Navigating the Denominations and Evangelical Unity

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In yesterday’s guest blog, Moses Tutesigensi made a robust defence of denominations. Moses was responding to my argument that Evangelical Anglicans need to refocus their attention on relationships with other Evangelicals.  As it happens, I do not have particular issues with denominations per se.  My question is about where we set the right priorities in terms of unity, fellowship and partnership. However, I felt that he raised some points that help us to develop the conversation a little further. 

In today’s article I want to specifically focus on the “Denomination” question. I then intend to follow up with some further thoughts on unity on essentials and charity on secondary issues.  Finally, I think that in response to the wider conversation, including Steve Kneale’s series of guest blogs we will need to look a little bit further at the question of future polity.

Moses is right to suggest that we do need to make a distinction between networks, especially of the looser type of fellowship and more formal denomination.  However, I would suggest that this is often a matter of degree.  Some groupings historically considered to be “denominations” encourage a high level of autonomy with regards to the local church whereas some networks, especially those with an “apostolic” view of leadership and relationship are perhaps connected by much tighter bonds than one might expect even in a denomination such as the Church of England. It is after all possible for the larger and wealthier parish churches to function almost like independent churches or even within their own mini networks, which is perhaps a significant reason for why people like Steve Kneale and Stephen Watkinson don’t expect to see much headway in their calls for churches and individuals to come out of the C of E.

However, what Moses helps us to see is that there is something particularly distinctive about the pure denominational mindset.  Moses observes that a denomination should not in his view be seen as a parachurch organisation and then in his conclusion states:

“Surely the most basic of these doctrinal commitments is one’s answer to the question, “is this body a church or not?” If we are a Christian and are in a church, then we have to very good reasons to leave it! “

This helpfully gets us to the nub of the question.  As someone who has spent most of his life in churches with an independent and congregational outlook, my argument would be that the congregation is the local church. We are talking about a body of believers related in time and space who gather around God’s Word together, who share the sacraments, who are led by elders with responsibility for watching over them and who as members make decisions together. 

However, for the pure denominationalist, that is not necessarily the case. In practice the local church functions more like a branch of the church but it is in fact the denomination itself that is the church.  What I mean by this is that eldership authority and accountability is not seated within the congregation but elsewhere at a regional or national level. * Therefore a decision for an Anglican or Methodist is strictly not so much about disaffiliation from the grouping, it is a decision to leave the church.

If I can pause at this point and make two observations, it would be this. First of all, those of us looking in from the outside need to get our heads around this if we are to understand the Anglican dilemma. This will be a significant matter for many.  However, I would also respond to Moses by repeating my earlier comments about the ability of the larger and wealthier Anglican churches to function in practice as independent churches which are part of their own mini networks such as Re-New, Co-Mission and HTB.  I remember a little while back that Wiliam Taylor drew some fire for insisting that the Anglican Church was in fact Congregationalist.  I would also gently suggest that if we assume that Anglicanism and Presbyterianism is essentially the same beast them we will miss the point. 

Secondly, whilst Moses and I may talk happily about the Church of England as a denomination, it is worth noting that it considers itself as a catholic church and in that sense as with The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, I am not sure that historically it would regard itself as a denomination. For the true Anglican the division is not between multiple denominations it is between the established church in any one place and dissenters/separatists. Furthermore, the “catholic” and “orthodox” minds function on long memories. Whether or not Moses likes it, he is already part of a group that has split away from the Church!

Thirdly, if The Anglican Church is the Church, then that makes the matters raised by people like Steve Kneale about separation all the more serious. It is even less about whether or not you have some relationship with others but makes it explicitly clear that the question is “whose teaching authority and whose discipline are you under.” That is the point, an Anglican must swear loyalty to their Bishop.  Now, if this is the case, then Anglican Evangelicals do need to think about their situation a little bit more in the way that someone would think about their relationship to their local congregation and their pastor.  It is not enough to simply reach an accommodation where they can practice their beliefs with a level of mutual flourishing. They need to recognise that obedience to their bishops should include conformity to their teaching. They need to take time to consider that if it is unlikely that those they consider orthodox will be allowed to take the pastoral leadership roles in the church, if it is unlikely that those they consider to be heterodox or in grievous sin will be disciplined and removed then the battle is sadly lost.

As I indicated at the start, I do agree that we need to think more deeply about polity issues and a conversation between Evangelicals about “what is The Church?” and “what is a church?” would be helpful.  However, I don’t see anything in Moses’ commentary on denominations that is in fact a block on the sorts of questions and challenges raised by the two Steves.  It certainly is not a block on the gentle request for other Evangelicals to prioritise evangelical unity over other forms of unity.

* I recognise there is to some extent a continuum and some nuancing required here. So that you might see a sliding scale from a situation where a local church exists autonomously through to where all decisions and appointments are made at a higher level.

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