Donatism it ain’t

One thing that refusing to take Communion 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 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.

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.

5 Comments on “Donatism it ain’t

  1. Hello,

    just a little comment on the contemporary situation – my historical knowledge in this area is non-existent so I’m not about to argue with the comments on Donatism.

    Rather Not says: “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 […] Rather, we are refusing communion with heretics”. A couple of responses to this. Have a slight puzzlement about who is claiming that “homosex [sic] is morally neutral” – I don’t think I’ve heard any voices in the current melee saying this, though am open to correction if somebody quotes an example. (Is there anything that’s actually morally neutral, by the way?) From what I’m hearing there are voices saying ‘homosex’ is immoral / damaging, some voices saying it is moral within a committed marriage-like relationship, and a few voices who’d want to say it’s moral within any relationship, however fleeting – but not neutral. (I’m aware that’s a pretty crude summary).

    Secondly, “we are refusing communion with heretics”. Surely the question this raises is what is a first-order / ‘church-breaking’ issue, whether homosexuality is one such, and what the criteria might be for discerning it (Andrew Goddard has begun blogging a series on this). And it seems to me that a good case for ‘the gay issue’ being a first-order issue (such that it’s heretical to disagree with the traditional characterisation of same-sex desire and to argue that church teaching in this specific area could / should be changed), has not been made. I seem to recall Rowan Williams (and maybe others?) saying something to the effect that he’d have been much happier if the Episcopal Church had, corporately and publicly, made a good theological case for same-sex partnerships before consecrating Gene Robinson, rather than going straight ahead. Well, it strikes me that in the same way, a good case should be made for ‘the gay issue’ being a first-order issue, before any moves to secede or fully break communion are made. Such a case might have been made that I’m unaware of, of course – can anybody point me to one?

    in friendship, Blair

    • Hi Blair,

      As you yourself have said, Andrew Goddard is doing exactly that, but his earlier piece with Peter Walker (True Union in the Body) covers the same issue with an in-depth discussion of whether same-sex relationships are (or are not) adiaphora.

      Should be able to download it somewhere on the net. Let me have a hunt around.

      • Evening Peter,

        had forgotten about True union in the Body when I wrote the above though not sure if I was aware that AG discusses the adiaphora thing in it. If you haven’t found it, I suspect you can get it as an e-book from Grove books. As I’m implying I’ve never read it – perhaps time to…

        in friendship, Blair

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