Divide And Not Multiply: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Over the course of the last forty years, I have watched as churches split and then split again. According to those who depart, there is always a good reason for the split. I have watched as individuals, congregations and even whole dioceses have left the Episcopal Church. Yet, splits are occurring even among those who have left. While the Anglican Church in North America is the largest group to have departed, there are continuing tensions in this body as some endorse female clergy, while others do not. Some are Anglo Catholics, while others are Charismatics straight out of the Vineyard movement. Tensions are rife and many clergy, in a manner reminiscent of numerous clergy in the Episcopal Church, try to ignore the larger structure and simply focus upon their local parish. ACNA, however is only one of over a dozen other bodies (with more being formed as I write) that claim the name “Anglican” in America and Canada. Some are in communion with each other, while others are not, or are in “impaired communion” – a phrase which seems to me to be an oxymoron. Additionally, only the Episcopal Church is in full communion with the Church of England, embodied in the See of Canterbury.
One must say, this is a very strange, very confused world.
Anglicans, however, are not alone. It is truly a trans-denominational phenomena. Similar splits and realignments have taken place among Lutherans in North America, with some combining while others have separated from larger bodies. It has happened to Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and we may soon see a major split in the United Methodist Church. Among evangelical bodies, the Vineyard movement came out of Calvary Chapel, even as the Calvary Chapel Association and the Calvary Chapel Global Network “kind of, sort of” have taken different directions – with the differences being mainly understood only by an aging leadership. As to the Baptists in North America, most will be found in one of five large groups, although one would need a guide book to understand the literally dozens of associations and groups in the US and Canada. While the Roman Catholics preserve at least a facade of unity, cracks are apparent in the building. Even among the Eastern Orthodox, divisions appear to be taking place.
Such splits are clearly no “respecter of persons”, or denominations, or doctrinal positions.
Now, one would think that all of this has resulted in the spectacular growth of the Church overall. After all, isn’t that the principle of growth, with cells dividing and multiplying? Such is not the case, however, as we know by viewing the statistics. If nothing else, one would imagine that those who have split off over issues of doctrine or practice would, by now, be hotbeds of theological expertise with a well read clergy and a theologically aware laity. Sadly, in the rush to plant churches and supply them with clergy (often not well prepared), theology is all too often “the bastard at the family reunion”… Moreover, as the main bodies from whom others have split off try to maintain buildings, programs and organizational structures, in the face of diminished congregations, theology is often the last thing that is considered of importance, ranking down the list after other matters such as budget, building maintenance, clergy supply and member retention.
All of this leaves me wanting to ask some very basic questions:
Why do we really believe the Church is here? Is it merely to associate with those others who are in our own self-selected tribe? (That self-selected tribe, by the way, can be liberal, conservative or moderate.) Are all the splits truly doctrinal in nature or are they owing to the hubris of church leaders (and occasionally, lay leaders) who are insistent that all must sign on to their liberal, or conservative, or charismatic, or social justice agenda? Obviously, there have been doctrinal and social issues that have precipitated divisions, but is a debate on the third use of the law, or eschatology, or worship style of such importance that we are compelled to go our separate ways?
I’m not sure that I have the definitive answers to such questions, but I think we need to be asking them.
The continuing splintering of church bodies comes at a cost. To those outside of the Church, it often has the appearance of small petulant children who are unable to play together in the sandbox. Eventually one or more children, after temper tantrums, decide that they are going to take their toys and leave. I’m not saying this is always, in fact, the case, but it is often the appearance. Internally, splits demoralize both laity and clergy. After the initial adrenaline rush of the conflict itself, there is a gradual realization of what has been lost. Moreover, both sides, after the split, seem to “double down”, drawing up new, and usually more radical positions as more moderate voices are systematically excluded. I have watched this in my own church, as well as others, and I find it heartbreaking.
Over against all of this we have the prayer of Our Lord, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” We can spiritualize that prayer; we may allegorize that prayer; we can say that it only refers to the future in eternity… but, the prayer is plainly and eloquently offered, and the plain fact of the matter is that we have failed to take that prayer seriously.
Maybe we need to start looking for some answers to some very basic questions.