Denominations by any other name


I am an Episcopalian. Raised a Roman Catholic, educated by Jesuits, I rejoiced when I discovered this denomination because of its liturgy, orthodoxy, and joyful embrace of paradox. I have always loved the 'middle way', which to me, values hierarchy, structure and authority as well as openness, humor and grace. It is a place where I know I am a sinner as well as I know the definition of sin; where I know the love of God as well as what we mean when we say 'God'. It has been both my road and my wilderness. Today I am not just a priest, but one who works at the Diocesan level, well within the specific denominational structure of this church. And I love it - my job and the church. Which is why, paradoxically enough, I have come to believe that we have mostly moved beyond denominations as Christians, whether we are new to the faith, have been here for our whole lives, or have yet to be introduced to it. Yes, there are still millions of Episcopalians, as well as Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. And of course, billions of Roman Catholics. But have you asked any of them lately if they can explain the practical difference between one branch of the Christian faith or another? Or more importantly, if it really matters to them?

I have asked these questions in Episcopal congregations, and when I do, most reply that it is important to them to be part of this denomination. But then I ask, if they moved to another town, and they did not like the priest, or worship was in a much different style than they were used to, or the congregation seemed to hold social or political views to which they were opposed, what would they do? Most then admit that they would try the local Lutheran church if there was not another Episcopal church nearby. Or maybe the Methodists. It's not that I no longer believe that denominations are important to us, or that they do not identify us as Christians in ways that help build the variety of the Body of Christ, it is that I think at our core, what we value in our life with Christ is no longer what divided us centuries ago. In fact, I think there is currently a movement back towards more unity among Christians, and along different lines than what may have separated us centuries ago.

What I mean when I say this is not ecumenism, whose technical definition is 'an interdenominational initiative aimed at greater Christian unity or cooperation', mostly because I don't think this is driven by denominational leadership in the way that the Ecumenical Movement appears to be. And also because it isn't about cooperation between denominations so much as moving beyond them. And I also wouldn't call it non-denominational or even post-denominational, because I don't think it tries to deny or move away from the unique gifts, perspectives, and viewpoints of the various denominations. I think, rather, we are moving towards something more like the modern Jewish distinctions of Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, and Reconstructionist.

Although there are other modern Jewish movements, these four basically contain the wide swaths of the faithful and their main differences and similarities regarding adherence to the Law, worship, and social and political orientation. The reason I believe that Christianity is heading this way is that I see similar categories actually affecting where and with whom we worship, which can fall broadly under denominational definitions, but actually explain some of the differences within denominations as well. It goes beyond being part of a denomination because one was brought up in it or because one agrees with the basic tenets of why the denomination was formed to begin with (or one's spouse was brought up in it, a very common reason for a person to change or join a denomination). It explains how two people who share a pew could have very different concepts of what good liturgy worship should be like, or who have differing views on how or if we should protest if we disagree with a law or policy. And also how an 'Orthodox' Episcopalian may have much more in common, and feel much more akin to, a similar-minded Lutheran or Presbyterian than they might with another Episcopalian who would identify more as 'Reformed'.

So what do these terms mean? Following loosely along with the analogy of the Jewish definition:

Orthodox is the most conservative and traditional, in worship, belief, practice, and political and social views. God is revealed in all these facets of faith, and God's will is discerned before the will of the individual or the larger culture.

Conservative means adhering to the authority of Scripture and the traditions of the church, including liturgical tradition, while also believing that the faith can be interpreted through the lens of modern culture. God's will is of great importance, but human circumstance is also weighed.

Reformed means adhering to the worship and culture of the tradition, but believing a bit more in the church as a human institution, prone to error at times, as well as called to righteous action to combat political and social wrongs. God's will is what is loving and good, as humans understand it.

Reconstructionist means believing in a religious culture, but not necessarily believing in God directly. There may or may not be a 'will of God', and liturgy and teaching are aimed at what is holy in humanity and celebrates positive virtue.

At first, it is easy to think, well, Roman Catholicism is Orthodox, Episcopalians are Conservative, United Church of Christ is Reformed and Unitarians are Reconstructionist. But this is actually the opposite of what I think is happening. In fact, within the Episcopal Church, which I obviously know better than any other denomination, you can find Christians of each of the above distinctions. And I believe this is true in pretty much any other denomination. Which goes to the point that this is a change of religious orientation that goes beyond denominational description, and, I think, is even stronger.

I also believe that this shift beyond denominational borders is one of the things actually going right in the institutional church, at a time when we struggle with so much else. If we can allow ourselves to see and embrace this deep shift, I think as Christians we will find there is a great deal of energy in each of these foundational categories. By this I mean that often within a single denominational or even congregational group, the differing kinds of Christian belief and practice actually set us at odds with each other, or take up way too much energy (think of the fights over changing music or moving the altar, not to mention whether the minister holds certain viewpoints and how he or she expresses them). By understanding this shift, even within denominations, we can in some ways accept our differences without needing to convince others to change. And eventually, we can embrace how Christians actually categorize ourselves beyond denominational divisions.