Lent: Day 11 of 40 - Donatus

Do we good people really have to put up with backsliding clergy?

  ‘The granary of Rome’ was Africa. Roman persecution was not limited to religion, but directed to control food supply. The Berbers were converting to the faith, as they would centuries later convert to Islam, as a unifying nationalist movement. The occupying Roman troops were not beloved.

 Clergy and others renounced the faith, choosing to ‘go along and get along’ with the occupiers, rather than to martyr themselves in resistance, or escape as exiles. Then, as waves of persecution passed, they wanted to resume their life in the church, with more or less repentance about their choices under pressure during crisis.

 Backsliders and puritans were at odds. In particular, church members who had resisted and accepted exile were unwilling to accept ministry from collaborators with the Romans. They challenged the validity of baptisms and communion celebrated by such impure leadership.  What happens after ‘regime change’?  Can there be reconciliation after genocide?

 Donatus, and his followers, hardliners against backsliders, could not accept the moderate compromises suggested by the wider church. You don’t mediate a crime, and those who claimed to mediate from Rome appeared from Africa to be biased. Can an international criminal court really be trusted with justice for victims? Schism, heretical division followed.

The Donatist movement lasted in Africa as an independent Christian movement at least until the rise of Islam. Most of its adherents found a more amenable home in that new religious movement. Google ‘Donatus’, though, and you will still find African faces and pious communities.

Our generation knows Donatist heretics like us. We have struggled with the issue of clergy who are sinners, or subject to no higher moral standard than members. Married, divorced, female, gay and lesbian, clergy disciplined for sexual harassment and abuse, those who drink or smoke or swear, the only kind of clergy we ordain are sinners and the validity of their ministry to their self-proclaimed moral superiors is often suspect.

Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory is a great 20th century novel of a whisky priest in Mexico, father of a bastard child, on the run from the police of an anti-church regime. The novel, like the orthodox church, concludes that the ministry is effective despite, or perhaps because of the humanity of the pastor’s humanity.

Do we good people 

really have to put up with 

backsliding clergy? 

I’d say ‘yes’. 

Would you?