There has been a lot of publicity lately in the press about priests leaving the Roman Catholic Church to incardinate into other non-Roman catholic jurisdictions. The reasons for leaving the Roman jurisdiction of our catholic faith obviously vary, but for the most part it is because of either discontent or conflict with an archaic, inflexible and dictatorial hierarchy. The Roman battle cry invariably shouts out “schism” and then threatens a supposedly unsuspecting laity that wants to follow a beloved shepherd to a new spiritual home, with excommunication and the warning that their very souls will be in jeopardy of eternal damnation. Yeah right!!
Let’s talk a little about schism. The Roman hierarchy throws the word about as though it means something diabolical, evil and horrific. Worse yet, it often times combines the word schism with the word sect implying of course a malicious and unchristian environment. Not always true. If it were not for separations or schisms, there would be no growth. In fact, there would be no Catholic Church. The church that Jesus founded was by its nature, schismatic. It varied and took a different road to what conventional Judaism taught at that time. Jesus was pursued, persecuted and ultimately put to death at the insistence of the Jewish clerical hierarchy, not because of political beliefs but because he encouraged people to follow a new way, a different way to understand religion and spiritual relationship. He turned peoples’ hearts to God and to a relationship with YHWH not based exclusively on rigid adherence to The Law and the church patriarchal hierarchy but rather a loving paternal relationship between parent and child. Jesus turned the Jewish world upside down! Those who dared follow Jesus were thrown out of the Jewish synagogue.
This Jewish schism was the birth of Christianity. Since then, there have been multiple divisions, schisms if you will, within the Body of Christ. Like a single human egg cell that upon fertilization, splits, grows, and splits again and again until it forms a new and complete being, the church continues to undergo these cell divisions in a process of growth that will ultimately grow into the being, the Church, Jesus planned from the beginning.
Church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch remarked, “Conflict in religion is inevitable and usually healthy — a religion without conflict is a religion that will die….” (http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2012/07/10/topchurch-historian-sees-catholic-schism-ahead/21980 accessed June 20, 2014). Let’s take a cursory walk down Church History Lane to see just how many divisions conflict has caused.
The following list is reproduced here from OrthodoxWiki with permission under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License as used by Wikipedia and/or the Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons License. OrthodoxWiki is an online encyclopedia administered by Fr. John, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America. (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Timeline_of_Schisms, accessed June 20, 2014)
Timeline of Schisms
During Period of the Single Church
- 362-414 Antiochian Schism.
- 484-519 Acacian Schism.
- 553-698 Schism of the Three Chapters.
- 863-867 Photian Schism.
- 1054 Great Schism between East and West, generally regarded as having been completed by the act of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
- 1265-1310 Arsenite Schism.
- ca.1666-67 Old Believers became separated after 1666-1667 from the hierarchy of the Church of Russia as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow.
- 1921 Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).
- 1935 Old Calendar Schism, when three bishops declared their separation from the official Church of Greece stating that the calendar change was a schismatic act.
- 1990 Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP).
- 1378-1417 Western Great Schism ensues, including simultaneous reign of three Popes of Rome.
- 1723 The Church of Holland, (or Church of Utrecht) broke with Rome under its own archbishop and hierarchy, becoming the mother church of the Old Catholic Churches.
- 1889 In southern India 5000 Catholics broke from Rome over an organizational dispute, and formed the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa and India (i.e. the Jacobite Church of Ceylon, Goa and India; today this is a self-governing branch of the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church, known as the Brahmavar (Goan) Orthodox Church, a uniate faction under the Indian Orthodox Church).
- 1889 Federation of Old Catholic Churches, not in communion with Rome, at the Union of Utrecht.
- 1945 Bp. Carlos Duarte Costa of Botucatu (in Brazil), a strong advocate for the liberal reform of the Roman Church since the 1930s, was finally excommunicated by the Vatican on July 2, 1945, in particular for his criticisms of Vatican foreign policy during World War II toward Nazi Germany; in 1945 Bp. Costa became the founder and first patriarch of the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church, an independent Roman Catholic Church (claiming 58 dioceses and five million members in 17 countries, as of 2007).
- 1957 The “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” (the official state-approved Church) is established by the People’s Republic of China’s Religious Affairs Bureau, to exercise state supervision over mainland China’s Catholics; the unofficial (Papal) Church continues function as a separate entity.
- 1970 In opposing the changes within the Church associated with the Second Vatican Council, French Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), which is still the world’s largest Traditionalist Catholic priestly society, composed of 4 bishops and 463 priests, 85 brothers, 75 oblates and 160 seminarians.
Eastern Catholic Churches
The Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio gives the following list of 22 Eastern Catholic Churches and of countries in which they possess an episcopal ecclesiastical jurisdiction (date of union or foundation in parenthesis):
Alexandrian liturgical tradition
- Coptic Catholic Church (patriarchate): Egypt (1741)
- Ethiopian Catholic Church (metropolia): Ethiopia, Eritrea (1846)
Antiochian (West-Syrian) liturgical tradition
- Maronite Church (patriarchate): Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Syria, Argentina, Brazil, United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico (union re-affirmed 1182)
- 685 John Maron elected first Maronite patriarch, founding the Maronite Catholic Church, which embraced Monothelitism, rejected the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and separated from the Orthodox Church.
- 694 Byzantine army of Justinian II defeated by Maronites, who became fully independent.
- 1182 Maronites, who assisted the Crusaders during the Crusades, reaffirm their affiliation with Rome in 1182.
- Syriac Catholic Church (patriarchate): Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, United States and Canada, Venezuela (1781).
- Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (major archiepiscopate): India, United States (1930).
- 1930 Some of the New Party (Puthankuttukar), joined the Catholic Communion on on September 20, 1930 as the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Chaldean or East Syrian liturgical tradition
- Chaldean Catholic Church (patriarchate): Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, United States (1692)
- Syro-Malabar Church (major archiepiscopate): India, Middle East, Europe and America (date disputed)
- 1599 The Synod of Diamper, held at Udayamperoor/Diamper, (Kerala, India) formally united the ancient Christian Church of the Malabar Coast Saint Thomas Christians with the Roman Catholic Church, and severed its direct ties with the Assyrian church of the East.
- 1653 A group of the Saint Thomas Christians gathered at Mattancherry near Fort Kochi under the leadership of their archdeacon; They swore the Coonan Cross Oath not to obey the Pope of Rome; subsequently they received a bishop, Mar Gregory, from the Syriac Orthodox Church of West Syrian tradition; those who accepted Mar Gregory became known as the New Party (Puthankuttukar).
- 1663 A large section of the Old Party (Pazhayakuttukur) cut its ancient ties with the churches in Persia and joined the Catholic Communion in 1663 AD with the ordination of Chandy Bishop. This section is presently known as Syro-Malabar Church.
Armenian liturgical tradition
- Armenian Catholic Church (patriarchate): Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Ukraine, France, Greece, Latin America, Argentina, Romania, United States, Canada, Eastern Europe (1742)
Byzantine liturgical tradition
- Albanian Greek Catholic Church (apostolic administration): Albania (1628).
- Belarusian Greek Catholic Church (no established hierarchy at present): Belarus (1596).
- Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church (apostolic exarchate): Bulgaria (1861).
- Byzantine Church of the Eparchy of Križevci (an eparchy and an apostolic exarchate): Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro (1611).
- Greek Byzantine Catholic Church (two apostolic exarchates): Greece, Turkey (1829).
- Hungarian Greek Catholic Church (an eparchy and an apostolic exarchate): Hungary (1646).
- Italo-Albanian Catholic Church (two eparchies and a territorial abbacy): Italy (Never separated).
- Macedonian Greek Catholic Church (an apostolic exarchate): Republic of Macedonia (1918).
- Melkite Greek Catholic Church (patriarchate): Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Brazil, United States, Canada, Mexico, Iraq, Egypt and Sudan, Kuwait, Australia, Venezuela, Argentina (1726).
- Romanian Church United with Rome, Greek-Catholic (major archiepiscopate): Romania, United States (1697).
- Russian Catholic Church: (two apostolic exarchates, at present with no published hierarchs): Russia, China (1905); currently about 20 parishes and communities scattered around the world, including five in Russia itself, answering to bishops of other jurisdictions.
- Ruthenian Catholic Church (a sui juris metropolia, an eparchy, and an apostolic exarchate): United States, Ukraine, Czech Republic (1646).
- Slovak Greek Catholic Church (metropolia): Slovak Republic, Canada (1646).
- Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) (major archiepiscopate): Ukraine, Poland, United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Scandinavia, France, Brazil, Argentina (1596).
- 596 Union of Brest-Litovsk, several million Ukrainian and Byelorussian Orthodox Christians, living under Polish rule, leave the Church of Constantinople and recognize the Pope of Rome, without giving up their Byzantine liturgy and customs, creating the Uniate church.
Oriental Orthodox Communion
Church of Alexandria (Coptic)
- ca.451 Coptic Christianity broke from the Byzantine churches in the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451; Shenouda the Great, abbott of White Monastery in Egypt (d.466), is considered the founder of Coptic Christianity.
British Orthodox Church
- 1994 At the feast of Pentecost in 1994, at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, Abba Seraphim was ordained a Metropolitan by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, and the British Orthodox Church became a constituent of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.
Church of Antioch (Syriac)
- 541 Jacob Baradeus organizes the Non-Chalcedonian Church in western Syria (the “Jacobites”), which spreads to Armenia and Egypt. Church of Antioch (Syriac).
- 544 Jacob Baradeus consecrates Sergius of Tella as bishop of Antioch, opening the lasting schism between the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chalcedonian Church of Antioch.
Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church
- 1665 “Jacobite” bishop, Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel of Jerusalem came to India, confirming the Episcopal consecration of Mar Thoma I as the head of the Orthodox Church in India; this was a new beginning in the history of the modern Malankara Church; the Western Syrian language and Antiochene liturgy was adopted in their church.
- 1912 The Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church (‘Bava Kakshi’ (Patriarch’s Party)) remained as an autonomous jurisdiction of the Church of Antioch (Syriac), when the Church of India split from Antioch in 1912.
Armenian Apostolic Church
- 554 Church of Armenia (Armenian Apostolic Church) officially breaks with West in 554, during the second Council of Dvin where the dyophysite formula of Chalcedon was rejected.
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- 1959 Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, (Abbysinia), is an Oriental Orthodox church in Ethiopia that was part of the Coptic Church until 1959, when it was granted its own Patriarch by Coptic Pope Cyril VI.
Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- 1993 Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was formerly a part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, its autocephaly being reluctantly recognized by the Ethiopian Patriarchate after Eritrea gained its independence in 1993.
The Church of India (Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church)
- 1912 Church of India (‘Methran Kakshi’ (Bishop’s Party)) declares autocephaly from the Jacobite Church of Antioch (Syriac), after a vertical split in the Malankara Church in 1911; the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church (‘Bava Kakshi’ (Patriarch’s Party)) on the other hand remained as an autonomous jurisdiction of the Church of Antioch (Syriac).
Assyrian Church of the East
- 410 Council of Seleucia declares Mesopotamian Nestorian bishops independent of Orthodox bishops.
- 424 Formal separation of the Assyrian Church of the East (“Syrian Church” or the “Persian Church”), from the See of Antioch and the western Syrian Church under the Byzantine Emperors, occurred at a synod in 424; (in India, it is known as the Chaldean Syrian Church; In the West it is often known as the Nestorian Church).
- 484 Synod of Beth Lapat in Persia declares Nestorianism as official theology of Assyrian Church of the East, effectively separating the Assyrian church from the Byzantine church.
- 1517 Lutheran Church founded by Martin Luther, nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to door at Wittenburg, sparking Protestant Reformation.
- 1525 Anabaptism established; (today’s descendants include particularly the Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites).
- 1534 Church of England (Anglicanism) founded by King Henry VIII.
- 1541 Calvinism, (the Reformed tradition, the Reformed faith, or Reformed theology) founded, as the French theologian Johannes Calvinus establishes the first Reformed church in Geneva.
- 1560 Presbyterian religion founded by John Knox in Scotland.
- 1571 Dutch Reformed Church founded at the Synod of Emden.
- 1592 Congregationalist religion originated by Robert Brown in Holland.
- 1609 Baptist religion launched by John Smyth in Amsterdam.
- ca.1630-40 Puritan movement in England; approximately 20,000 Puritans emigrated to New England in the Great Migration; in 1662 the Puritans (also known as “Dissenters”, later “Nonconformists”) left or were forced out of the Church of England altogether.
- 1648 Society of Friends (Quakers) founded by George Fox, as a Nonconformist breakaway movement from English Puritanism.
- 1744 Methodist religion began by John and Charles Wesley in England; (the movement did not form a separate denomination in England until after John Wesley’s death in 1795).
- 1773 Unitarian denomination dates from the secession of Theophilus Lindsey from the Anglican Church.
- 1789 Episcopal Church formally separated from the Church of England, so that clergy would not be required to accept the supremacy of the British monarch; a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was also written for the new church in 1789.
- 1827 Plymouth Brethren; Anglican priest John Nelson Darby became an influential member of the movement now known as the Plymouth Brethren, and advocate of Dispensational Premillenialism, an innovative Protestant movement that gave rise to Evangelicalism.
- 1830 Mormon (Latter Day Saints) religion started by Joseph Smith, in Palmyra, New York; Book of Mormon published.
- 1844 Seventh Day Adventists arose from the Millerite movement of the 1840s, which was part of the wave of revivalism in the United States known as the Second Great Awakening, and was formally established in 1863.
- 1865 Salvation Army sect began with William Booth in London.
- 1879 Christian Scientist religion is born, founded by Mary Baker Eddy.
- 1879 Jehovah’s Witnesses founded by Charles Taze Russell.
- 1906 Pentecostal movement spreads after the Azusa Street Revival (1906-09); also known as “Charismatic Movement” from ca.1960 onwards.
- 1925 United Church of Canada, the second-largest Christian denomination in Canada after the Roman Catholic Church, is founded as a merger of four Protestant denominations.
- 1957 United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination principally in the United States, generally considered within the Reformed tradition, formed in 1957 with the union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches.
Add to this the many churches classified as autocephalous or part of the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) and the list would go on for a few more pages. My particular church, the United American Catholic Church, was established because of a split/reorganization. A good source on the subject of the ISM is The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement by John P. Plummer
In view of such an extensive list, to speak of schism as though it was something unusual and scandalous is misleading. Many Christians are aware of the Great Schism that caused a split in the Church that effectively established the Greek Orthodox Church and Latin Roman Catholic Church. But how many know that there was another schism in history within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (1378-1417) that caused the simultaneous reign of 3 popes. Another skeleton in the closet!
Throughout history many of the splits in the church were due largely to political, social, national and cultural reasons, although at times theological differences can be cited.
In our current post-modern era, denominational splits continue and are mainly due to differences in opinion on social issues that people have very strong feelings about, such as a married clergy, women’s ordination, gay rights and marriage equality. As a secondary consequence of these differences, we see clergy and laity switching church affiliations. In those instances when a popular pastor or priest feels the need to leave his denomination, laity could follow. We have recent examples of two Roman Catholic priests (Fr. Alberto Cutie and Fr. James Radloff) who left their Roman affiliation and were followed by some of their parishioners. In the case of Fr. Cutie, he affiliated with the Episcopal Church and Fr. Radloff affiliated with an ISM church, the Evangelical Catholic Church and established a new congregation . While their respective Roman Bishops claimed that their departure caused scandal and confusion to the faithful, I think the opposite is true. What is scandalous is the polity and culture of the Roman Church that causes good men to leave and prohibits good women from entering as ordained clergy, not to mention the Roman Church’s socio-political agenda. Jesus had good reason for establishing a dichotomy between Caesar and God.
It’s hard to quantify the number of priests that have left the Roman fold over the years, since no in-depth study has been done. We know that since the 1960’s priests started to leave the ministry completely while others left to go to other denominations but continue ministry. Some left to get married, some for other reasons. Rev. Stephen Joseph Fichter, a research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), gathered some statistics in 2009 from the research offices of 5 on the mainline Protestant Churches. He found 414 former Roman Catholic priests that continued in ministry. Of those, 131 agreed to participate in his study. He found that 105 became Episcopalians, 15 Lutherans, 8 Congregationalists and 3 Methodists. His study revealed that from his group of respondents, a priest who left the Roman Church spent twice as long in Protestant ministry as he did being a Roman priest. Given the 2:1 ratio in length of service, I would say that these men made the right but difficult decision for themselves that allowed for their personal and spiritual growth and happiness. (See the article “When Priests Leave the Church” at http://americamagazine.org/issue/709/100/when-priests-leave-church, accessed June 21, 2014)
Because the Church is made up of people, it is bound to have all the frailties and problems that our imperfect human nature causes. When an entity becomes intransient and disregards the sensus fidelium, you can be sure that sooner or later, there will be a split or an exodus. Why? Growth. One cannot progress forward when those entrusted with your spiritual growth continually look backward or adhere to archaic paradigms that have no relevance to a post-modern society. To be sure, our society has many ills and a church in tune with the life and pulse of the current world would do wonders to keep and promote a healthy spiritual life. To live and govern as in the past is to have no future. Living in the past brings stagnation and death. Jesus tells us in Scripture, “seek and you will find”, “knock and the door will be opened”. To some degree the Holy Spirit is involved in schisms and will not defraud those who seek God with a pure heart and sincere devotion and faith.
I am a happy schismatic. I left the Roman Church because for me and my life experience, staying would have brought ultimate death….perhaps not physically but certainly spiritually and psychologically. To all those you are facing the decision of whether to stay with your current church affiliation, whatever it is, or move to another home, I would tell you to let the Holy Spirit be your guide. If you feel in your soul that a change in venue is needed, then don’t let harsh and threatening words like ‘schism’, ‘schismatic’ and ‘excommunication’ cause you to fear. While we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a church that does not foster that love will stunt your own growth into God’s love and eventually will have a detrimental effect on your spirit. I prefer a schism to a chasm. With schism is the chance for continued spiritual growth and learning; or not. You give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to still walk with you to bring you to that relationship that the Creator desires to have with you. In the chasm you’re in a free fall.
One’s faith in God, through Christ and emboldened by the Holy Spirit is the tie that binds all Christians into a universal, catholic church, regardless of how one expresses that reality. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all one church. Peace and Good.
Bishop Tom Shortell, OSFC, D.Min. is the Bishop Ordinary for Mexico for the United American Catholic Church and currently resides in Guerrero, Mexico.