The end of denominations?

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.

 I remember when I arrived at Harvard Divinity School and had to fill out a similar survey and discovered, after four years at a Mennonite College, and in spite of the presence of Mennonites among both faculty and students, that Mennonite wasn’t an option. Since then, I’ve swum the Thames and as a priest deal with people almost every day who are seeking a church home or may have found one in the Episcopal Church decades ago, but have no interest in the larger institutional connection. Still, they find our particular form of faith and worship of great meaning to them, at least at this point in their spiritual journeys. My role is not to try to sell the denomination to them; rather, it is to help them find life in our life, our mission, and in our tradition. And that is the bathwater about which Fr. Schmidt is speaking. When our tradition is no longer lifegiving, then it, along with all of our denominational structures, deserve to die.


What is Progressive Christianity

Patheos, which has developed into a great site on matters religious, recently opened its “Progressive Christianity Portal.” They are hosting a symposium on “What is Progressive Christianity?” that includes input from Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle and other notables. Given the recent controversy over whether Jim Wallis and Sojourners belonged within the big tent of Progressive Christianity, it’s an important question.

I’ve never been comfortable with the label, any more than I was comfortable with the label “liberal.” Perhaps my dis-ease comes from the Eight Points of Progressive Christianity posted by There is, among these eight items, no reference to God, let alone the Trinity. Instead, appeal is made to the Sacred and Oneness of Life.

To be sure, many of those writing about “What is Progressive Christianity?” would have no problem with using Trinitarian or Christocentric language. Still, I agree with Fred Schmidt’s observation that:

Classically, for Christianity, sacred or divine mystery has been a term applied to the limits of what can be known about the ways of God as understood in the Christian tradition. But, true to the leading lights of Progressive Christianity, Ms. Astle describes the identity of God itself as the mystery.

We shall see how the conversation develops.