Dale Rye, a sometime commenter at TitusOneNine and elsewhere, has posted a thoughtful essay about recent moves by certain conservative dioceses and parishes to secede from the Episcopal Church — and, subtly, about TEC's own actions in recent years.
Church 'trademarks' have consequences
Rye argues that Christians cannot simply disregard the agreed rules of the branch of the church to which they belong. In terms that would sound quite familiar to a marketer concerned about dilution of a company's brand name, Rye says.
... We are not free to call ourselves Anglicans while behaving like Baptists or Unitarians. A church (while it is the Body of Christ, the People of God, the Communion of the Faithful, and so much more) is also an ordered human society governed by agreed rules of conduct. Those who would regard themselves as part of that society must obey the rules or face the consequences---which no longer feature burning at the stake, but do include possible expulsion from the society. [Emphasis added.]
Drawing on a remark by Ignatius Loyola, which he quoted in a similar on-line essay, Rye continues:
If we see black when our church tells us to see white, we (unlike Roman Catholics who believe they are in the One True Church) are free to go join a black-seeing church. We are not free to put a blindfold on our present church so it will see black when we want it to. We are not free as individuals (or groups smaller than the whole) to expel others from the group because their behavior does not comply with our private judgement of how they should behave.
Moreover, if we leave, we leave as individuals (no matter how many like-minded individuals leave with us). We are not free to subvert the rules of the group we are leaving in order to take its assets with us (if the rules allow us to do so, that is another thing entirely, of course). The organization has its own corporate identity distinct from the individual wills of its membership. We are not free to impose our private judgment on how the group ought to handle dissenters; that is for the group itself to decide, consistent with its distinctive way of being the Church.
Obviously, none of this makes any sense from the perspective of someone who is convinced that he belongs to the church that has sole possession of the truth. I am not such a person. I am an Anglican.
In a later comment, Rye distinguishes between "mere personal preference" and "an assessment [presumably an individual one] of how closely the church fits our understanding of what a church should be in order to comply with the truth of the Good News revealed in Christ Jesus… an objective standard, not a subjective one" (emphasis added).
But are churches not allowed to evolve?
The one part of Rye's essay that gave me trouble was his argument, in effect, that churches should be preserved in amber, never changing from what they originally were:
Having chosen Anglicanism because it has a particular way of being, a special God-given charism if you will, we are not free to remake it into something that it is not. If we want a church of the Assemblies of God or the Metropolitan Community Church or the Roman Rite, we can go join one; we should not be trying to change our local Anglican church into a mirror image of those quite different bodies. [Emphasis added.]
This would seem to imply that all churches must remain forever static and unchanging, since you deny the possibility—or at least the right—of ever changing the church into “something it is not.” Do you allow for the possibility of evolution of a church, and if so how would it happen? What fraction of the church must agree to a change before it becomes allowable? [Emphasis added.]
* * *
The comments on Rye's remarks are worth reading as well: they illustrate some fundamental differences in the way people define "the Church."