A Really Geeky Post

Warning: Do not read this post unless you are interested in a long, ponderous reflection on the current state of the Episcopal Church.

As we prepare to go to Africa, I find myself thinking back to my undergraduate days when I was a religious studies major. Whether I liked it or not (I rather liked it), I had to read a lot of classic sociology of religion.

One of the more interesting aspects of this literature is the attempt to classify different types of religious communities. A basic distinction that continues to be useful (even if a bit simplistic) is between ethnic and voluntary religions.

Ethnic religions are based on kinship ties, race, nationality, or geography. In a certain sense, you are born into it. Many of the traditional religions found in sub-Saharan Africa can be identified as ethnic religions.

Voluntary religions are based on common beliefs, practices, and sacred powers that extend beyond the natural ties of kinship and geography. Here, we might think of people making a choice to become a member. A classic example of a voluntary religion is Buddhism.

As Amy and I plan to visit several Anglican churches throughout Africa, I wonder how they will function – more like ethnic or voluntary religions? — in their diverse and complex social surroundings.

Since I am still in North Carolina, I also find myself thinking about this distinction in American life. Ernst Troeltsch took this ethnic-voluntary distinction, changed it up a bit, and then used it to describe two basic types of Christian communities: churches and sects.

The church-type tries to include all people in a geographical area in its ranks. Think here, roughly speaking, of something like being born into the Church of England. The church-type can do this because it sees itself as endowed by God with the objective means of grace, which it can dispense regardless of its members’ holiness. The church-type plays down the need for a subjective standard of holiness. You get what you need through the institutional mediation of grace and redemption.

The sect-type is a voluntary society made up of believers committed to strict holiness and united by a common experience of grace. Sect-types tend to be small groups and try to live as communities of love apart from the world. Think here, again roughly speaking, of the Amish.

In our American context, with the disestablishment of religion, these different types operate as tendencies in different denominations. The tendency toward the church-type is found in what became known as the mainline churches and the tendency toward the sect-type is found in what became known as the evangelical churches.

In terms of this church-sect typology, we are living in rather topsy-turvy times in America. The mainline churches, which have church-type structures and ideologies, are trying to move towards a more sect-type faith (think of Stanley Hauerwas who calls himself a High-Church Mennonite), while the evangelical churches, which have sect-type structures and ideologies, are trying to move towards a more church-type faith (think of the recent remembrances of Billy Graham being America’s Pastor).

It’s all a bit confusing and a bit off key. White evangelical leaders, who enter the public sphere talking about America’s shared Judeo-Christian values, often come off sounding like they are speaking more for their own tribe than the nation, and mainstream leaders, who try to convince their dwindling membership of the importance of discipleship and mission, often don’t sound like their hearts are in it until they fall back upon their church-type themes of acceptance and inclusion of all people. It’s hard to speak convincingly like a sectarian when your polity and theology is still churchlike, and it is hard to speak convincingly like a broad church person when your polity and theology is sectarian. I suspect mainstream churches and evangelical churches will have to confront their respective dissonances at some point and make some real changes. Confusion appeals to no one.

Alas, I also see this confusion in my beloved Episcopal Church. Our bishops, clergy and lay leaders are terribly anxious about the shrinking membership in our churches. There is also the deeper and harder to acknowledge reality of the shrinking relevance of the church in people’s lives, both inside and outside the church. The responses we get are a muddle.

On the one hand, we get the sect-type message emphasizing the distinctiveness of what it means to be disciples in the community of the baptized. On the other hand, we get the church-type message emphasizing the need to welcome all people, grow in membership, and do good in the world. Both types of intentions are well-meaning enough, but the truth is we aren’t doing either very well, at least not on a large scale.

I think it’s time to acknowledge that our church-type structure and ideology are not serving us well any more. Our old, church-type structures and theology are ill-suited to do the serious work of initiation and formation needed to equip a community of disciples in our post-Christendom world. Too often, Christian education in our parishes focuses on Episcopal trivia and current events instead of formation by word, sacrament, fellowship, and service.

Our Episcopal structure also deludes us into thinking that people outside our church are going to be changed by the myriad resolutions and pastoral statements made by church leaders, when in reality the vast majority of people in America aren’t even aware of them.

The idea here is that the church will speak and the world will listen, or at least should. But this is assuming that the church is in control, or should be in control, like an established church would be. Those days are gone, if they ever existed. And didn’t we say good riddance to them, anyway, when we stopped praying for the king?

Sure make statements, but let’s not fool ourselves about who is listening. People outside the Episcopal Church don’t give a hoot about what we have to say about most things. I seriously doubt my congressional representative will be following the results of the next General Convention. But members in our Episcopal Church might be following. Perhaps try talking to them.

The Episcopal Church needs to let go of its old church-type ideas about itself.

However, I do not think this means becoming sectarian in the pejorative sense of being a close-minded, exclusive, inward-looking community. But in descriptive, sociological terms, I think we need to become more sect-like. Quite frankly, in our post-Christendom context, we already are. We should at least be honest about it.

If we can let go of bygone ideas about what the Episcopal Church should be, maybe God will do something with who we are. I think being a disciple these days means leading a life that is often times at odds with the individualism, consumerism, tribalism, and violence so prevalent in our world. That’s not sectarian, but it is sect-like. I need my church to help me lead a life marked by justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in a world that in so many ways says these things are strange.

So I don’t think God is done with the Episcopal Church yet. I rather think Stanley Hauerwas has a pretty good suggestion: a Christian church formed by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer with a something like a Mennonite commitment to peace would be a powerful witness in this world. It will also be a numerically small one. Powerful, but small. Small, but powerful.


Cartoon Credit:  The Rev. William P. McLemore

8 thoughts on “A Really Geeky Post

  1. I had to read this yesterday, think about it overnight and come back to it today. I think it puts into words an unease that I have had with the Episcopal Church over the 30 years. There is something of value there that needs to be more clearly defined.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Judy. Trying to get an angle on the situation that allows us to see things from a new perspective in the hopes of opening a more fruitful way to deal with the challenges facing the church.


  2. Joe,
    Very interesting. Does being more sect-like mean being more overtly political? Were St. Anne’s to be overtly political (espousing certain positions from the pulpit and in other ways), a lot of parishioners would flee – but maybe a like number (or more) would join. But I like our church-like approach, myself. Evangelicals are more sect like, as you say. They take strong political stands, and to me have lost their way (interesting lead article in the current Atlantic by Michael Gerson details this), taking positions that seem unChristian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Eric. My answer to the question about politics would be a very long one and probably not fit in a blog post. First, you would have to tell me what you mean by politics. I find myself feeling quite out of step with the majority of my colleagues on both the right and the left in trying to reclaim a more classical (indeed Aristotelian) notion of politics. Politics, in this sense, is participation in a community (i.e. the polis) whose aim is to produce people who are virtuous and happy. In Christianity, I want to think of the church (i.e. the ecclesia) as the polis in which disciples are made holy and blessed. So the core and common practices of the church (proclamation, sacraments, fellowship, and service) are by definition political because these are the means by which we are formed into holy and blessed people. It follows from this, that what is referred to as “politics” in the massive nation state of the US is not what I mean by politics because it cannot (and it does not intend to) form people for virtue/holiness or happiness/blessedness. It’s more about the securing of individual liberties and the making and enforcing of laws. These are important things but they are not what I mean by politics. I’m afraid most people in the church today (both conservative and liberal) do not think like me on these matters. They fail to do so, however, at a very high cost because when they start engaging present day “political” issues, they often fail to see that Christian concepts about a blessed and holy life quickly become co-opted and corrupted when they are taken outside of the community where they make sense and applied to a sphere that has little to no anchorage communal Christian life. You, I think, rightly point out how often times present evangelical engagement on current affairs distorts and corrupts core Christian beliefs and practices. I’m afraid to say that this can happen also when more mainstream liberal Christians try to make similar moves. I’m not saying that Christians will not sometimes feel called to act on their faith in the public sphere. However, I do think this move is not an uncomplicated one. And these days, where what is referred to as “political” discourse is so fractious, uncivil, and downright vulgar, I think Christian would do better to say “that is not at all what we mean by politics. Politics for us is how we try to live lives of self-giving love and peace in the community of the crucified and risen Lord. The only way to really understand these politics is to join us and start living this way.” I’m afraid this answer doesn’t seem to satisfy many of my colleagues (both conservative and liberal) these days because they above all want to feel like that they are relevant. But I do think I am right about these matters even if it means feeling out of step with most folks. Paradoxically, I think when the church stops trying to be so relevant and embraces the present day strangeness of our way of life, then we may actually have something to say to the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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