Today I have spent some time reflecting on history and tradition, having watched Gavin Ashenden’s presentation on why he left the Church of England. Earlier in the week, I read a post at Cranmer’s site about the problem of schisms in politics and churches. Christianity has a long history of dividing into factions. In the very pages of Scripture we read:
“For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13, NKJV)
Verses like these present us with questions. When is it appropriate to put aside one’s differences and go along with a group? When is it appropriate to leave the group in order to pursue a different path? We are warned that we shall end up devouring one another if we cannot achieve unity. But we are also told to flee from unholy religious types who may corrupt us. When faced with an irreformable corrupting influence, a group has two choices: either expel the corrupter or flee from the corrupter. Each option is costly, and the steps to be taken after the choice are not always obvious.
There comes a time, for each congregation, when that choice has to be made. Congregations that belong to larger organisational structures, may be able to avoid the issue for some time – but eventually the upper hierarchy will make demands that the congregation in good conscience cannot obey. This is a looming problem for faithful congregations in the Anglican Communion. Provided the activist liberal bishops leave them alone, they can ignore the problem – but there may come a time when that option is no longer available. For many, that time has already come: each man must answer to his own conscience, and some are more easily perturbed than others.
The great sweep of Christian history can be a comfort when faced with such choices: Christians have been in this situation before, and Christ has shepherded His sheep. A true believer has Christ with him, whether he feels Christ’s presence or not. Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. There is also the guidance to be found in the Bible. Careful contemplation of similar scenarios can help one to determine what the right response should be to the problem of institutional corruption.
Above all, accountability matters. A danger that can accompany group changes is the loss of openness and honesty with one another. Catholics are right to point to the danger of “becoming one’s own pope” in scenarios where a leader loses the requisite humility that such a role demands. There is a particular danger in becoming “puffed up” from study, thinking that one has all the answers.
I want to close this post by saying that I am not encouraging a given individual to stay in or leave his congregation. Rather, I am putting forward the point that we cannot afford to be complacent in this issue. We should take stock every so often to consider how best to approach the twin issues of Christian unity and purification from corrupting influences.