"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)
"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.