By Anthony Clavier and Christopher Wells

Editor’s note: The essay below appeared on the first iteration of the Covenant blog in mid-October 2007. As we draw near the 10-year anniversary of the blog, we may share other such gems from that early period. 

Conservative critics of individual writers and of the mission of this website have suggested in recent weeks that we are culpably “collaborating” with false teachers, thus rendering our labor deeply suspect on orthodox grounds and potentially misleading souls.

Unfortunately, because such criticisms lead with name calling without demonstrating that they have understood our positions, an obvious first — and perhaps finally adequate — response is to point out that we do not recognize, amidst all the heavy rhetorical weather, our own views as having been described.

That the criticisms-as-articulated miss the mark does not however erase what appears to us to be their false witness, hence the need to respond; but in a way that does not replicate the temptation, as old as Scripture, to enumerate whining litanies of “difficulty” that we have “felt,” as Newman politely put it to Dr. Pusey in 1864 — for “We give you a sharp cut, and you return it.”[1] We all, after all, need to be moved off the dime of our cherished “animosities and prejudices” (Anglican-Roman Catholic Malta Report [1968], §1). And if we, in Newman’s words, are frustrated by the “dry, hard and unsympathizing” tenor of your teaching, only to meet the predictable rejoinder that we “are unfair and irritating,” will not all of this rightly remind us of the deeper and antecedent “wound” that afflicts us all, across the putative lines of separation: because “our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:1-4)?


If the pains of inter-denominational isolation have passed or are passing, therefore, and many of the difficulties (such as they were) dispelled; and if we have uncovered, all around and from every direction, unsuspected affinities and common ways and means of teaching, shaped by one and another solidarity, it will all the same not be for want of having walked together — even as unhappy and argumentative Anglicans! — through the darkness and despair of the wilderness, where we were and are, as often as needed, justly “struck down” (1 Cor. 10:5). For God who is faithful tests us, “on whom the ends of the ages have come,” so as to provide a way out, and a way back to the endurance of love that is the “communion” of Christ (1 Cor. 10:13, 16).

Indeed, there are many mortal sins to be avoided, including “reviling” others, as Ephraim Radner recently noted on a blog: that Paul warns the Corinthians “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother [or sister] who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber” (1 Cor. 5:11). To revile someone is to address or speak of them with contemptuous, abusive, or opprobrious — that is, reproaching or scornful — language. Woe to us when our proper zeal for God’s truth is tied up with our own self-righteousness! We include ourselves in this curse, recognizing that we have “no excuse, whoever we are, when we judge others” (Rom. 2:1).

In the great days of the Zulu empire the paramount chief employed a shaman to inspect the assembled ranks of warriors to sniff out potential traitors. Of course, such a method was slap-dash and unpredictable. While such inquisitors may well have discouraged opponents, they were given the tempting incidental power to settle scores and destroy rivals. It is much more tempting to identify heretics than to do the hard work of translating orthodoxy into contemporary language, thereby demonstrating the poverty and inadequacy of its alternative propositions. Stanley Hauerwas is on target when he writes:

Orthodoxy can tempt us to self-righteousness and protectiveness that betrays the joy and confidence that should be the heart of the gospel. When orthodoxy becomes defensive rather than a form of love and proclamation it denies its own reality.[2]

The aggressive defensiveness of conservatives in particular can thus easily abuse the authentic reality of that which we would defend, the horrifying history of inquisitors and inquisitions providing a useful object lesson in this regard: the mark of the totalitarian mindset rather than of authentic Christian virtue.

There are, however, fundamental ecclesiological questions and differences to be considered, and choices to be made. Where and how, precisely, might all the baptized be bound together in “one Church” at present, given the apparent plurality of divisions? Where is this Church — amidst, or as the aggregate of, or perhaps entirely untroubled by, the multiplicity of “churches”? And are all or only some of the ecclesial claimants to be judged true or authentic, while others are simply imposters?

The following notes, writ in the form of theses, do not directly address these difficult questions, which would require much more space to treat adequately. Rather, the following points attempt to clear a space for a larger, more careful conversation about the bounds and responsibilities of visible Christian communion understood in ecumenical — catholic and evangelical — terms. Whatever else we may wish to say about mutual accountability, forbearance, waiting for one another, and the duties of love — and there is much that we should say about all of these — we should presume the following.

In the nature of the case, there is little here that is original, though nearly all of it necessarily remains contested and controversial, given the “facts on the ground” of intra-Christian division. We do well in this field, therefore, to advance with especial caution and prudence, because our Lord “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” and we have been given certain conditions for communion and discipline “so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32, in the context of a larger discussion of visible koinonia; cf. Matt. 13:24-30 and 25:31-46).


  1. It is vital to distinguish between kinds of heresy.

Since at least Aquinas, Latin theology has employed a distinction between “material” and “formal” heresy. The Catholic Encyclopedia conveniently makes the point:

heretical tenets may be ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas: in none of these does the will play an appreciable part, wherefore one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness—free choice—is wanting and such heresy is merely objective or material. On the other hand the will may freely incline the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the Divine teaching authority of the Church. The impelling motives are many: intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one’s own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable. Heresy thus willed is imputable to the subject and carries with it a varying degree of guilt; it is called formal, because to the material error it adds the informative element of “freely willed.” (emphasis added)

The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, presumes this distinction at canon 751 (where schism and apostasy are also treated) when it focuses on the “obstinacy” of heresy, a term that indicates that the heresy is conscious and willed. As the canon states: “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise obstinate doubt concerning the same.”

A heretical position (note: the Code no longer speaks of persons, as the 1917 Code did) is thus necessarily born of “bad faith,” as the Commission that revised the Code insisted, which requires, as a commentary on the text observes,

not only knowledge—that the positions taken are knowingly, consciously, and intentionally espoused, with full cognizance that they are in opposition to what is to be held ‘fide divina et catholica’—but also defiance—that the beliefs are denied or repudiated in rejection of the authority of God revealing or the church teaching (ed. Coriden et al. [Paulist Press, 1985], p. 548).

In sum: by definition, a conviction of “heresy” requires a certain, measurable obstinacy — “both the passage of time and a process of challenge or dialogue. It means that the denial or doubt is persistent and tenacious, i.e. held after long consideration and serious attempts to wrestle with the truth” (p. 548). This means, as theologian Bruce Marshall has rightly noted, that

even the explicit denial [by a person] of scripturally, creedally, and confessionally normative beliefs does not constitute heresy when it stems from confusion, perplexity, or ignorance, regardless of whether these are owing to a native lack, a deficient education, or sheer lassitude.

Marshall continues:

Deciding whether a belief or collection of beliefs might fitly be described as “heresy” therefore requires a detailed knowledge of the circumstances in which the beliefs are uttered or committed to paper, of the speaker’s or writer’s own capacities and dispositions, and in the case of written discourse, of the larger literary context.

Finally, again, heresy refers only to doubt or denial of those things which “must be believed with divine and catholic faith,” as the canon puts it; or, as Aquinas has it, things that pertain to the articles of faith (i.e. the creed), either directly or in a manner that may lead to the corruption of a given article (Summa theologiae II-II, q. 11, a. 2).


  1. The distinction between heresy and error has implications for how we conduct intra-ecclesial argument in an orderly way and how we adjudicate “communion” questions in an orderly way.

How, therefore, ought we to think about “debate” with those who embrace heresy? If their views are formally deemed heretical, then by that very judgment the persons holding them will have been disciplined by the Church — traditionally: excommunicated — and so further argument or discussion will be moot. The disciplinary measure ought not risk schism, however, taught Augustine, as may occur if a heretic has defenders or his “crime” does not appear “execrable to all,” in which case the principle of the wheat and tares kicks in: “Let both grow until the harvest lest, collecting weeds, you should perhaps eradicate also with it the wheat” (Matt. 13:29; cited with Augustine in Aquinas, Summa II-II, q. 10, a. 8 ad 1). Likewise, it should be borne in mind that “excommunication is medicinal,” as Aquinas put it (III, 82, 8 ad 3), that is, it is undertaken with a view to correcting the brother or sister in the hope of his changing his mind and publicly renouncing the false doctrine, “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord,” as the Apostle has it (1 Cor. 5.5).

On the other hand, short of formal censure by the Church, the brother or sister with whom we disagree may be thought of as erring, that is, at most, as potentially teaching heresy (materially), which should inspire vigorous engagement with him or her in the mode of “challenge or dialogue” (as above) within the bounds of the visible body, for no formal separation has taken place. The purpose of such engagement is primarily to offer and teach the truth and to convince the person or group of the inadequacy of their propositions.

Related here is the longstanding nest of issues to do with proper conditions for sharing sacramental communion. Can the Eucharist be shared with the notorious sinner, or be received at the hands of a notoriously sinful priest? On the first question, Thomas Aquinas teaches that “Holy Communion ought not to be given to open sinners when they ask for it,” citing Cyprian for the point (re: “actors and that magician who continues to practice his disgraceful arts among you”), that “the Church’s modesty and honor” may not be “defiled by such shameful and infamous contagion.” Aquinas adds, however, that “if they be not open sinners but hidden, the Holy Communion should not be denied them,” and here he cites Augustine on 1 Corinthians 5:11, who wrote: “We cannot inhibit any person from Communion except he has openly confessed, or has been named and convicted by some ecclesiastical or lay tribunal.” Nevertheless, Thomas continues,

a priest who has knowledge of the crime can privately warn the secret sinner, or warn all openly in public, from approaching the Lord’s table until they have repented of their sins and have been reconciled to the Church. (III, 80, 6 c)

The catholic position on this question is therefore subtle and multi-faceted. There are duties associated with communion among Christians, as a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 will also reveal: we must be reconciled with one another and with God, and the possibility of harming ourselves in our sacramental communion with Christ is real. We are to approach the throne of the Lord with awe and reverence, not lightly or casually, and this properly includes a certain visible purity or lack of scandal in the gathered assembly.

At the same time, the proper conditions for discipline of erring members are, like the conditions for distinguishing formal heresy from error, extraordinarily rigorous; so those to whom disciplinary authority has been given in the Church — bishops (but also priests and the lay faithful) — must spurn what Augustine called, in a wonderful phrase quoted by St. Thomas, “usurped extraordinary judgment,” that is, arrogating to themselves the authority to make determinations about the state of another’s sin apart from orderly ecclesial processes. The latter point comes in the context of Thomas’s discussion of “whether it is permissible to receive communion from heretical, excommunicate, or sinful priests, and to hear mass said by them,” and the answer is obviously “no,” it is “not lawful” to do so in the case of the first two (to whom Thomas adds “schismatics” in the ensuing discussion); “not all who are sinners are debarred by the Church’s sentence,” however.

And so, although suspended by the Divine sentence, yet they [i.e. sinful priests] are not suspended in regard to others by any ecclesiastical sentence: consequently, until the Church’s sentence is pronounced, it is lawful to receive Communion at their hands, and to hear their mass. Hence on 1 Corinthians 5:11, “Do not even eat with such a one,” Augustine’s gloss runs thus: “In saying this he was unwilling for a man to be judged by his fellow man on arbitrary suspicion, or even by usurped extraordinary judgment, but rather by God’s law, according to the Church’s ordering, whether he confess of his own accord, or whether he be accused and convicted.”  (III, 82, 9 c)

Indeed, on similar grounds, our Lord gave Judas his own body at the Last Supper: for Judas was at that point “a hidden sinner,” and because “Christ was to serve us as a pattern of justice, it was not in keeping with his teaching authority to sever Judas … from Communion with the others without an accuser and evident proof; lest the Church’s prelates might have an example for doing the like, and lest Judas himself being exasperated might take occasion of sinning” (III, 81, 2 c).


  1. Adjudicating discipline and orthodoxy among and between the divided churches of the Church is profoundly complicated, especially for the “inferior” and “weaker” member-communities of the body (1 Cor. 12.22ff.). Extra measures of longsuffering, perseverance, and patience are therefore requisite for those who care about catholic and evangelical order in these communities.

How much more must we carefully cleave to the foregoing pattern, ecumenical theologians have supposed, in the case of whole churches and their leadership when they find themselves in a generally weakened and uncomprehending state with regard to Christian truth, due in part to inherited divisions — and much else: ideologically-driven “parties” of the like-minded, shored up by cantankerous apologetical postures, etc. — for which they are not responsible? How shall we adjudicate in this instance among various communities and leaders who may be true and who false (see 1 John 4:1-6)? That is, by what objective standard?

The question was admirably faced by the Second Vatican Council when it concluded with respect to the sin of schism that those “who are now born into these communities,” i.e. both the Orthodox and those from Reformation communities, “and who are brought up in the faith of Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church looks upon them as sisters and brothers, with respect and love.”

While the original “separation” is still understood to have been sinful, the traditional attribution of schism in the present case is attenuated, perhaps radically so, the Council concluded, because the “separation” of “large communities from the Catholic Church” was “often enough” the fault of “both sides,” as the Decree on Ecumenism puts it (Unitatis Redintegratio 3 §1; cf. the Catholic Catechism, nn. 817-18).

While schism (literally division, splitting; “separation” [seiunctum] in the conciliar terminology) arguably still obtains as a state of affairs, therefore — since Christian communities as a rule remain distinct, both institutionally / “denominationally” and affectively — the Catholic Church is no longer able or willing to say that it obtains, if it ever did, as a legal fact — that is, that this or that group are schismatic hence separated culpably from the Church and its faith. This judgment is partly to do (again) with the Council’s conclusion that the “culpability” (culpa) for separation lay “often” with all parties, to which the Decree subsequently added:

The words of St John hold good about sins against unity: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I Jn 1:10). So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us. (UR 7 §2)

At most, therefore, the Catholic magisterium might now claim that non-Roman Catholics are beset with material heresy (on one or another point) but not formally hence culpably so, and even this has not been authoritatively articulated by the magisterium in any text that we can think of since the Council.

Admittedly citing Roman Catholic sources on this subject may not necessarily commend itself to some and yet, unfortunately, at least in the Western Church, few other sources remain available. Anglican canon law, as in much else, did not divorce itself from that which went before except in necessary areas; thus the precedent of even contemporary Roman Catholic sources, particularly when they reflect the continuity of pre-Reformation concepts, may be helpful in the absence of formal Anglican articulations. Of course, such an absence may also further illustrate our present doctrinal and disciplinary confusion as a distinctly “Anglican” Communion.

We see no reason why we should not ourselves evaluate our churches, including TEC, with a similar generosity extended to us by the Catholic Church. If, for instance, there is a “crisis of faithfulness” in our church, as we believe there to be, it seems precisely rooted in an “increasing inability to teach the faith well,” that is, as Bruce Marshall puts it, “to socialize” members in

the language of the faith … and its constitutive public acts… with sufficient richness, depth, suppleness, and comprehension. And this failure is itself linked, as in different respects both effect and cause, to the inability of the church’s leadership at all levels to evince an adequate mastery of Christian discourse.

In this case, the faithful response will be, as ever, to undertake renewed and vigorous reforms. For what is the alternative? So, again, the Second Vatican Council:

Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. (UR 6 §1; cf. LG 8 §3’s “sancta simul et semper purificanda”)

This means that various “deficiencies… should be set right at the opportune moment and in the proper way” (UR 6), which requires “repentance,” as John Paul II put it, in the

awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the “other side,” of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. (Ut Unum Sint 15)

The Council thus fittingly summarized its own program in terms of “interior conversion,” that is, begging God for a “change of heart,” along with “holiness of life” and “public and private prayer” for Christian unity — ”for the grace to be genuinely” self-denying, humble, gentle, and generous (see Eph 4:1-3)” (UR 7 §1 and 8 §1).

Anglicans do well, in this connection, to recall Ephraim Radner’s important essay of 2004, “Apprehending the Truth: Anglican Conservatism and Common Discernment,” now published in revised form in his Fate of Communion. The first sub-section of the essay discusses problems with defining ”orthodoxy,” and Radner concludes that when the “identity” of the one, apostolic Church “is in dispute,” which Church however has traditionally been “the communally authoritative context … in which truth and falsehood are given articulate shape,” “the very character of truth and falsehood will likely be thrown into question.”

This fact does not make all truth relative, Radner notes. But

appeals to orthodoxy or the application of the claim to orthodoxy within conflicts like those within [TEC] now [are] semantically imprecise and probably confusing (as many people in fact intuit). The shape of God’s truth, the search for this truth, and the application of what is true to the life of the Christian church cannot simply be resolved by an appeal to “orthodox belief” unless we are speaking within an already authoritatively ordered community.

“The reality of a defined communal life and constraining authority,” however, continues Radner,

has been attenuated in practice (e.g., in America since the eighteenth century) or simply has existed without formal and clear, articulate expression (as is the case with “Anglicanism” itself). In each case, the recent search for uniting essentials or fundamentals or “core doctrine” testifies to the actual lack of community and authority by which meaningful orthodoxy might be articulated. In the course of this search, to be sure, appeals have been made to proposed orthodoxies, especially ones founded on purported historical communities from previous generations: the “primitive” or “undivided church,” the “first five centuries,” the congruence of Reformed formularies with these previous entities or with other acknowledged “confessions,” the sixteenth-century English formularies themselves within or without canonical orderings, the Caroline Divines, and so on. Any of these proposals may or may not once have had a lived integrity. What characterizes them all, however, is that such integrity is in each case historical: each represents for contemporary Anglicanism as a whole and for [TEC] in particular a “propositional community of the past,” and each can therefore only be an imaginary community of the present, one that acts as a touchstone for something not yet established. (It should be noted that a similar and uncertain appeal to imaginary communities, although with very different contours, is at work within the struggles of the American Roman Catholic Church of the present.) (The Fate of Communion, p. 64)


  1. The apocalyptic form of Scripture converges, as the Reformers recognized, with the particularly cruciform shape of the gospel’s witness.

We offer a final, brief word on the question of proper conditions for remaining in one’s “church” in the teeth of, say, “indiscriminate inclusivism” which “subverts the communal tradition which is part of [our] personal and social identity,” as the Lutheran George Lindbeck put it some years ago. How are “evangelical catholics”— for instance, ecumenically-engaged Lutherans — called to proceed in such circumstances, Lindbeck wondered? Must they determine whether their church is “faithful enough to call for continued support, or so apostate that they are free, perhaps even obligated, to leave?”

As tempting as the either/or dichotomy may be “in our polarized age,” Lindbeck noted that Luther “reminded the sectarians in his treatise ‘Concerning Rebaptism’ of 1528 [that] the Church under the tyranny of the Renaissance papacy (which as the anti-christ was worse than apostate) remained the Church”: because churches “are faithful in virtue of God’s faithfulness, not their own righteousness. When judged by God’s law they are apostate, but faithful from the eschatological perspective of the Gospel promises.” The Lutheran Reformers therefore had “theological reasons, confessionally formulated at Augsburg, for refusing to sever communion with Rome. They left it to the pope to do the excommunicating.”

Moreover, even if one’s church is Laodicean — a blend “neither hot nor cold, but nauseously lukewarm” — one should recall that the Lord spews them out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16) as a form of correction, not rejection (cf. 3:20). “One can scarcely call this church faithful,” therefore, “and yet it is not simply apostate. It continues to be part of the elect people whom God has chosen to be his witnesses and with whom he continues to plead even when they are faithless.” Certainly, punishment “is to be expected” but “for the sake of repentance,” and the faithful are not summoned “to leave Laodicea, nor to retire from the fray into separated conventicles of the like-minded.”

Rather, they should, if they are able — and here Lindbeck exhorted subsequent generations who will be “most exposed to the pressures of polarization” — “struggle to work within, influence, and if possible, change” the very structures that presently “disgust” them. After all,

Jesus and the apostles took as their models the prophets of old who died rather than withdraw from the mixed company which is God’s people. They did not even become disaffected or inactive. They tirelessly worshipped and worked in temple and synagogue until they and the gospel message were anathematized or worse.[3]

Such a figuralist ecclesiology can moreover be turned to the matter of being “bound,” as we often hear today, even as a matter of “integrity,” to move to another church as soon as one’s own church has contravened “an essential issue” — perhaps because one finds basic doctrines articulated more precisely or completely elsewhere. To this question, Lindbeck — who, we should recall, was an architect of the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue throughout the 1970s and ’80s — wrote, in an intriguing “Open Letter: To Richard J. Neuhaus” upon the latter’s becoming Roman Catholic (Lutheran Forum, Advent, 1990, pp. 43-44):

One may think that another church is more fully the church, has a higher ecclesiological status, or would give greater scope to one’s ministry, or would be more satisfying to one’s personal needs, and yet be obligated not to join if there is reason to believe that more harm than good be done to the cause of Christian unity.

This presumes, certainly, that “one can remain in one’s present communion without acting or speaking against conscience.” Again, however, we do well to recall the rigorous standard of the Reformers on this point: that “one should stay in that place where God has put one as long as there is freedom to proclaim the gospel and practice what it entails.”

Structurally-speaking, the point can also be approached in terms of the historical, spiritual, and ecumenical implications of “bad bishops” in the Church’s history, as Radner has argued, and particularly the providentially “positive character in the bishop’s burdensome person,” often in a “painful mode” (Hope among the Fragments, p. 178). Our problem, Radner writes,

is our sheer lack of faith that God has any good purposes to fulfill in the mutual submission that orders his church. We do not trust, not simply other people in the church; we do not trust God with the church’s life itself. Yet that trust is crucial to the entire possibility of the Church’s ongoing continuity in time. (p. 192)

Because, therefore, the order of the Church — any church — is of paramount importance, episcopally-ordered churches (see the landmark ecumenical text, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry) “are, at this point in history, … best placed to exhibit the full character of the episcopate for other traditions” (p. 196; cf. p. 179). And what is that “character” of episkopé in its fullness? It is, as Radner suggests, a kind of apostolic “lightning rod,” so that we enter an “episcopal” church “in order to be buffeted, ensnared, shaped, and molded through our formal encounters—with Scripture, the liturgy, but also with the order of the church—into the shape of Jesus’ self-giving” (p. 188).

Even in TEC — though only insofar as that church remains a constituent member of the Anglican Communion — we believe that this remains possible.

May it be so: for dying, we live (Matt. 16:24-26), according to the shape of our Lord “as he is,” so “that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17); the shape of “the one who came by water and blood” (5:6), in whom we may “pass from death to life because we love one another” (3:14).


[1] Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, vol. II, pp. 6-7.

[2] Heresies and How to Avoid Them, ed. Quash and Ward (Hendrickson, 2007).

[3] For a quotation of the same text, see Ephraim Radner, “Doctrine, Destiny, and the Figure of History” in Reclaiming Faith: Essays on Orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church and the Baltimore Declaration, ed. Radner and George R. Sumner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 84.


About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is Director of Unity, Faith, and Order for the Anglican Communion, and served for 13 years as executive director of the Living Church Foundation, Inc.

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