"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

About denominational allegiance

Are these denominational labels so much hot air? On the one hand I remember my Lutheran mentor becoming very passionate and, I felt, rather pedantic about Lutheran doctrine while, at the same time whenever my Anglican friend James asked me about Lutheran doctrine, he would always respond “But that’s what Anglicans believe.” Could I even dare to suggest that some denominations are a bit precious about maintaining their distinctive nature, even when that causes divisions – divisions which ultimately damage the Missio Dei?

“Your lot are a bit up themselves aren’t they?” I was asked more than once. If that is so, is it an inevitable consequence of being a minority denomination? Do you have to try harder to maintain your identity if you are a minority? I’m sure you do, but perhaps the real heart of the issue is whether or not the British religious landscape needs a Lutheran Church at all. What is the Lutheran Church offering that couldn’t be provided at least as well by the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or URC denominations? Indeed, does that become a more threatening question if you ask it in turn of every main-stream denomination even, dare I say it, the Roman Catholic Church? Many of my Catholic friends express huge disenchantment at much that seems to characterise Catholicism and yet they remain. Why? "Once a Catholic", as they say? Is the whole business of denominations simply tribalism?

Supplementary questions we could save for another time might ask whether these differences are quite as distinct as some churchmen would have us believe and to what extent are they really important anyway? As far as I can see none of it is of such an order as to be determinative of salvation.

What is it that makes people in Britain – those that do, anyway – attend worship? Is it the theology? No it isn’t in the main. If we’re realistic, how many people who worship on Sunday actually know about, let alone care about, the finer points of dogma? This is where, in my humble opinion, A Lutheran Bishop I know had it right: he seemed more concerned to be a pastor to his flock and I think that’s how the church grows. If you start defining yourself by your theological uniqueness, is that going to strike a chord with the unchurched? I’m sure this is how St. Angst is successful: it’s a pastoral church and broken people come, and largely stay, because they know they’ll be cared for. They don’t necessarily come for its Anglican theology even though they probably know its Anglican. If they’re comfortable with that, so much the better but it’s not the priority. Such people are the next generation of the church but to what extent have they grown into or absorbed the denominational identity? Are they Anglican or Methodist or whatever because they like what happens at St. Thingumy’s or because they have bought into the denominational identity?

As a case in point I remember asking a member of the clergy at St. Atrophy’s what its stance was on issues of human sexuality, to be told that it subscribed to the position of the Evangelical Alliance and then to discover, that this position was not espoused by any member of the congregation I spoke to.

Who, in the pews of the Anglican Church, knows or cares greatly about the theology of the 39 Articles? Who, in the pews of the Lutheran Church, knows or cares much about the theology of The Two Kingdoms? Who really cares how many sacraments their church has? They go to church because, for whatever reason, they feel at home or comfortable and that, generally, has nothing to do with dogma or theology. I’m fairly sure that a significant number of Sunday worshippers could settle in any denomination provided the environment was right. That environment is eclectic and personal: does an individual like a sung Eucharist? A Taize emphasis? Speaking in tongues? A largely prayerful and reflective atmosphere? Smells and bells? Pomp or austerity? Mere family tradition? It ought to be a salutary lesson for church leaders: how many members of any congregation are there out of convenience or conviction?

I remember my Lutheran Bishop telling me with some indignation about the time someone asked him what the point of the Lutheran Church in this country was. I can’t remember his reply now, but I do remember that I wasn’t particularly convinced by it.

So, my sense is that denominational allegiances are marginal to a significant minority of worshippers. On a wider scale though, this is about the future of the church. How many congregations within a denomination are being encouraged to amalgamate or develop a team ministry? How many interdenominational arrangements are being made either at local or national level? Why? Economies of scale in the face of declining church attendance and in this context, denominational differences are going to increasingly count for very little: certainly we can’t afford to be so precious about our sense of identity or orthodoxy that we’d rather just fade away than work together for the mission of the church and some individuals and groups of worshippers would rather do just that than deal with change. Almost anyone in the church you talk to will have a story of people who simply stopped coming to church because they wouldn’t engage with amalgamations and closures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people have a tenuous denominational identity: a new vicar arrives that an individual doesn’t take to and he leaves the church. He is as likely to turn up in the local Methodist church as he is to travel to another Anglican congregation and this pattern seems to be common regardless of the original denomination.


  1. One year goes by quickly. In my old diocese they required a three-year stint in a parish because so many people applied to enter the process there. One year is the more general standard. Just find a rector you like and a parish you like. They don't necessarily go together. Do some church shopping BEFORE you settle in, although you are most likely acquainted with your local parishes already.

  2. Go for it! You've got MY prayers.

  3. A pretty accurate insight into the focus of those who put their bums on the pews each week instead of standing up in a pulpit and espousing theology.

  4. At least over here in the mainstream Protestant denominations, I think you're right: for a great many people it's much more tribal than denominational.

    A small minority actually know and care about their denomination's distinctive difference from others - but as these generally are not taught except for a quick once-over in confirmation class or inquirer's class, most people nowadays have no clue. Ask an Episcopalian to explain Hooker's theology, or a Methodist to explain Wesley's, and you will get blank stares - nobody's ever bothered to tell them, so why should they care?

    Some people care much more passionately about the musical offerings; even more about the youth offerings ("we mainly go to church for the kids' sake"); people raised in liturgical churches tend to prefer that kind of service, and ditto for those millions in America who have never known anything but what can broadly be described as "low church" style services. (I.e., no fancy costumes for the preacher, no heathen Catholic decorations, and an hour-long sermon every Sunday.)

    But on the whole and in the main, except for a few outcasts like me on the margins, most people tend to go where their family and friends go, and it takes a really big upset to dislodge them: which makes church a sort of country club.

    Hence the rise of the nondenominational megachurches that focus on the art of feel-ggod ministry. Most people have no concept of theology or doctrine, and really don't want to burden their minds with it. They do, however, like to hear some pleasant talk of Jesus and the Bible, and have some really nice friends to hang out with - people who are "our kind," whether that's highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow.

    The social comfort they derive from attending outweighs any doctrinal idea for the great majority. Of course, individuals enjoy their prayers and Bible reading, but for Protestants other than the one-true-church, tightly-wrapped, high-control groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and that ilk, the doctrinal differences appear so slight to the masses that it produces only a shrug of the shoulders.

    Which does raise the question: what exactly is a minister's job anyway? What are you there for?

  5. Somewhat related to the topic at hand, an article you will find interesting on religion vs. science:


  6. Shouldn't that question be "Who are you there for?", not "What are you there for?"

  7. I think there is probably a Phd. in this somewhere. Chuch leaders need to be confronted by this topic.

  8. Picking up on what Leo and SR said, why don't you employ your experience and knowledge to write a book, Jack - "Does Doctrine Matter?"

    Or even - "What's Doctrine Got to Do with It?" Grin.

    Actually, since the mainstream denominations seem to be melting away like the picture of the mini-iceberg in your latest post about the BBC, it actually may not matter to anyone before too long.

    I can't say if that's a good development or not; to me the ultimate point of Christian belief is living a humble, kind, and unselfish life - but who cares about that these days?

  9. Doctrine matters to me but I don't think that the old denominations neatly separate the doctrinal battles. For instance, which denomination do I choose that believes passionately in the equality of the sexes, in holy matrimony for gay people, that the bible is the revealed (but not infallible or literal word - small s - of God), that abortion as birth control is wrong, that capital punishment is wrong and that social justice and pacifism are central to Jesus' message and that a life of prayer and service is central to discipleship?

    Well, I could be comfortable in some congregations of any denomination. I could be extremely uncomfortable in some congregations of any denomination.

    We're not drawing our theological lines neatly around denominations any more, if we ever did.

  10. I think that denominations matter when they put rings around what you can and cannot believe or on who decides what can and cannot be believed. Anglicanism is a broad tent that can cope with almost any personal growth and change, and so still nominal Lutherans like me feel as happy there as Anglo-Catholics. It would not work the other way round.

  11. I think your point is well taken, Pam. Even in your case, the official doctrine of the church is not the thing you are really looking for, it seems to me; rather, you are looking for a church that agrees with you.

    And I think that's most people who are looking for a church these days: not seeking The One and Only Revealed Truth, but seeking a place where most people agree on values they bring with them to church, not take away from church neatly packaged and ready to serve.

    Or, as I said in my post above, people attend where their families have always attended. Many years ago I and a colleague (Irish Catholic) from upstate New York were having a bull session; he named a number of things he and his family disagreed with about RC teachings.

    So I asked him, why do you keep going to the Catholic Church? After a moment's reflection, he replied, "It's an ethnic thing."

    There you go. And the Southern Baptists here in the Southland wouldn't use the same terminology, but it's essentially the same principle at work. Folks want to be with Our Kind of People, and they take or leave doctrine as they please, just so they can maintain their familial and social ties.

    Of course, there are those like the Duchess of Kent, who a few years ago said about her conversion to Catholicism (you can Google this up for the exact quote): "I like being told what to do." I suppose such types like the security of having all the rules and regs laid out in black and white; no perilous gray areas, just the comfort of believing you are eternally safe if you stay within the lines. But notice once again, it's not the truth of the doctrine, but the certainty it provides, which is a different thing.

    Although the fundamentalist preachers of my childhood cautioned that people who come to church for that reason are merely trying to buy fire insurance. But a very human response, if your basic beliefs fill you with fear of hellfire, naturally.