Easter Sunday 2010 marked the last Mass at Historic Saint Peter Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After over 150 years of continuous use, the oaken doors of this sacred space on 17th and Superior were closed and locked. In rich irony, the building that once had been the womb of a vibrant inner-city Catholic community closed like a tomb on the very day when the Christian church around the world celebrated the feast of Christ breaking the bonds of death and rising triumphant from the grave. The official ecclesiastical act of “suppression” that closed the church building was intended likewise to roll the stone across the grave of the vibrant parish community that inhabited that domus ecclesiae. But Christians know that Resurrection happens. Easter cannot be stopped, not even by bishops.
Almost before he set foot in the door of the Chancery in Cleveland, Bishop Richard Lennon announced his intention to close one-third of the 180+ parishes in the diocese. Sixty-three parishes were to be selected for elimination based on the criteria of declining membership and financial dependency. Not surprisingly, many of the faithful were quite disturbed at this announcement. The diocesan spokesman sought to reassure them: “We don’t close parishes; we close empty buildings.” “Alright,” I thought, “maybe this won’t be so bad as it sounds.” And at first, that looked to be the case.
As the “clustering” process progressed, however, the bishop’s actions gave the lie to this initial assertion. The case of Historic Saint Peter Church provides perhaps the most striking counterpoint to the claim: the parish was solvent; it was up-to-date on the diocesan “assessments” that help provide financial support to needy parishes and missions; the physical plant was in top condition due to the recent restoration work in honor of the parish’s 150th anniversary; and the parish was growing, gaining members steadily. Regardless, the bishop made it clear that the church was to be closed. An anonymous donor offered $2.5 million for an endowment fund if the bishop would keep the parish open; the chancery declined. In canonical terms, the parish was to be suppressed and its far-from-empty building closed.
The parish spent months in soul-searching, individually and corporately discerning how to respond to the bishop’s plan. Legally speaking, a bishop owns all the ecclesiastical properties in his diocese. If he wants to close the church building, the building will be closed. The bishop does not own the consciences of the faithful. Some parishioners shifted to other churches closer to their domiciles. Many parishioners decided to embody dissent and incarnate resurrection, creating a not-for-profit corporation named “The Community of Saint Peter” (CSP). From a church-law standpoint, the CSP is a schismatic community: it self-identifies as a Catholic community, uses the Catholic liturgy, and is pastored by a Catholic priest, but the community is not supposed to exist and the priest is no longer supposed to minister.
Although I have spent nearly my entire career studying heretical, schismatic, or otherwise dissenting movements in formative Judaism and early Christianity, it took this event for me to understand—on a personal and experiential level—the human dynamics of “schism.” In my research, I have discussed the significance of various theological debates and explored the various power dynamics involved. In the midst of this “thick description” of social, economic, gender, racial, political, and ideological disputes, still I did not grasp the acute disappointment with established ecclesiastical authority structures, nor the anguish involved in making the decision to dissent and resist cooptation, nor the tenacity of hope required to inaugurate and sustain a “schismatic” movement. Far from being an easy choice, schism is a community’s response to the challenge of annihilation. Like a bear gnawing off its own leg to escape an iron trap, schism arises when the only other available option is to capitulate in one’s own oppression.
My work has been driven by the conviction that contemporary believers can learn a great deal from the “heretics” and “schismatics” of antiquity. The inauguration of the CSP has taught me there is much to learn from contemporary dissenters and schismatics as well. One does not have to enjoy conflict to recognize that significant and widespread dissent arises in an environment of serious power dysfunction. Schism, as one significant form of dissent, clearly points to a non-responsive, autocratic “authority” structure that permits the pervasive abuse of power. The CSP resulted from ecclesiastical minds closing, communications closing, and finally doors closing. Divested of walls, the CSP exemplifies the “Church in the City,” intentionally making its home among the poor of Cleveland. In this season celebrating the “tenting” of God amid the human race (John 1:14), and especially among the poor of this world, this “schismatic” group challenges observers to hold to this hope with just such tenacity.
Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D.
John Carroll University
28 December 2011
Sheila E. McGinn, Ph.D. is Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at John Carroll University. She specializes in feminist biblical studies and New Testament and is the author of multiple articles and works including the anthology Celebrating Romans (Eerdmans, 2005).