Denominational splits


It only took one day for the fallout to begin in response to the decision by the Episcopal church to select a woman to head their church. The Ft. Worth Texas diocese has voted to terminate its affiliation with the Episcopal church and seek an affiliation elsewhere within the Anglican Communion.

On the one hand, this division between misogynistic and progressive visions of that church represents a microcosm of the deep and essentially irreconcilable divisions that exist between the two paradigms of Christianity that individuals like Matthew Fox have written about. Splits like these are, in my view, inevitable. They may be painful to those who are loyal to their denominations, but I actually think that they could, in a best case scenario, represent a positive first step towards a possible realignment in Western religion. It all depends on whether there are progressive forces in Christianity who are willing to take this process to its logical next steps.

It is interesting to compare how the Episcopal Church is moving towards progressive reform, when the Catholic Church, which shares the Episcopalian belief in apostolic tradition, is stuck in a hopelessly reactionary time warp. The apostolic tradition, which claims that the present church bishops represent an unbroken line of authority going all the way back to the 12 apostles, presents a conundrum for lay people who hope to reform a church, since this means of organization has an inherently authoritarian nature. Under this kind of church government, the authority of the bishops comes not from the membership, but instead acts as its own authority, claiming that its authority comes from God. In the case of the Catholic Church, the hierarchy is now tightly controlled by a pope who carefully appoints reactionary church leaders who think like he does, thus effectively blocking reform now and possibly forever. In the case of the Episcopalian church, progressive bishops arose into positions of authority and were able to institute progressive reforms, both in church policy (by appointing women and gays as priests, for example) and in theology (as in the case of John Shelby Spong.)

The reality is that the progressive nature of recent reforms in the Episcopal church depended on the good graces of those in authority to do the right thing. In the case of the Catholic Church, those good graces are obviously missing. But, in my view, a post-Christian religion should not rely on the good graces of those in authority, but instead, the authority of the church should rest in its congregation.

The question arises as to how to avoid unchecked abuses to arise within a church once you allow each denomination to do whatever it wants. Jim Jones, for example, arose within a church that had no bishops, which vested all of its authority within the denomination. Does this then prove that churches require higher level authority to help regulate their behavior? That is a difficult question to answer, but I think it is worth pointing out that his denomination was his private fiefdom, and did not represent an example of denominational authority being vested in its membership; rather, it was really vested within one charismatic individual, namely Jim Jones.

Quakers, who themselves have undergone several splits within the US, have historically dealt with this question of authority by placing a strong emphasis on its religious culture and its traditions. Those who attend Quaker meetings are quickly immersed in the culture of Quakerism, which appears frequently in the words that are spoken in Quaker meetings for worship. Quaker culture includes its cultural myths, and Quakers often appeal to these myths to justify their actions. For example, there is the story of James Naylor, an early Quaker who was seen as having "gone too far" in his religious zeal, and is cited as an example of the careful balance that Quakers must maintain between individual interpretation of the Light of God and the group dynamic of Quakerism.

You can never, I believe, prevent anyone or any denomination from going off its own way in unpredictable ways. Yet, in general, creedless denominations like Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, and even Southern Baptists have all managed to maintain their unique cultures, thanks to a group dynamic that exists within each denomination. Within each of these denominations, we have seen historical shifts in theology, as well as disagreements and even divisions within their memberships.

In theory, there is nothing that can prevent a post-Christian movement from undergoing its own splits, divisions, and disagreements. The balance between loyalty and the preservation unity on the one hand, and the different directions that members will inevitably take on the other hand, often seems to be a difficult one to maintain.

Can a post-Christian movement evolve and grow and avoid these problems? Perhaps not. One advantage that a post-Christian theology may have over some denominations is its commitment to a belief in religious pluralism and a belief in combining rational thought with religious expression. In a post-Christian theology, it is not claimed that it is offering an absolute truth, but rather that it is offering one means to communing with the Divine--not the only one, but one that works for us. It accepts that its symbols and myths are just that. Splitting theological hairs over how many angels can dance on the head of pin is unlikely in such an environment.

Would a post-Christian movement have to invent its own symbols, its own means of worship, and its governance? Yes, of course. But such symbols, myths, means of worship, and governances would derive from the membership itself. It would not rely on the good graces of a hierarchy to push along the evolution of its faith. And it would have the benefit of thousands of years of mistakes of Christianity and other religions to help guide it along.