Denominational Loyalty and Denominational Pride


A Presbyterian blogger from a self-described progressive church has described her frustrations with the internal politics in two local Presbyteries, including her own. It seems that a body of conservatives in her denomination are more concerned about conformity to a certain rigid standard of orthodoxy, including with respect to homosexuality, than they are in encouraging thoughtful, talented people to follow their calling in the ministry.

I wouldn't necessarily have thought that San Francisco Presbyterians were so conservative and so obsessed with conformity, but I am not a Presbyterian, so there you have it. Her frustration with this problem led her to remark in her blog, "I am afraid that my beloved church will soon end up run by conforming, obedient lemmings, who know how to control and be controlled and mouth the slogans and the pious platitudes, but who cannot say what they believe, why they believe it, or what was the true journey by which Jesus led them there."

This struggle between progressives and conservatives mirrors battles taking place in many denominations, of course. In some cases, such as the Episcopal Church and the UCC, liberals have had in recent years the overall upper hand, even as there still remain substantial pockets of opposition from reactionaries within these denominations. In other denominations, the conservatives have managed to stave off progressive change to at least some degree. For example, mainline denominations such as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans generally allow female clergy, but they continue to discriminate against homosexual clergy.

When I, as an interested outsider who is not affiliated with any mainline denomination, look for a progressive Christian church, I consider both the individual congregation and the wider denomination that it is a part of. When I find a progressive church that belongs to a denomination that, as a whole, remains stuck in the past by holding to less progressive positions on certain issues, then that gives me pause. If I become a part of a given church community, it becomes a part of my identity. I want to be proud of what I have signed on to. But if that smaller community, the congregation, is part of a larger community that I am not so proud to affiliate myself with, then I am not sure how I would feel about that.

Denominational loyalty is a funny thing. Some people are loyal to it because that is what they grew up in, and it feels the most comfortable to them. I know Catholics who fit that description, who disagree with much of the church's teachings, but for them the church just feels like "home" to them. Others may be drawn to a denomination because they find themselves in broad agreement with the church's historical theology. For example, the blogger I cited above describes herself as having "one foot rooted in orthodox Reformed theology", which provides an important basis for her affiliation with the Presbyterian church. I would imagine that progressives who are loyal to a denomination with less-than-progressive positions on certain issues do so with the hope that the church will eventually change. Without that hope, then it surely would be more difficult to stay affiliated.

For me, though, as an outsider with no particular attachments to any denomination, some of those above reasons for denominational loyalty don't apply. In fact, many of these issues can be quite troubling. It is hard for me to feel comfortable attending a progressive church if it belongs to a wider denomination that seems locked into an orthodox Christian mindset, or that preaches discrimination against gays, or that otherwise demonstrates a conservatism that I object to. It would be nice not just to be proud of the local church I attended, but also the wider denomination as well.

Many denominations differ from one another not just over theology but in how they are governed. Are they congregational? Do they have bishops? Presbyteries? For the most part, these details doesn't concern me too much, as long as the denomination is reasonably democratic. What I seek first and foremost is a conduit for exploring progressive Christianity, and to be part of a wider community where mystical seeking is tolerated and encouraged.