: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
Paul is insistent that Christians are a people apart, whose God – through Jesus Christ – has unique and exclusive claims, not only on them, but on the whole of creation. Therefore, nothing is to be done which compromises this understanding, either in the eyes of the world or in the eyes of the believers themselves, and that includes participation in pagan worship, even at a distance.
The stage is now set for the consideration of the other major Pauline passage which relates to our topic, which begins at 2 Corinthians 10:11. Paul proceeds to ask a series of rhetorical questions which, taken together, give a fairly complete picture of what being in communion signified in the early Church: “Do not be mismated (heterozygountes) with unbelievers. For what partnership (metoche) have righteousness and iniquity? Or what communion (koinonia) has light with darkness? What concord (symphonesis) has Christ with Belial? Or what allotment (meris) has a believer with an unbeliever? What common ground (synkatathesis) has the temple of God with idols?” He then goes on, “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.'”
The meaning of the six Greek words used here (heterozygountes, metoche, koinonia, symphonesis, meris, and synkatathesis) enable us to form a comprehensive definition of the meaning of communion. It is evident from a close examination of them what is the nature of the koinonia to which Paul refers. It is rather different from the koinonia to which, say, Mark Dyer or the Eames Commission refer. It is a marital yoking, a partnership, which enables the participants to share in the life of God communicated through holy things and which stands on the common ground of doctrinal agreement and moral concord. The idea of a community not characterized by this shared standard of faith and moral order would rightly have been regarded as self-contradictory. A group of people who live together but have no common agreement on the nature of reality is not a community, but a voluntary aggregation of individuals formed for the pursuit of essentially individual purposes and ultimately held together only by self-interest or sentiment.
The participation or communion to which koinonia refers before all else is participation in Christ, particularly sacramental participation, communio in sacris, communion in holy things. Only in a secondary, derivative, and dependant sense does it refer to the fellowship or community between those who participate in holy things. Its primary reference is to participation in the life of Christ; participation in one another’s lives in a positive sense is possible only to the degree that we first participate in the life of Christ himself. Thus, the contemporary use of the notion of “community” to render this term, involves an inversion of the original priority of meaning.
In the New Testament, the sharing of communion always presupposes common faith. To demonstrate that this is not just a Pauline idea, we need only to turn to the first letter of John. Here he states that, “if we say we have communion (koinonia) with him and walk in the darkness, we lie and are not doing the truth; but if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have communion with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” (1:5-7)
The nature of communion
in the early Church
Until quite modern times, there was universal acknowledgement of the scriptural standards manifested in the New Testament: The absence of agreement on fundamental doctrine or on practices with doctrinal implications of necessity meant the absence of sacramental communion. The church or the individual who espoused heresy was cut off from sacramental communion and almost always from personal intercourse with orthodox persons as well. Those who remained in communion with heretics were themselves considered suspect at best and usually were subjected to the same excommunication. Sometimes the orthodox and the heterodox congregations in the same town would coexist in relative peace and occasional amity, but there would be no question of their sharing in communion until the doctrinal matters which led to the break in the first place had been resolved satisfactorily.
The consciousness that the unity – the communion – of the Church rests upon the ground of common faith throughout this period is evident to anyone reading the history of the Church. It is a perception which enabled the orthodox members of a local church (parochia) with an heretical bishop to seek and receive the pastoral care of orthodox bishops. In his seminal study, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, the German Lutheran scholar Werner Elert [1885-1954] mentions the case of the church in Antioch during the Paulianist heresy in the middle of the third century:
The Synod of Antioch (268), which was against Paul of Samosata, records a letter of Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria addressed “to the whole parish of Antioch” in which the bishop there “is neither honored with a greeting nor addressed in person” (H.E., VII, 30, 3). We see from this that the connection between church and bishop is only conditional. It can be sacrificed for the unity of the church according to a higher criterion of unity. From this we may conclude that, in the case of a conflict, fellowship with the parish has precedence over that with its bishop. In this particular instance the Bishop of Alexandria dealt with the congregation of Antioch over the head of its bishop, and this before his dismissal. What here appears as a single instance was often repeated later. [p. 140]
What is demonstrated here is that the notion that Christians only have communion with each other through their bishops is simplistic to the point of falsehood. In fact, orthodox Bishop Alpha’s breaking communion with heterodox Bishop Beta did not of itself indicate that he had broken communion with every individual Christian in Bishop Beta’s parochia. To be sure, if any of them remained in communion with Bishop Beta, it could be assumed that they were not in communion with Bishop Alpha, but the cause of the rupture was not Bishop Beta’s excommunication, but their own refusal to break communion with him, which indicated their adherence to (or their tolerance of) his false teaching. If, however, they did break communion with Bishop Beta, their communion with the Church would not have been in question. As a direct consequence of his heterodoxy, Bishop Beta would have been considered to have put himself outside the fellowship of the Church. He would have become, so to speak, an “unbishop” and his followers “unchristians.” A neighboring orthodox bishop need have no scruples about extending oversight to the orthodox in Bishop Beta’s parochia (or diocese, to use the later term), for it would have no genuine bishop.
The modern breakdown
It is only in the last couple of centuries that awareness of the connection between common faith and eucharistic fellowship has begun to erode. A great deal of the credit for this erosion belongs to the influence of the teaching of the German Romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher concerning the nature of the Church.
To set the stage for this nineteenth-century detour, we must first go back to the sixteenth century and to Martin Luther. As he translates the Bible into German, Luther comes to the Greek word koinonia. In Latin, this word is usually translated as communio [“communion”] or participatio [“participation”], though occasionally it is rendered as societas [“society” or “fellowship”]. (The difference in nuance between communio and societas in Latin parallels that between “communion” and “fellowship” in English.) Luther translates koinonia with the word Gemeinschaft [“fellowship” or “togetherness”], though by his own admission he does so reluctantly and simply because he cannot find a more suitable German word. This later has grave consequences.
Unfortunately, it seems that this quirk of the German tongue fit very nicely into the mixture of romanticism and pietism espoused by Schleiermacher. In effect, the basis of church unity was shifted from common adherence to a given doctrinal standard to a shared aesthetic striving for “a sense and taste for the infinite.” More bluntly put, for Schleiermacher and his followers (who included some of the most influential academic theologians of the 19th century, Christianity was at bottom a matter of intuition and feeling (mostly feeling) whose goal was a feeling. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church puts it [p. 1243], “he saw its highest experience in a sensation of union with the infinite.” This is really more like Hinduism than orthodox Christianity, and it is a far cry from the classical Christianity which sees the faith standing upon the rock of objective truth and having as its objective the personal communion of those who stand upon that rock, which is Christ.
This same subjectivism also infects Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the Church. Elert describes this as follows:
For him the church is above all “a fellowship” (Gemeinschaft). He says in his Glaubenslehre (sec. 2, 2) that in order to know what the Christian church is one must first establish “the general concept of the church together with a right understanding of what is characteristically Christian.” He goes on to say, “The general concept of the church, if there is to be such a thing, must be derived from ethics because the church at all events is a fellowship created by the voluntary actions of men, and only through these does it continue to exist.” That certainly fixes the idea of fellowship. Since a fellowship arises through the voluntary actions of men and continues to exist only through such actions, the church, since it is a fellowship, arises in the same way, that is, only through “the voluntary actions of men etc.” Pursuing this line we may go on to say that since the Lord’s Supper is a fellowship (koinonia), and since this term evidently includes both altar and church fellowship, they are both brought about “by the voluntary actions of men, and only through these can they continue to exist.” The concept of fellowship which is here said to characterize the church does not derive from the nature of the church, but the nature of the church is derived from the concept of fellowship. Wherever else this concept of fellowship may come from, it certainly does not have its source in the fact and character of the church.
… [Schleiermacher’s] persistent influence was evident in the recent discussions about altar and church fellowship which prompted this study. Much of what has been written on this theme suggests that altar and church fellowship are matters about which men are free to make their own arrangements. This means in effect that whether fellowship is granted or withheld depends on the good or ill will of those concerned. In harmony with such thinking we find altar fellowship arranged and practiced without full church agreement acknowledged by both sides. This can only be understood as a product of the view that Eucharistic koinonia is a “fellowship created by the voluntary actions of men, and only through these does it continue to exist” It is, then, a matter about which men are free to make their own arrangements. [pp. 2-3]
If this sounds eerily familiar to most of you, it is with good reason: In fact, if not in formulation, what Elert describes has become the doctrine of the Church espoused by the Episcopal Church, expressed in interconfessional relations (such as the proposed intercommunion concordat with the Lutherans approved by the last General Convention), in intraconfessional relations (such as the absence of intercommunion with Anglican Churches not holding the Canterbury franchise), and in internal relations (such as the maintenance of communion between revisionist and orthodox bishops within the ECUSA and the Anglican Communion generally). In each of these categories, the question whether there is sufficient commonality in doctrine to justify communio in sacris seems to have secondary importance at best. One gets the distinct impression that the determination is made on the grounds of other, non-doctrinal factors.
The contemporary confusion about communion is a consequence of its corruption by sentimentality and relativism and of the degradation of the doctrine of the Church by institutionalism. Nominal unity – togetherness as its own justification – has been substituted for agreement in the truth, which is the only sure basis for unity. Partnership in the search for a truth that seems always drifting leftward just out of reach has replaced common confession of the faith once for all delivered to the saints as the ground for communion. The togetherness of the institution seems to have become more important than its integrity, and the telling of home truths about this is seen as an offense against the all-important value of “community.” What happens is that the early Christian sense of community is recognized, but only the outward and visible phenomena are appropriated and enforced. The inward and spiritual basis of that community – unity in the truth (understood as an objective reality not dependent on our perception or experience) – is neglected.
Particularly in seminaries, but also at the diocesan and parochial levels, this attitude is oppressive. It is stultifying to the open and vigorous disagreements over the nature, scope and application of Christian truth which could be contained under the rule of charity within a church which had a firm basic grasp on orthodox Chrisitianity.
One result of this superficial understanding of koinonia is that most thinking (and consequent action) about “the community” in ECUSA has more in common with collectivism than with Trinitarian Christianity. It is perhaps, then, no wonder that we find a certain measure of practical Stalinism in the actions of corporatist leaders in ECUSA: For them, the truth of what the General Convention defines as reality is less important than ensuring that the members of the institution conform to that definition. This is nothing peculiar to the 20th century, of course: Not many Roman magistrates really believed that the Emperor was a God (nor did many of the emperors), but they made – and insisted that others make – the statutory sacrifices to his divinity for the sake of maintaining the imperial community.
This exaltation of form over substance, of institutional loyalty over fidelity to the truth, is characteristic of decadent institutions that have lost their centre. When its members no longer acknowledge a common accountability to the Gospel, an ecclesiastical institution will seek to save itself by insisting on compliance with institutional forms and, having obtained compliance, will deceive itself that genuine unity has been established. Belief becomes essentially a private matter. Only behaviour makes a difference. The statement of belief as anything more than opinion or feeling is a major social faux pas, on a par with audibly belching at a state banquet. This is especially so if faith is portrayed as something with consequences for anyone’s behaviour other than that of the believer: This is excoriated as “imposing one’s morality” on others. This is the sort of thinking that enables revisionist Episcopalians to complain about bishops they don’t like “imposing their individual conscience” on a diocese.
The road to recovery
If we are to recover the authentic understanding of the nature of the church and of the meaning of being in communion within the church, we must be willing to put it into practice. Talking about it to our people and our colleagues, while necessary, is not going to be sufficient unless we are willing to put it into practice ourselves. The last twenty years of our experience in the ECUSA ought to be sufficient to convince us that the attempt to teach the institution back into orthodoxy – at least in the way that we have tried to do it by lecture and publication – is foredoomed to failure. The institution is more interested in self-preservation than in the truth, and so long as its institutional apparatus is not seriously threatened, it doesn’t much care what its members believe. An intellectual appeal which is not carried through into practical consequences is never going to have a decisive effect on altering the course of any institution.
The fact of the matter is that in the ECUSA, until quite recently, the open demonstration of the breaking of communion which is the consequence of false doctrine has never been widely and vigorously applied by the orthodox to the heterodox. It often has been speculated that, if the sixty-some bishops who had signed the dissent from the 1976 action of the General Convention which authorized women’s ordination had followed up their statement by breaking communion with those who voted in favour of the measure or acted upon it, we would not have had to deal with the institutional lunacy so starkly evident at the last three or four General Conventions.
The history of the orthodox resistance in the Church of England seems clearly to bear this out: The willingness of Cost of Conscience, Forward in Faith, and Reform to enforce the sacramental consequences of heterodoxy on the heterodox has made the Establishment much more willing to take measures to limit the damage it has done than ever was the case in the ECUSA.
The prescription is really very simple in principle, though it may be a bitter pill to swallow in practice: If we are to recover a genuinely traditional doctrine of the church, then we must not only talk about it, we must do it. Those who set themselves outside the communion of the church by actions which contradict the Gospel are not to be communicants at the Lord’s table. This is a principle as old as Saint Paul’s excommunication of the incestuous Corinthian.
To receive communion from someone who is a purveyor of false doctrine would seem more likely to work for the confirmation of his opinions in his own mind than for their reformation. If a husband violates his marital commitments by consorting with a mistress, and his wife knows about it, and he knows that she knows about it, is she to be blamed for refusing to have intercourse with him? If, on the other hand, she does permit marital relations (and only expresses her disapproval of his extramarital arrangement), would it not be natural for him to assume that there is really nothing wrong in his having a mistress? In neither case is the marriage invalidated by the husband’s adultery, but only in the first case does the wife create conditions that might reasonably be expected to move the husband to repentance. In the second case, she not only enables him to continue in his adultery (thereby becoming an accessory to it), but she helps to evacuate the marriage of its character, leaving only an institutional shell – a Potemkin marriage. Only the first response carries the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.
The purpose of breaking communion with the adherents of falsehood is twofold – that communion in spirit and in truth may be maintained among those who remain faithful and that those who have left the fellowship may seek to be restored by returning to the faith. From the beginning, the motivation for such action has been educative, not punitive. We know about the incestuous Corinthian, who Paul orders the Corinthians to “deliver to Satan” “for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” [1 Cor. 5:5] Paul also delivers Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan “that they may learn not to blaspheme.” [1 Tim. 1:20] Education and restoration are the objects here, not to mention the protection of the faithful congregation from the negative influence of the unrepentant sinner.
If we are not willing to follow the consistent practice of the Church for most of her life by breaking communion with those who teach false doctrine and promote ungodly life, how can we hope to convince the heterodox of the seriousness both of our commitment to orthodoxy and their departure from it? How can we credibly claim to be traditional Christians if we will not act in accordance with the tradition? If we do not, how can we convincingly defend ourselves against the charges of our opponents (not to mention some of our friends) that our claim of orthodoxy is just a fancy name for social conservatism and prejudice? How, indeed, can we claim to “be the Church within the Episcopal Church” if we will not act like the Church, standing for the truth without regard to the institutional consequences? How willing are we really to dig a pit for the Cross when we know that we are likely to be nailed to it ourselves? How willing are we to defy the institution when its orders are to surrender the faith and to desert the Lord?
These are serious questions indeed, and we probably have just scratched their surface. However, the laying of a foundation begins with the scratching of the surface, and about that business we must be, for the time is short and we must be ready to render an account.
Sam Edwards is Executive Director of the Episcopal Synod of America. This article is abbreviated from an original published in The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of ESA