Monday, May 28, 2007

Are Denominations Dead?

Every once in a while, I still hear someone (usually uneducated) use the word "religion" when they mean "denomination"; and I still sometimes hear even educated people make a distinction between "Christians" and "Catholics" – as in, "I'm not a Christian, I'm Catholic." This particular misuse of language tends to heighten the distinctions that exist between the various divisions of Christianity, but it would be foolish to pretend that those distinctions don't still exist, or aren't important.

In a recent trip to Jerusalem, I heard a story about the wonderfully surreal ways in which those distinctions show up from time to time with particular force. Although most folks in Jerusalem, whatever their faith, have figured out how to get along with their neighbor, of whatever faith, the tensions that remain are undeniable. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is perhaps the pre-eminent example of this. Built on the traditional site where Jesus was both crucified, buried and raised from the dead, few other churches in all the world have such a claim to being "the holiest site in Christendom". Yet the church itself is nearly falling apart, due to lack of repairs. It's not that the good monks running the church can't get their hands on the money to fix it: it's that they can't agree on who should pay for what. You see, throughout the middle ages, while Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslism, different Christian Churches fought one another, with fair means and foul, for control of the site. Those involved enerally the Orthodox and Catholics, though I think the Ethiopians and Copts got their licks in from time to time.

Eventually, the story goes, the different Churches got so tired of fighting each other – or the scandal reached such proportions – that they agreed to share control of the site. And sometime around 1852, they signed a "Status Quo Agreement", defining exactly who would have control over which areas of the church, and when. The crucial clause in the agreement declared that in all common areas – hallways, doors, windows, etc. – no changes were to be made unless all the signatories agreed. The surreal bit started the very next day after the agreement went into effect, when they realized that a workman had left a ladder leaning up against one of the second story windows. That ladder has now been there for 155 years – I saw it myself just a few months ago. Nobody can agree on how or when or whether or why it should be moved: so it stays there.

And lest anyone think that, surely, after 155 years, we should all have matured sufficiently to allow reasonable, rational discussion (to say nothing of the ειρηνη χριστου) about our differences: in 2002, a Coptic monk, whose job it was to guard the Coptic section of the roof, moved his chair out of the hot sun and into the shade: on the Ethiopian side of the roof. The argument escalated, and in the ensuing brawl, 11 monks were injured, some of them seriously. And lest anyone think that only Ethiopians and Copts are capable of such beautifully surreal moments, in 2004, a Franciscan monk (advertently or inadvertently) left a door open during a Greek Orthodox service. This was taken as a sign of disrespect, and in the ensuing brawl, four monks were arrested.

Still, apart from a few hold-outs, it's become clear to me that differences between denominations are getting less pronounced, and much less important to their members. In 1964, my mother's Baptist family was scandalized when they found out that she was dating a Pentecostal. Not one of them now can remember why they were so bothered. I myself grew up Pentecostal (Assemblies of God), went to a non-denominational seminary, taught at a Methodist university, and I'm attending a Presbyterian church where we just hired a Lutheran as our youth director. Most of my favorite writers and theologians are either Anglican (C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright) or Catholic (G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, J. P. Meier, and even the former Cardinal Ratzinger himself, Pope Benedict XVI). I find myself equally challenged by Luther and Aquinas, Augustine and Calvin. I doubt that most members of any church I've attended in the last 10 years could tell you their denominational distinctives. My good friend David Townsend might be raised as a counter-example: he can quote many of the Presbyterian creeds by heart. But despite that fact, his own personal theology smacks much more of Jacob Arminius than John Calvin. And astonishingly from the perspective of any 17th century Protestant theologian (either Calvinistic or Arminian), he doesn't see that as having much bearing on his membership and active involvement in a Presbyterian church.

Associated with this, I think, is the rise of the homogenized worship service. Apart from a few outliers, any church in America that is of any size or that is experiencing any growth, has nearly the same worship service: what I call "contemporary Baptist". One or two hymns, perhaps, but nearly all the rest choruses; a very contemporary musical style; quite often charismatic in flavor, but generally without public speaking in tongues; a sermon that is mildly exegetical, generally light on theology, and easily applied to one's personal life.

This leads me to my one real concern about the astonishing breaking down of denominational walls that has occurred within my lifetime. Like C. S. Lewis, I agree that the schisms in Christianity are – or should be – temporary: nothing more than adolescent growing pains. But I worry that the reason Baptists have decided Pentecostals aren't so bad isn't that the peace of Christ has finally won out over deeply-held theological beliefs: but rather, we haven't been thinking deeply enough about our faith to realize that there are differences, and sometimes very important ones. The death of denominations is perhaps only a symptom of the death of theology.


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