Is schism a sin?

The Rev. Greg Syler surveys the situation in the Diocese of South Carolina, and suggests that schism is, to put it bluntly, a sin. He writes:

This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.


This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter. In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church. The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.’” In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”

Syler concludes:

It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church. Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.” All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self. Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.

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7 Comments
  1. billydinpvd

    I don’t think schism ever stopped being a sin. The problem is that people who commit it always claim they’re doing something else, something positive .

    Bill Dilworth

  2. I do wonder what would happen if TEC simply refused to recognize the departure of so many member of the Diocese of South Carolina and temporarily placed those churches that want to remain in TEC under the care of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, as Bishop Daniel Martins suggests here:

    http://cariocaconfessions.blogspot.com/2012/11/epic-fail.html

    I’m just afraid that after years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal fees, what TEC will win (assuming we won) are a couple of dozen viable congregations and many, many buildings.

  3. Joe Monk

    According to the 4th Council of Constantinople, Canon 15:

    “But as for those persons, on the other hand, who, on account of some heresy condemned by holy Councils, or Fathers, withdrawing themselves from communion with their president, who, that is to say, is preaching the heresy publicly, and teaching it barehead in church, such persons not only are not subject to any canonical penalty on account of their having walled themselves off from any and all communion with the one called a Bishop before any conciliar or synodal verdict has been rendered, but, on the contrary, they shall be deemed worthy to enjoy the honor which befits them among Orthodox Christians. For they have defied, not Bishops, but pseudo-bishops and pseudo-teachers; and they have not sundered the union of the Church with any schism, but, on the contrary, have been sedulous to rescue the Church from schisms and divisions.”

    Joe Monk

  4. E B

    It seems to me, too, that just as we typically no longer regard sin as resulting in going to a literal hell, so too the real result of sin of this sort is losing the joy and growth of living in community with persons of differing views.

    One of the things I love about my current parish is that political views range, as one wag put it, “From slightly to the left of Che Guevera to far past Ronald Reagan.” (The bit about Che Guevera may have been directed to me!) The wonderful thing, though, is that we all love and respect each other, and I’m fortunate to be exposed to differing views.

    So, to the successionists, I say, “If what you want is to see yourself coming and going, save a lot of time and trouble and just buy a mirror. If you want to be exposed to differences and the chance to grow and learn from each other, then by all means you should consider staying.”

    Eric Bonetti

  5. billydinpvd

    Joe Monk – Yes, exactly what I was writing about above, thank you! Some people are so quick to justify schism that they will mine ancient canons looking for an excuse to pass off their own opinions as being binding; in this case, the quote comes from a council sometimes counted as Ecumenical in the East, but which was rejected by the West. This council also anathematized those who use the Filioque in the Nicene Creed, and reinstated the schismatic Patriarch Photios I.

    Well done!

    Bill Dilworth

  6. In this case it is also fair to note that the actions of SC are in contravention of and opposition to the decisions of the only Synod of which they are a member, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. The verdict was rendered and some have found it wanting.

  7. tgflux

    If I didn’t think schism was a sin, I’d advise all CofE’ers initiate TEC-UK Right.This.Minute. (As it is, I pray they Hang.In.There….IN the CofE.)

    JC Fisher

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