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SINGLETON DRONES ON ABOUT RELIGION AND CHURCH
A Retired Old Duffer's Blog Spot
A REQUIEM FOR DENOMINATIONS?
August 1, 2008
Among sociologists and historians specializing in American Religion a common topic of commentary is the declining significance of denominational identity, integrity and authority. A few scholars have gone so far as to pronounce the denominations dead (and I must confess that I from time to time have hypothesized that the major function of denominations these days is to administer pension funds).
Some lament this development. Some applaud this development. Some simply note it. I am somewhere on a continuum between lamentation and noting. I am not an applauder simply because I have seen nothing to convince me of the hope expressed by Robert Wuthnow and others that the decline or death (take your pick) of denominations will lead to a new ecumenism where orthodoxy with be overshadowed by an orthopraxis based on the doctrine of love. I have seen rhetoric by some movements that come close to embracing that ideal, but their activities usually extend love selectively only to those who embrace either a newly stated orthodoxy of love (leaving the orthopraxis of actually loving those who disagree to be worked out in the future), thus denying the universalism often claimed.
WARNING: Here begins a digression--if I weren't writing it I would probably skip over it:
The category "denomination: is problematic. The term takes on fairly specific meaning only in the context of the fluid and ever-morphing dynamics of the history of Christianity (and, ultimately, the history of religions) in British North America and subsequently the United States. We began in the 17th-century with various permutations of established churches in some colonies, non-established preferentialism in other colonies, and local option in one colony. Various elements of these arrangements find their way into the new nation (or confederation, depending on one's perspective) in the late 18th century. Increased geographical mobility (reducing the tie between religious identity and place) and secular rationalism fueled various movements for disestablishment starting with Virginia in the 1780s and ending with Massachusetts in the 1830s. A combination of revivalism and the rise of voluntary associations (both the Schleiermachian concept and the organizational reality) reconfigured former state churches and some sects into denominations, while some former sects continued in that status. Ironically, the sectarian niche was also reserved for a few ecclesial units made up of immigrants importing what had been state churches from the Continent into a nation of new denominational alliances made up primarily of units of British Reformation origin. Even previously separatist Lutherans came into the "denominational" camp, and much of the activities of Samuel Simon Schmucker must be understood in this context.
Up until the 1920s (it varies by region and within region by locality) denominations had the power of social identity for its members, organizational integrity (not in the sense the term is often used, but in the sense of integrated systems of belief and practice), and exercised authority over its clergy and often its laity.
OK, digression over--mostly.
Since roughly the 1920s most of us lead fragmented lives. Our identities are multiple and often competing, as are our economic and social roles. Other institutions now exercise far more authority over most of us than do our ecclesial units. (SHAMELESS NON-REMUNERATIVE PLUG: The complex process by which this happened in one city was the subject of my 1979 book, Religion in the City of Angels: American Protestant Culture and Urbanization, Los Angeles 1850-1930, a book which is out of print so I shan't get a penny of it if you are able to obtain a library copy or find it in a discarded used book bin.) Most ecclesial organizations have responded to this reality by going to Christianity-Lite in order to ostensibly keep the church alive by making it an adjunct of society, thus reducing catechesis and formation to a bare minimum, if even that.
This has had an impact on the quality and direction of the Church's engagement with the world. The question is whether we as the Church--the body of Christ--:
a. passionately engage the world for the sake of the world and in the name of Christ;
b. timidly engage the world for the sake of the world and in the name of Christ;
c. Condescendingly engage the world.
OR (as I fear quite often happens), do we engage Christ and Christ's Church as we drop in from the world from time to time as our busy lives permit, thus making the Church a sort of spiritual 7-11 rather than a source of identity and purpose?
I would suggest that we are increasingly an insufficiently catechized and formed people. I am preaching from the sinner's bench. I am aware that any position I may take on what is happening in the world will reflect my participation in the values of this world more than it will my participation in ecclesia--and I suspect that I am in the majority. Our theology tells us that we are a people called apart to be joined to each other and to Christ. The reality seems to be that we are a fragmented people who share a vague identity that will be remarkably different from place to place. To be different from place to place because we speak in accents understandable to the portion of the world to which we witness is salutary. To be different from place to place because we are isolate and not in dialogue is a failure of the body of Christ to materialize.
Planning a funeral for denominations may be premature, but perhaps we should look into long-term intensive care.
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