The Global Anglican, Summer 2021

This is very exciting. I seem to have become a published theologian.

The Global Anglican is Church Society’s quarterly theological journal, which was known until recently as Churchman, and founded in 1879 as The Churchman. The Summer 2021 issue, hot off the press, contains an article by your truly, entitled ‘Unity or Purity? Augustine’s Donatist Controversy and the Church of England Today’. Here’s the abstract:

A commitment to the unity of the church can often find itself in conflict with a commitment to the purity of the church. By examining Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings, this article concludes that the unity of the church should not be sacrificed in the interests of its purity, and that an appreciation of the eschatological nature of the church’s purity can enable believers to live more comfortably within a church which is a ‘mixed body.’

You’ll need to purchase the issue (or subscribe) in order to read the whole thing. But I’ll give a brief summary here.

The article originated as an essay I wrote during my final (masters) year at Cranmer Hall in Durham, back in 2019. It was part of a module entitled ‘Early Christian Perspectives on Mission and Ministry’, in which we were studying the early church in order to reflect on contemporary pastoral and missional issues. I chose to look at Augustine’s response to the Donatist controversy, and to explore whether it could help with contemporary questions about the unity and purity of the Church of England.

The Church of England is currently tearing itself apart over its unity and purity. The presenting issues are related to sexuality and marriage. How broad should the Church of England be? Can we all muddle together in a spirit of ‘good disagreement’? Or should the Church of England aim for purity, and stop tolerating (from one perspective) ‘homophobia’ or (from another perspective) ‘immorality’?

How can Augustine help us?

In the century before Augustine was born, there were a couple of big rounds of persecution in North Africa. Some Christians buckled under the pressure, either denying the faith completely, or at least surrendering their copies of the Scriptures to the Roman authorities. Others stood firm, and many were martyred for their faith. Once the persecution died down, some of those who had apostatised wanted to be received back into the church. Should they be allowed back in?

This was the root of the division that dominated the North African church during Augustine’s time. There was a massive split around the time of Donatus, near the beginning of the fourth century. A man named Caecilian was elected as bishop of Carthage, but he had allegedly been disrespectful towards those who had been imprisoned during the persecution. The ‘Catholics’ recognised Caecilian as bishop, but the ‘Donatists’ did not.

To put it simply, Augustine was on the side of unity, while the Donatists were on the side of purity. For Augustine, the church was a ‘mixed body’, and would continue to be so until the coming of Jesus. (Some of his exegesis is strained, but the basic point stands.)

The point Augustine is making is that the Donatists, in attempting to enforce the purity of the church, are seeking the kind of differentiation that will be a visible reality only at the final judgment. …

For Augustine, therefore – at least within the context of Donatism and its concern for personal holiness – it is never necessary to ‘differentiate’ oneself visibly from the Catholic church in its entirety simply on account of the continuing presence within that church of people who are clearly wicked. Unity comes before purity, at least chronologically. It is better to remain united in fellowship with the mixed body that is the Catholic church, than to purify oneself from association with the wicked and thereby cease to be identified with faithful believers in the Catholic church around the world. As Augustine saw it, Christ will purify the Catholic church at the eschaton; that he has not yet done so is not a sign that he has abandoned it (137-8).

This does not mean that Augustine wasn’t interested in the purity of the church. Church discipline should indeed be exercised, but only when the unity of the church can be maintained. The visible differentiation we should aim for involves (1) not sharing in the sin of others, (2) not consenting in their sin, and (3) rebuking sinners openly. It is always possible to do (1) and (2) – so ‘visible differentiation’ is always achievable – but (3) might not always be an option, if the peace of the church is to be preserved. (So, in 1 Corinthians 5, the implicit assumption is that it is possible to rebuke the offender without damaging the unity of the rest of the church.)

But what if it is not possible to exercise church discipline? In these cases, the faithful should ‘sigh and groan’ (Ezekiel 9:4, NRSV) or ‘grieve and lament’ (NIV), and wait patiently for Christ to act.

What lessons can we draw for the Church of England today?

There are enormous differences between the situation in Augustine’s time and the situation in our own time.

One difference is that unity for us is much more multifaceted. It’s not simply the case that we have to choose which out of two churches is the true church. The Church of England has never claimed to be the ‘one true church’, and we recognise true Christian unity, even in the absence of institutional unity. And there is plenty of institutional unity that lacks what Augustine describes as ‘the charity of unity’.

Another difference is that today’s divisions touch on some big theological issues (such as the doctrine of marriage), which wasn’t the case with the Donatist controversy.

But we can still learn from Augustine the importance of fixing our eyes on the return of Christ and the final judgment. It is only then that we will have a pure church.

There can be a tendency to assume that the unity of the church must necessarily be sacrificed in the interests of the purity of the church. But, for Augustine, this is not the case. Although we should indeed seek to purify the church, this must be done with care and patience, making every effort not to disrupt the unity of the church (147).