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an essay for Anglicans Online

Heresy versus Schism: Which is Worse?

31 October 1999

[On a popular Anglican mailing list, a thread dealt with 'Heresy versus Schism'. In a post on that subject, the Reverend Pierre Whalon, a priest in the Episcopal Church in the USA, explains why he believes living with each other is always better than separation. With his permission we publish it here.]

Dear All,

In this discussion on the seriousness of heresy vis-a-vis schism, one of our company reminds us that the great schism between East and West is the first great fragmentation of the Church. Another listsib goes back to the Monophysite controversies of the fifth century, and their schisms.

These prove the point I have been arguing: heresy is essentially a short-term phenomenon, schism is long-term. Heresy forces the church to articulate its message more accurately.

For instance, the term homousios ("of one Being" in the Nicene Creed) is an accurate theoretical description of Jesus' relation to God, over against Arius' contention that "there was a time when He (Jesus Christ) was not." There was no schism because of the Arian controversy. even though it was one of the most serious and deadly heresies of all.

This later developed into the Monophysite controversy, as to whether Jesus had one ("mono") nature ("physis") or two, as Chalcedon insisted. After Chalcedon (451) there was a schism over the person of Christ.

One of the consequences of that schism was the disillusionment with Christianity of a young man thirsting for God named Muhammed.

Another of our correspondents says that he has trouble keeping a straight face when we talk of Rome instigating the schism between the Roman and Anglican churches. Why? Our schism was over political power, not the person of Christ or other essential doctrine. It brought Anglicanism into being, for which I am everlastingly grateful. But the reform of Rome without a schism would have been infinitely preferable. Think of the Spaniards of the Armada at the bottom of the ocean. Think of the persecution of RCs in England, and of Rome's continued attempts to subvert the Church of England. Think of Apostolicae curae.

More importantly, think how our divisions have given the lie to the Gospel we all preach.

And what about the schisms from us Anglicans? Does anyone think that they are good?

No, heresy dies out. Schisms last for centuries. Heresy invites its own reversal by awakening a dynamic orthodoxy. Schism freezes doctrine, interferes with its healthy development. Heretics after all passionately want to improve the church's teaching. Their passion ignites a new passion in the church. Schism only provokes the passion of hatred, and its concomitant, war.

I reiterate, schism is always worse than heresy. For heresy is about doctrine - credo ut intelligam - while schism is about abandoning the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.