Demoninations–What’s the Point?

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
heilige Christenheit).

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?

12 thoughts on “Demoninations–What’s the Point?

  1. bls

    Oh, man. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about for a few months now. I’ve been reading a book about the Episcopal Church, and the last chapter is called “What is the Special Genius of Anglicanism?” I’m in the middle of a post-in-my-head about this, too, and hopefully will get that up, soon.

    I love what you say about “people who truly are joined to Christ in love, not limited by human rules.” This is so self-evidently true that I wonder why nobody’s ever said it openly before.

    And I agree about the Benedictine flavor of Anglicanism, although I think there’s more to it as well. (Did you read the .pdf I linked on my blog, BTW? The one called “The Monastic Quality of Anglicanism”?)

    As for: “Do denominations serve a holy purpose or are they only signs of human sin?

    My answer to that? Yes.

    (Which is, of course, the quintessential Anglican answer.)

  2. Lutheran Zephyr

    Derek – I’ll write more later, but in one (weak) sense, denominationalism could represent a “truth in advertising” type of thing – the church sign outside says something about what you believe, where you come from, what your praxis is like. Of course, we all know that there are many chuches that say “Lutheran” on their sign but are no more Lutheran than Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Billy Graham. I imagine the same goes for your Anglican communion.

    There are nuggets of wisdom, grace, beauty in so many of our Christiain traditions, and each denomination, in a sense, is a steward of that particular gift to the church catholic.

    Many Emergent Church types are post-denominational, not seeing the need for denominations. I suggest that such a policy just represents sloppy theology and practice, because we all come from somewhere – some tradition, some theology, some inherited practice – and we owe it to ourselves and the world to be honest about who and what we are. That’s where denominational titles/names comes in.

    At the same time, increasingly there are believers and communities who identify at the margins of denominational lines, or inbetween denominations. What should they call themselves? What should their church sign say, or their bulletin disclaimer about belief, etc. say?

    And of course, we have the issue of whether a denominational structure actually speaks for the tradition (does LC-MS or WELS actually represent Lutheranism? Does the ELCA?).

    Well, you wrote much more worthy of response, but on the big-picture question of denominations – I say keep them, imperfect as they are.

  3. *Christopher

    I concur with M. My spiritual director, a Benedictine sister in the Roman tradition, notes that we’ve better lived Benedictine spirituality. Much of the either/or incivility these days is actually anathema to our basic Benedictine sensibilities and practical divinity approach to life which is very much rooted in Creedal thinking if not named outright (okay I’ve grown to used to German sentence writing). But of course, I’m preaching to the choir :) More Office (with chant), more Mass (with chant), a bit more digging ditches together and restrained tongues all around might be a start.

    And in general, I’m more comfortable with the Lutheran take over the Branch take because it’s not just focused on the instituting of the Church but on the continual constituting of the Church by the Spirit from the Eschaton. I’ve always been troubled though by the way Luther severed the link between us and the Church triumphant given I ask saints for intercession quite regularly. Could you offer some thoughts on that?

    As for traditions/denominations, I’m appreciative. My faith is deeper because C is Lutheran, because my friends are Roman Catholic, Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian. Each has gifts and challenges which keep any of us from thinking we’ve finally got God all sewed up or from thinking we’ve become the Kingdom of God.

  4. Lutheran Zephyr

    Christopher – I’m interested in your comment “More Office (with chant), more Mass (with chant).” What would more Office, more Mass, more chant bring to the church, society, world? Someone I’m very close to and whom I admire greatly offers this critique of liturgical renewal in the Lutheran church: “For all of the communion every Sunday push, the emphasis on Eucharist and sacraments, the church ain’t growing.” Surely there are lots of factors that contribute to the church’s stagnation, but are you suggesting that the church/society/world would be “better off” with more office, more Mass, more chant? And if so, how is “better off” defined?

    Derek – great post, as always.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Ah–but growing how? Larger–or deeper? And if we grow deeper is our grwoth not more substantial?

    Pew counts piss me off. Don’t get me wrong; I earnestly belief that if Christ is truly made known in word and deed people will come. But is this the primary means of measure such things?

    I agree with you about the sloppiness of many “postmodern” groups. I equate them with the strip-mall martial arts outfits who claim to have “combined the best of all the styles!!” As someone who has trained in a classical lineage (not recently, alas) I can with certainty tell you that their “style” is a pathetic mash-up of externals and I seriously doubt that they know the soul of any style. I fear the same is most often the case in the “post-” groups; they don’t truly know the soul of any authentic Christian tradition. [How’s that for a sweeping antagonistic tar brush :-D]

  6. Anastasia

    what about, say, a pentecostal holiness movement? does that count for a denomination within which god is working?

    just curious whether the collective understanding of the realities of denominationalism extends beyond mainline liberal protestantism and liberal catholicism.

    how good do denominations look to you when you abhor what they think Christianity is?

  7. *Christopher


    I was raised Pentecostal…certainly counts, but I’m a fan of good order having seen some rather over-the-top excesses.

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    I *totally* include the Pentecostal holiness traditions as denominations. As such an intellectual I have a yearning for that kind of–what I see as–fully emotional caught-up *non*-intellectual side of Christianity. But I don’t think it could be my consistent path, either.

    By the same token I also include conservative fundamentalists–I grew up next door to a family of them.

    I don’t think that only politically-correct all inclusive left-leaning groups count as churches. There are some groups that I can’t stand. If Christianity were only Pentecostal holiness groups I might well not be one. However–my point here is that no one group embodies the whole Gospel and the array of Christian constructions serves as a valuable reminder of what our own tradition de-emphasizes or ignores.

  9. *Christopher

    lutheran zephyr,

    What derek said about pew counts goes for me as well. My parish has maybe 70-80 members with an average Sunday attendance of 50, but we’re vibrant in the community around us and growing because we’re focused first on decent high church liturgy with great chant (though I’m still encouraging us to reduce the amount of change to each Sunday Mass) and hospitality rooted in sharing the Good News.

    I’m interested in externals that deepen faith in those already in the pews–chant is one of those imho and connects with a lot of younger folks to boot. Beyond regular partaking and renewed interest in the sacraments, I’m critical of much of the latest in liturgical renewal which come across as blase, show-tuney (I hate show tunes), theologically questionable, and entertaining by having a regular consumptive feast of options and alternatives rather than a regular rhythm/formation; I find such efforts as Renewing Worship appalling and I hope to God we Episcopalians can hold off a similar effort with the 1979 BCP.

    I would suggest that deepened faith of those in the pews coorelated with real world is more likely to attract people in a serious manner than the latest in home entertainment. By serious I mean that our walk is no small matter. And by people, I mean all sorts, after all, some of those that’ve joined my parish are in rehab or in temporary shelter and won’t be big givers in terms of $, though some have shown us a thing or two about loving one another.

  10. LutherPunk

    A lot here to comment on, so I’ll try to be brief.

    Derek – needless to say I agree with the way the Catechism puts it, and share your reservations about the communion of saints. The church is in many ways an invisible reality. I even tend to think that many of the best Lutherans out there aren’t in any of the Lutheran ecclesial bodies. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, as they say. I appreciate what the traditions have to offerone another.

    What I have gleaned from Anglicanism is both Liturgical (I’ve been learning to use the Anglican Breviary for the office) and spiritual. I like how broad the church is in the best sense of the word. And the wine and cheese don’t hurt!

    As far as the discussion about growth I must concur with Pope Benedict, who suggests that the church will lose members but will gain in faithfulness. This is my vision as well. This becomes scary to me as a “professional” who is dependent upon an institutional paycheck, but I have wondered lately if our call as faithful ministers of Christ isn’t to be bi-vocational in some way, freeing us from the servitude enacted by financial interests.

    I do think the Zephyr asks a a great question in all this:
    At the same time, increasingly there are believers and communities who identify at the margins of denominational lines, or inbetween denominations. What should they call themselves? What should their church sign say, or their bulletin disclaimer about belief, etc. say?

    I think there are many of us who now fall into this category. Those who know me know I am a Rome-ward gazing Lutheran who feels more at home at a Solemn High Anglican Mass than I do in many (maybe most) Lutheran parishes. I ask for the intercession of saints and I have a devotional life that includes the Blessed Virgin. And yet I will hold to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith apart from works of the law until the day I die. I am trying to work this our in my own heart and mind, but I would still say I am a Lutheran without putting any disclaimers on the sign out front of this parish. I can struggle personally without broadcasting it from the pulpit.

  11. Annie

    If Anglicanism doesn’t offer something special, then why can’t I leave my church and find another one that satisfies? That said, the strife in the past few years may be destroying it.

    Is there a purpose in the diversity we find in denominations? Perhaps. And, as you point out, each, at least among the mainline churches, seems to have its particular strengths. I have said that they all have something to offer but none get it completely right. Christ, it seems, wills us to come to him no matter where we originally first heard of him.

    What exactly did Jesus mean in the garden? That could be the subject of an entire blog entry.

    Schism–so bloody in the past–cannot have ever been the will of God. We’d be killing each other now, I’m afraid, if our society would permit it. Accusations that I hear, such as that liberals aren’t Christian are ridiculous (and sinful). So the act of creating new denominations isn’t, in my mind, an act of God.

    All that said, it used to be an Anglican tradition to allow exploration (seeking) and diversity. We used to term “Not checking our brains at the door.” To me, this was the most magic of all things Anglican. I do not believe that we find unless we seek. If Jesus could have said exactly how to find faith and exactly what to believe, he wouldn’t have taught the way he did.


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