Yesterday the professorial weblogger of the Rather Not Blog weblog posted an entry entitled, “The Last Refuge“, concerning the Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas’ misunderstanding of what Donatism was and is (this is a perennial misunderstanding among many reappraisers and “centrists” in western Anglican circles, particularly in The Episcopal Church). Dr Kendall Harmon took note of IRNS’ unpacking of the Bishop’s category confusion by linking to the post at Titusonenine, leading to the usual spate of comments.
Dr William Tighe, professor of history at Muhlenberg College with particular expertise in early Church history (and the history of the English Reformation), wrote a reply to certain comments that continue to demonstrate a misunderstanding of precisely what Donatism was (and that tar some modern conservative Anglicans with that particular schismatic or heretical brush on the basis of misunderstanding). Unfortunately, Dr Tighe has recently been banned from commenting at the Stand Firm weblog, a ban that seems to have extended at least temporarily (because of shared software?) to Titusonenine. I have taken the liberty of posting Dr Tighe’s comment here, which he writes is particularly in response to comments #2, 10, and 23 to the Titusonenine entry.
This is a distorted account of the Donatist origins. There was a major dispute over electing a Bishop of Carthage (the Primate of North Africa) after the death of Bishop Mensurius in 310, one of the candidates, Majorinus, espousing the position that became known as the “Donatist” one (which was so termed after the name of this man’s successor as bishop, Donatus, bishop 315-355), but which was a view that had a great deal of support, almost certainly majority support, among North African Christians (although Bishop Mensurius held to the opposed view, that espoused by the Roman Church and dominant elsewhere), while the other faction elected Mensurius’ archdeacon, Cecilian (bishop 311-345). Rome, it appears, recognized Cecilian from the beginning, on the basis that his views were orthodox (by Roman standards) and Majorinus’ were not. In 314 the Emperor Constantine assembled a synod of bishops in Arles to rule on the election: he wanted them to decide which candidate had been duly elected, but they supported Cecilian on the grounds that he was the “Catholic” bishop, whereas Majorinus was not, ignoring the question of canonical correctness in favor of the more important one of doctrinal orthodoxy. Constantine intervened several more times, using a combination of threats (against the Donatists) and blandishments (offers to rehear the case), which served only to harden the division and encourage the Donatists in their resistance, until, after his move to the East in 320, he appears to have lost interest in the matter.
The Donatists were clearly the numerical majority in North Africa down to the 390s, when the combined effects of their own divisions, government repression and a number of theological debates which the Catholics (among whom St. Augustine figured prominently) appear to have won diminished their numbers considerably. Some historians suggest that some of the Donatists were won over to the Arianism of the Vandals who ruled North Africa from 440 to 535, but while North African Arianism disappeared with the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in the 530s, Donatism appears to have continued, more of a nuisance to the Catholics than a threat, into the late Sixth/early Seventh century. It appears, however, that the Byzantines never attempted to recover those interior regions of North Africa that had been under Roman rule prior to the Vandal conquest, and which the Vandals had abandoned to the native Berber tribes; and so (except in the area roughly corresponding to contemporary Tunisia) what the Byzantines ruled down to the final Moslem Arab conquest in 697 (when they took and destroyed Carthage; the isolated Byzantine garrison at Septem, contemporary Ceuta, across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain, held out for a few more years before surrendering) were isolated coastal enclaves which the Arabs were able to pick off one by one.
Seen in this light, the “history lesson” has different implications for contemprary Anglican quarrels than those which Dale Rye appears to favor. It is ECUSA that is in the “strategic position” of the Donatists, and the “reasserters” that are in the position of the Catholics. But it stretches credulity beyond the breaking point to cast Anglican Canterbury of the 21st Century in the position of Rome of the 4th. In the first place, Canterbury can hardly claim to have been as faithful to its own tradition of faith and practice, its paradosis, as Rome was to its (I need not give examples, lest they get me banned here, as they did recently elsewhere). [N.B. Dr Tighe’s commenting privileges at Confessing Reader are not in jeopardy!] Secondly, the authority of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion is purely a conventional one, arising only since the 1860s, whereas the basis on which Rome claimed to be the ultimate “touchstone” of ecclesiastical communion (whether rightly or wrongly is beyond the scope of this response), as much in the 4th Century as in the 21st, and was accepted as such, at least in the West, rested on a different basis — and one that, perhaps, gave it a confidence in its exercise that it would be hard to ascribe to Canterbury. But, finally, there is no evidence that Canterbury is either able or willing to exercise any authority (whether real or simply asserted on the basis of the intrinsic authority of a Catholic Bishop and Primate — as opposed to a Lutheran or Methodist “CEO bishop”) in these critical times and matters. If Canterbury is unwilling to “name it and claim it” as regards a kind of semi- or pseudo- “primatial authority,” then obviously the result will be the second verb of the phrase “use it or lose it.”