The collision of major ideological tectonic plates has created a fault line that runs through most Christian organizations, institutions, and movements. Old cracks are widening, while new cracks appear with worrying speed. The threat level of schism is high. In February 2023, the Anglican community ruptured when the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) rejected the Archbishop of Canterbury as leader of the worldwide Anglican communion. It was a reaction to the decision of the Church of England earlier that same month to begin blessing same-sex couples. GSFA wrote in its statement:
“As much as the GSFA Primates also want to keep the unity of the visible Church and the fabric of the Anglican Communion, our calling to be ‘a holy remnant’ does not allow us to be “in communion” with those provinces that have departed from the historic faith and taken the path of false teaching.”
This particular fissure runs along the line dividing the West from the global south of Africa and Asia, which for England corresponds to the boundary between former colonizers and colonized. Reasons for the schism are thus not merely superficial cultural differences, but run deep into civilizational bedrock.
Likewise, in the Catholic Church the bond of ecclesial communion is wearing thin. Former whispers of heresy and schism, especially in Germany, have become open warnings by bishops and cardinals. In his final cri de cœur, the late Cardinal Pell used similar language as the African and Asian primates of the former Anglican communion.
“The synods have to choose whether they are servants and defenders of the apostolic tradition on faith and morals, or whether their discernment compels them to assert their sovereignty over Catholic teaching.”
The situation is serious, and believers and non-believers alike should pay attention. The world is still reeling from the large quakes of the years 1056 and 1521 and the ensuing rifts that divided Europe between east and west, north and south. Importantly, after doctrinal and social common ground is rejected, violence is not far away, as illustrated by the Thirty Years’ War that came in the wake of the Reformation. Similar lines of conflict run through the Balkans and Northern Ireland. And Ukraine is, in a sense, located on the intersection of civilizational fault lines. Because of this some consider the current war a conflict of values and worldviews about what is considered sacred. In this framework, room for compromise is negligible and conflicts take on an eschatological character.
Maybe some among believers and non-believers doubt that religious schisms have serious cultural and political consequences, and instead think the relation is mostly the other way round. This would mean that ISIS was the reflection of underlying material and social factors in Iraq and Syria and not primarily the result of a religious ideology that promotes extreme terror. I find that hard to believe, and the increasing attention to radicalization as a problem indicates a growing awareness that religious ideas indeed have consequences.
Still, most people do not pay attention or do not consider a split in the Catholic Church in the style of the Anglican communion as especially troubling. The underlying but mostly implicit idea of such a stance is that modernity moves forward to ever higher levels of enlightenment and freedom. In the march of progress, there will always be resistant minorities, but those on the wrong side of history will dwindle into small, dissatisfied subcultures of no real significance. One example of this are the former Lutheran state churches in the Nordic countries in which the conservative believers are few, harmless, and marginalized.
Read it all in the European Conservative
Clemens Cavallin is professor of Christianity, religion, philosophies of life, and ethics at NLA University College, Bergen.