A good discussion below got me thinking again about the whole issue of denominationalism. I used t be a branch theorist–an ecclesiology much pilloried over at Pontificator and other sites. That’s the theory that the Great Tradition of the church essentially branched into three recognized ecclesial forms all maintaining the marks of the church, canon, creed, and apostolic succession: The Orthodox, the Catholic, and the Anglican. I no longer hold to that and have stepped back from it to return to my Lutheran understanding of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here’s a bit from the Large Catechism:
The Creed denominates the holy Christian Church,
communionem sanctorum, a communion of saints; for both
expressions, taken together, are identical. But formerly
the one [the second] expression was not there, and it has
been poorly and unintelligibly translated into German
eine Gemeinschaft der Heiligen, a communion of saints. If
it is to be rendered plainly, it must be expressed quite
differently in the German idiom; for the word ecclesia
properly means in German eine Versammlung, an assembly.
But we are accustomed to the word church, by which the
simple do not understand an assembled multitude, but the
consecrated house or building, although the house ought
not to be called a church, except only for the reason
that the multitude assembles there. For we who assemble
there make and choose for ourselves a particular place,
and give a name to the house according to the assembly.
Thus the word Kirche (church) means really nothing else
than a common assembly and is not German by idiom, but
Greek (as is also the word ecclesia); for in their own
language they call it kyria, as in Latin it is called
curia. Therefore in genuine German, in our mother-tongue,
it ought to be called a Christian congregation or
assembly (eine christliche Gemeinde oder Sammlung), or,
best of all and most clearly, holy Christendom (eine
So also the word communio, which is added, ought not to
be rendered communion (Gemeinschaft), but congregation
(Gemeinde). And it is nothing else than an interpretation
or explanation by which some one meant to explain what
the Christian Church is. This our people, who understood
neither Latin nor German, have rendered Gemeinschaft der
Heiligen (communion of saints), although no German
language speaks thus, nor understands it thus. But to
speak correct German, it ought to be eine Gemeinde der
Heiligen (a congregation of saints), that is, a
congregation made up purely of saints, or, to speak yet
more plainly, eine heilige Gemeinde, a holy congregation.
I say this in order that the words Gemeinschaft der
Heiligen (communion of saints) may be understood, because
the expression has become so established by custom that
it cannot well be eradicated, and it is treated almost as
heresy if one should attempt to change a word.
But this is the meaning and substance of this addition: I
believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and
congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ,
called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind,
and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in
love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and
member of the same a sharer and joint owner of all the
goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into
it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to
hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering
it. For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were
altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of
Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides
with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of
which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to
teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and
promotes sanctification, causing it [this community]
daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its
fruits which He produces.
We further believe that in this Christian Church we have
forgiveness of sin, which is wrought through the holy
Sacraments and Absolution, moreover, through all manner
of consolatory promises of the entire Gospel. Therefore,
whatever is to be preached concerning the Sacraments
belongs here, and, in short, the whole Gospel and all the
offices of Christianity, which also must be preached and
taught without ceasing. For although the grace of God is
secured through Christ, and sanctification is wrought by
the Holy Ghost through the Word of God in the unity of
the Christian Church, yet on account of our flesh which
we bear about with us we are never without sin.
Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered
to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but
the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to
comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live
here. Thus, although we have sins, the [grace of the]
Holy Ghost does not allow them to injure us, because we
are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but
[continuous, uninterrupted] forgiveness of sin, both in
that God forgives us, and in that we forgive, bear with,
and help each other.
But outside of this Christian Church, where the Gospel is
not, there is no forgiveness, as also there can be no
holiness [sanctification]. Therefore all who seek and
wish to merit holiness [sanctification], not through the
Gospel and forgiveness of sin, but by their works, have
expelled and severed themselves [from this Church].
I don’t agree with all of this–especially his reading on the communion of the saints. What I do take away from it is the notion that the true One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is a body of believers who are the true Body of Christ who cut across all communion and denomination lines. This is the collection of people who truly are joined to Christ in love, not limited by human rules. And, of course, we don’t know who they are but–to my mind–authoritative claims on who’s in and who’s out seem certainly not to match with what the gospels reveal of Jesus.
Anyway, In the previous discussion, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment that nobody jumped on. I’d like to bring it to the fore:
I don’t believe that Jesus’s comment [“that they all may be one”]necessarily means that denominations shouldn’t exist… I know that flies in the face of protestant ecumenical interpretations of the last hundred years, however, Since I believe that the Spirit is at work in the divided Church I have to belive that the division is for some good. I think that the good is that various denominations help remind one another of aspects that other traditions have minimized. We need Lutherans to remind us of justification by grace; we need Methodists to remind us of a Spirit-filled call to holiness; we need Episcopalians to properly pair wine and cheese.
Do you agree? Do denominations serve a holy purpose or are they only signs of human sin? Do Anglicans in general and Episcopalians in particular have anything distinctive to offer the Body of Christ besides really good wine and cheese parties?
I asked M this and she replied without hesitation–“Of course: Benedictine spirituality.” I had to laugh; we have a one-track mind. I do think that one of the things that the Anglican Church has preserved is a Benedictine form of spirituality adopted for the lay condition. *Both* the Offices and the Mass have an important place in our tradition and learning and the literary arts–key aspects of Benedictine culture–have traditionally informed the Anglican way of being.
There’s no doubt that Christianity across denominations is going through a huge upheaval right now because of postmodernism, postcolonialism, the Internet, and a host of other factors. This would seem to be a really good time to seize hold of a strong organizing principle, especially as our churches seem to be looking for a path and a stable identity. How about this one for ECUSA?