Martin Dudley mishandles Donatism
Martin Dudley has responded to the open statement from members of his Deanery. In his reply he demonstrates that he not only misunderstands (like Giles Fraser) the Donatist heresy, but also that his argument is tantamount to willingly promoting any form of sin.
The representatives of three evangelical churches in the City of London have declared that their fellowship, koinonia, with me is fractured. We could substitute another word for fractured; we could use the Greek schisma, meaning a rent, a tearing of the fabric of the Church. When Paul writing to the Corinthians speaks of a division in the body of Christ, he uses the word schisma. The representatives explain that thire fellowship with me has been broken because of my recent actions, namely the blessing of the civil partnership of Peter Cowell and David Lord on 31 May this year, and they make another statement of particular significance — they say “we cannot recognise him as a teacher of same gospel as ours. [my emphasis]”
Let’s give Martin the credit for recognising what the issue is. However, it all now starts to go downhill.
There was a schism in the North African Church that began in the 4th century. It was named after a Bishop called Donatus, and was known as the Donatist heresy. It began from a refusal to accept the ministry of Caecilian, Bishop of Carthage, on the grounds that he had been consecrated by Felix of Aptunga, who has been a traditor during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. A traditor was someone who, for fear of punishment, had given up a copy of the Scriptures to the authorities. So it wasn’t Caecilian but Felix who consecrated him who was the problem, but Caecilian was, we might say, contaminated by Felix.
The Bishop of Rome investigated the objections and decided against the Donatists. They appealed unsuccessfully to the Council of Arles in 314 and to the Emperor in 316. Nevertheless, the schism prospered theologically. Let me explain why. The Donatists were rigorists. They claimed that as the Church was a unique source of holiness, no sinner could have a part in it. Unworthy bishops had to be excluded for the guilt of a bishop automatically rendered ineffective his prayers, including those used in baptism and ordination. To survive in its full holiness the Church, like the vine, had to be drastically pruned, or, to put it in terms of a parable, the weeds sowed among the wheat had to be rooted out now. The Donatists saw themselves as a group that existed to preserve and protect an alternative to society around them. They felt that their identity was constantly under threat, first by persecution, then by compromise. They believed in Law. Some of their attitudes came directly from the Old Testament and like the Jews they believed in ritual purity, and believed also that such purity could be lost through contact with an unclean thing. They held that the unworthiness of the minister did indeed affect the validity of the sacraments.
This is all perfectly true, but Dudley leaves out the one crucial aspect of Donatism that other liberals like him always ignore. The fact that Dudley chooses not to share with us it that the traditores had repented of their sin. This was the reason Augustine argued in their favour, and against the Donatists. The Donatists said that even though the traditores had repented, it wasn’t going to allow them to retake their former positions. Augustine argued, correctly, that a sinner who repents, whatever the sin, is in the same position as any other sinner who repents – clean in front of God, for Jesus’ blood covers his sin.
Both Augustine and the Donatists viewed the action of denying the faith and burning the scriptures as sin. The difference between them was that Augustine understood that all repentant sinners were the same.
To the representatives from St Helen Bishopsgate, St Peter-upon-Cornhill, and St Botolph-without-Aldersgate, I say this: We become Donatists if we doubt the faithfulness and promises of God. We do it if we think the Gospel is ours and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do it if we think we, and we alone, are the good seed and everyone who does not agree with us is no better than weeds. If we take that approach, then we must scrutinize the life and behaviour and connections of everyone. At the door of the church-building those who should be welcoming will be required to ask questions about what each person has thought and said and done in the past week. It cannot be sufficient that hearts are open to God, that each person should review their own behaviour before confessing that we do not trust in our own righteousness — no, some will be called upon to judge others, as these representatives have chosen to judge me, though no-one appointed them as my judges, and if a negative judgement is returned then the person who is judged is unchurched, declared unworthy to be a part of the Body of Christ. Is the City of London the world? Is this present time the harvest? Are the representatives of these City churches the reapers?
The problem with this perspective is that as minsters we are called to do exactly that which Dudley seems to want us not to, namely from time to time to challenge people on their sin. Yes, none of us have a check-list of perfection that people have to pass when they come through the church door, but at the same time we have a duty when we know that someone in our congregation is willfully sinning and doesn’t care who knows to challenge that person. It’s a long pastoral tradition that goes back well beyond George Herbert. It is enshrined in the BCP where as Eucharistic ministers we make a public challenge to sinners to examine their consciences.
Dearly beloved, on —– day next I purpose, through God’s assistance, to administer to all such as shall be religiously and devoutly disposed the most comfortable Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; to be by them received in remembrance of his meritorious Cross and Passion; whereby alone we obtain remission of our sins, and are make partakers of the Kingdom of heaven. Wherefore it is our duty to render most humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God our heavenly Father, for that he hath given his Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance in that holy Sacrament. Which being so divine and comfortable a thing to them who receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to receive it unworthily; my duty is to exhort you in the mean season to consider the dignity of that holy mystery, and the great peril of the unworthy receiving thereof; and so to search and examine your own consciences, (and that nor lightly, and after the manner of dissemblers with God; but so) that ye may come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage-garment required by God in holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of that holy Table.
The way and means thereto is; First, to examine your lives and conversations by the rule of God’s commandments; and whereinsoever ye shall perceive yourselves to have offended, either by will, word, or deed, there to bewail your own sinfulness, and to confess yourselves to Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life. And if ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God, but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution and satisfaction, according to the uttermost of your powers, for all injuries and wrongs done by you to any other; and being likewise ready to forgive others that have offended you, as ye would have forgiveness of your offences at God’s hand: for otherwise the receiving of the holy Communion doth nothing else but increase your damnation. Therefore if any of you be a blasphemer of God, an hinderer or slanderer of his Word, an adulterer, or be in malice, or envy, or in any other grievous crime, repent you of your sins, or else come not to that holy Table; lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of all iniquities, and bring you to destruction both of body and soul.
And because it is requisite, that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience; therefore if there be any of you, who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word, and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.
If we believe that someone is not dealing with sin in their life, together with the Bishop we can exercise discipline against that person:
Canon B16 – Of notorious offenders not to be admitted to Holy Communion
1. If a minister be persuaded that anyone of his cure who presents himself to be a partaker of the Holy Communion ought not to be admitted thereunto by reason of malicious and open contention with his neighbours, or other grave and open sin without repentance, he shall give an account of the same to the bishop of the diocese or other the Ordinary of the place and therein obey his order and direction, but so as not to refuse the sacrament to any until in accordance with such order and direction he shall have called him and advertised him that in any wise he presume not to come to the Lord’s Table: Provided that in case of grave and immediate scandal to the congregation the minister shall not admit such person, but shall give an account of the same to the Ordinary within seven days after at the furthest and therein obey his order and direction. Provided also that before issuing his order and direction in relation to any such person the Ordinary shall afford to him an opportunity for interview.
2. The references in this Canon to ‘the bishop of the diocese or other the Ordinary of the place’ and to ‘the Ordinary’ include, in the case of the Ordinary being the bishop of the diocese and the see being vacant, the archbishop of the province or, in the case of the archbishopric being vacant or the vacant see being Canterbury or York, the archbishop of the other province.
So Martin Dudley is quite wrong when he suggests that we should never inquire into and act upon the state of the soul of somebody else.
We are all unworthy, in varying degrees. If it depends on us, there will be no Church. Some of my critics have written to me in recent months as “true Christians” proposing, in fairly strong language, that I should be expelled from Church and ministry; I can only reply as a very flawed and imperfect Christian, unwilling to unchurch anyone who believes in the love of God in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we do have one claim to superiority in Smithfield: experience tells us that it is dangerous to judge others, to pronounce them unchristian, to declare fellowship fractured, to rend the Body of Christ — it leads to the fires that consume the martyrs. We know that because it is a shameful part of our history.
We have to ask ourselves what it means to be, not an inward looking Church, obsessed with the purity and proper order of those within, but a Church open to the world, witnessing to the fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ — it is the only Gospel that we know at Saint Bartholomew the Great. Everything we are and say and do is about love, about God’s love for us. It is not about differentiating who can be loved from who can’t be. It is not about saying “God will only love you if you do this and this”. Come to me, says Jesus, all you that are weary and carry heavy burdens. Here it is, the key word, in Greek pan, all, the root word of pantechicon — a wonderful large van into which you pile everything, and sort it out later. And Saint Bartholomew the Great is a pantechnicon sort of Church. That same idea is found in the parable of wheat and weeds — the same idea of keeping together the pure and the impure, the good and the bad, the weeds and the wheat, and letting them be divided only at the end, at the harvest, by the one who only can judge the living and the dead.
This is perhaps the most embarrasing part of Dudley’s argument, for I am really not quite sure what he is trying to say here. Is he arguing that we should simply ignore sin in the church? Or is he arguing that we shouldn’t discipline him, "because we’re all sinners"? If so his argument is tantamount to saying that we should simply live our lives how we want. Are there no limits to where he thinks discipline should occur? A open thief? A murderer? A rapist? A child abuser? Are these all to be ignored when we know what they have done, yet they come to our churches unrepentant? Where then is holiness? Where then is the transforming power of the cross?
I fear that Martin Dudley has dug himself an Antinomian pit, into which he may very soon fall….