Fred Schmidt wrote a provocative essay entitled “The Baby and the Denominational Bathwater” in which he explored the important sociological reality that denominations are becoming less important while arguing that each denomination offers a unique tradition and context that might retain significance. He writes:
But here’s the problem: If denominations are dispensable, then why not disband them entirely and create a pan-Protestant reality like the one the early architects of the ecumenical movement envisioned? Or, better yet, if the Protestant confessions of faith mean that little, then why not simply return to the Catholic Church? After all, Benedict is waiting . . .
The answer, I think, is that we can’t and shouldn’t because there is a baby in the bureaucratic bathwater. That baby is the tradition, beliefs, and experiences that gave our respective denominations birth in the first place. Other than a distaste for yet more hierarchy, an all-male priesthood, and a doctrinal position or two, there really isn’t a reason not to go back to the Catholic Church—unless those confessions of faith really matter.
His words are important to remember even in this time of ecumenism and might help us understand the sorts of conflicts that can break out, even here in Madison. Episcopalians and Lutherans, in spite of “Called to Common Mission” have very different histories and traditions, and for all that we share, there is a great deal we don’t understand about each other (or if we understand, we disagree sharply with the direction the other tradition has developed).
At times, such differences among denominations may seem as little more than quaint artifacts, but often such impressions change when conflicts arise.
We might even be bemused by denominational differences, as an essayist at Killing the Buddha was when his college-bound daughter received the religious affiliation survey from the university she will be attending this fall. Among the options one might check: Catholic/Episcopalian, or Lutheran/Episcopalian. She comments:
I have so many questions about this list, but the first that springs to mind is, “How can one person be a Catholic and an Episcopalian at the same time? That’s like Coke and Pepsi being in the same can, but distinctly separate. Unless, of course, you are part of the Anglican migration and attending an Anglican-rite Roman church, but somehow that’s not what I think they had in mind.” And I wonder what I’d check off if I had to fill it out for myself—I don’t think they have the right category for me, which is frequently a problem I encounter and no big surprise. I showed this to my daughter, whom I thought still identified as a Catholic/Buddhist. Nope: she’s joined the great Non-Denominational movement. They grow up so fast. Sigh.