Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

Dissertation Chapter 1 (Draft) – Towards a denominationalist ecclesiology June 5, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nick Brindley @ 3:17 pm

Chapter 1: Denominationalist ecclesiology

“Denomination” is an ecclesial category that has suffered from theological neglect. One recent study has described it as an “ecclesiological aporia” suggesting that neither theologians nor the denominations themselves have articulated a satisfactory answer to the question of the nature of a denomination [Ensign-George]. Here an attempt is made to develop an answer to that question that goes beyond the merely historical and empirical to give a systematic account of why the Church is divided into denominations, their relationships to one another, the sense this makes from the perspective of salvation history and the implications for the self-understanding and practice of existing denominational institutions.


In brief it is argued that no existing ecclesial formation can legitimately claim in itself be the “one church, holy, catholic and apostolic” in which Christians believe. Neither is it enough to say that we can have “reconciled diversity” or “unity in diversity”. Our continuing divisions and disagreements between and within our communions are expressions of the fallen state of creation, of the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Within that all Christians have the task of discerning their vocation within God’s redemptive work. This applies to denominations, too. Their existence reflects the variety of the work the Church has still to do and its inability to bring this variety into a single eschatological whole.

Denomination as an ecclesiological category

Recent thinking has begun to identify and respond to the gap that exists in ecclesiological reflection on the category “denomination”. Particularly notable is the 2011 volume Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category in the series Ecclesiological Investigations. In it is reproduced an influential 2008 paper by Barry Ensign-George, “Denomination as Ecclesiological Category” along with a series of responses by theologians from most of the main Christian traditions, from Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, through Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed, to Baptist and Pentecostal and including Methodism and a Quaker.

This ambitious attempt to establish and explore a systematic ecclesiology of denomination is an important contribution and advances the debate significantly beyond the purely historical and sociological perspectives that have dominated discussion of this category previously. [footnote referencing literature] While no consensus is established and Ensign-George’s proposals are here found to be deficient in some important respects they are a major step forward and repay close attention.

Ensign-George offers an account of denomination as “a structured entity between congregation and church … contingent, intermediary, interdependent, partial and permeable” [Ensign-George]. These five characteristics define it as creating structures which while real are, in principle dispensable and which recognise and affirm the reality both that other structures are possible and legitimate and that movement between them is allowable. It further implies recognition that the Church catholic is not, even in principle, reducible to the denomination in question.

Ensign-George’s own account of the creation and reproduction of these structures draws on the previously dominant account of American historical circumstance and hence, implicitly, of an exceptional set of circumstances [footnote referencing Richey] while moving towards one that sketches both a comprehensive historical account of “modernity” and a theology of “superabundance” which draws on the Genesis account of the origin of the nations to claim that God intends diversity and difference. [referencen to Genesis section]

The diversity and mutual interdependence of denominational forms of church life and practice are thus placed in the context of a complex (modern) social setting which it turn is set (providentially) in the story of God’s dealing with humanity in creation interpreted as affirming and working through difference. [reference to “modernity” section]

Ensign-George is careful to recognise that not all Christians recognise the legitimacy of the category of denomination and the collection is enriched in particular by the contributions of two writers who reject it. Paul Avis, writing from within an Anglican ecclesiology of which he is perhaps the most prominent contemporary exponent[reference], Stephen R. Harmon from a Baptist [reference], Wolfgang Vondey from a Pentecostal [reference], and Elena Vishnevskaya from an Orthodox perspective [reference] question the validity of the denominational idea.

Their criticisms are helpful from the current perspective since they open up some of the difficulties with Ensign-George’s approach with which this dissertation will also struggle. The resolute congregationalism of Baptist ecclesiology which recognises the necessity of structures beyond the particular gathered Church throws light on the difficulty of the status of these structures. This point is well developed in Miroslav Volf’s highly influential After Our Likeness in which he emphasises the primacy of the Eucharistic community as constituting the Church. A denomination lacks both the immediacy of those gathered around the table and the universality of the Church catholic and hence appears to be a merely human rather than a genuinely divine institution. [reference]

A similar point is made by Avis in regard to the nation. He sees no real justification for ecclesial bodies other than the comprehensive national Church, as exemplified by the Church of England and hence denies the usefulness of the term “denomination”, and especially rejects its application to the national Church. [reference]

This Anglican argument is vulnerable, though, to that of Orthodox and Roman Catholic thinkers who would question the division of the Church into national bodies. They point out that “catholic” properly transcends the geopolitical boundaries of the contemporary nation-state. National churches, whether Anglican, Lutheran or Reformed, cannot claim full catholicity from this perspective. [reference to E-G collection and to Volf]

Denomination in the light of eschatological expectation

Karl Barth famously claimed that to have anything to do with Christ Christianity must be wholly and completely eschatological [reference]. This typically bold Barthian claim informs the critique and development here of Ensign-George’s systematic theology of the denomination. It will argue that this theology is insufficiently eschatological in its implicit rendering of the denomination as a permanent structuring of the Church and that as a consequence it is too cautious in generalising the category of denomination to those parts of the Church catholic that reject it for themselves. It is thus applied both too widely (through salvation history) and too narrowly (across the contemporary Church).

Here it is argued that the denominational form of Church is specifically modern and reflects characteristics necessary for the Church’s work in modernity (as Ensign-George correctly recognises [reference]) and that as soon as one ecclesial body is a denomination then all become denominations, whether or not they recognise this status.

Russell Richey is perhaps the leading writer on the denominational form of the Church of the last 50 years. His classic Denominationalism [reference] remains a central reference point in the discussion and more recent works continue to be widely influential. The key thing to note about this work, as demonstrated in his 2005 article on the future of denominationalism [reference] is its concentration on the peculiarities of American ecclesiastical history and its neglect of wider ecclesiological thinking. He starts from Niebuhr’s essentially sociological approach and inflects it more positively without asking questions about the relationship between denomination and Church. [reference to Niebuhr]

The tripartite categorisation of Church, sect and denomination that has become the dominant way of thinking about this category neglects the self-understanding of a denomination in terms of the Church catholic. It is this gap that Ensign-George attempts to fill.

His approach, which is to assert that in a diversified setting a diversified Church is required and one that can experiment without constraint, is in effect the articulation of the denominationalist self-understanding. The existence of multiple denominations is seen as unproblematic since an invisible unity can be asserted and expressed through tolerance of one another and mutual recognition. [reference]

In this light the waning of the ecumenical impulse of the twentieth century, which reached its high tide in the decades following the Second World War, appears unproblematic. The drive to visible, organic or institutional unity that had dominated the ecumenical movement need not be mourned. Rather inter-denominational tolerance and co-existence is a more appropriate response to the providential establishment of multiple denominational forms of the Church. Their mutual inter-dependence and permeability gives the Church catholic the flexibility and variety it needs to work in the superabundant creation order. [reference to E-G]

What this neglects is any strong and urgent sense either of the fallen condition of our world and the sinfulness of the people who make up the Church or of the corresponding still unfulfilled eschatological promise that is signified by the expectation of Christ’s return in glory. A complacent sense that the current character and behaviour of the Church can be interpreted as its carrying out of God’s will does not do justice to the orientation of Christian life towards the realisation of God’s kingdom.

This does not necessitate a wholesale rejection of the analysis and prescription that Ensign-George develops. He is right to take seriously the modern phenomenon of the denomination and to link this to the processes of specialisation and diversification evident in the development of capitalist modernity. These processes are irreversible and irresistible and those theologians who advocate either sectarian flight from them or a determined counter-attack against them threaten the Church with an obscurantist irrelevance. Ensign-George’s invocation of providence and a theology of creative superabundance are welcome correctives. [reference Milbank and Hauerwas]

However they open up another danger, one of complacent adjustment to the world as it is. This ignores the gulf between the conditions and nature of contemporary social and personal life and what we know of God’s will. It is impossible to believe that God’s kingdom is fully realised already and this means that the Church, too, is implicated in the fallen nature of the world it inhabits.

On this analysis one would not expect the Church to realise its nature before the realisation of the Kingdom (at which point it would pass away as a separate body). Equally, though, like the individual sinful Christian it would be called to submit itself to a process of sanctification by the Spirit which would enable it to discern more clearly the mode of life to which it is called.

This vision of the Church, as one in which a variety of partial and flawed responses to God’s promise and God’s call, struggle to conform themselves to God’s will has much in common with Ensign-George’s providential diversity. The difference is one of emphasis. Here the drive to change as we try to discern the part we have been given in God’s redeeming work takes priority and with it the process of change we call sanctification.

A further difference between this proposal and Ensign-George’s is that it entails a generalisation of the category of denomination from those who are comfortable with it to those who are not. The category itself has been inflected towards movement and change and can be expressed as: “a grouping together (in whatever way) of Christian communities that discern a common vocation”. That is to say the category of denomination that is used here does not depend on common forms of governance and belief (like the American denominations that have tended to be taken as paradigm cases) but rather on common tasks (e.g. formation or training of ministers as the most basic shared work).

On this basis Baptists, for example, would be a denomination with a looser association and Scottish Episcopalians a denomination with a tighter association but each would be denominations. The significance and justification of this shift in usage towards a broader application of a contentious term will emerge in the following section.

A denominationalist ecclesiology of eschatological vocation

Range of application of category of denomination

Resistance to the category of denomination comes from two directions. On the one hand there are those who would claim that their trans-congregational structures are “Church” in a more universal and complete sense and reject denominationalism as a weakening or denial of this claim and on the other there are those who would claim that the congregation is complete in itself and resist the establishment of any such structures. Both refuse the applicability of the term “denomination” to themselves and hence its more general usage in the Church as currently constituted. [references]

Ensign-George is careful to respect these views and to refrain from applying the category where it is denied (although one senses he thinks it is indeed applicable [reference]. Here it is argued that such restraint reduces the power and usefulness of a denominationalist ecclesiology and for this reason should be eschewed. All current trans-congregational structures are here described under the term denomination, including those of the Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and of those (e.g. Baptists and Congregationalists) who regard the Church as fully and completely present in a single gathered congregation.

This requires that the term is taken in a somewhat looser sense that is sometimes assumed where the model is one that involves, for example, rigorous definition of common standards of faith, extensive bureaucratic apparatus, mechanisms of discipline, or significant sharing and redistribution of material resources. Here the term denomination will be taken to mean any ecclesial structure that exhibits Ensign-George’s five characteristics, and hence would cover bodies such as the Baptist Union and the Congregational Federation on the one hand and the Churches of England and Scotland on the other. More contentiously it will also be extended to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the basis that in practice (through their increased ecumenical engagement) they have recognised their contingency, interdependence and permeability, even if they are unwilling yet to say so.

Vocation as ecclesiological category

If each denomination is to be understood as existing as part of the providential and pre-eschatlogical ordered of creation in salvation history then some account must be given of how they are to orient themselves to themselves, one another, and the the rest of the world. That is to say that such a view of denominations requires us to give some reason to believe that God might will their diversity and even their conflicts, while also acknowledging is call to be one Church.

The proposal here is that the idea of vocation should be the starting point in developing such an account. Each denomination is to be understood as responding to God’s call to be the Church in a particular aspect, to exemplify or enact some part of the Church’s being or doing. Furthermore these aspects are to be thought to be those that require or assume a wider Church life than that of the congregation. Congregations too have vocations, as do individuals, but in each case it is here suggested that these are particular to the person or corporate body called or called into being.

The call can be to do or say certain things or to be a particular way. In the current state of affairs with creation the Church catholic may have to say, do and be things that are in tension or even in conflict with one another. The existence of denominations enables this. A prominent example concerns the relationship of Church and State in a modernity partially defined by the form of the nation-state.

One proper role of the Church in this configuration of the political sphere is to model the integration of human being under divine rule by a close partnership of Church and civil authority, as in the national churches of Europe, whether Anglican, Lutheran or Reformed. In tension with this is the assertion of God’s sovereignty implicit both in the universalism of Roman Catholicism and in the voluntarism of the free churches. All three church forms are necessary to witness, in a fallen order, to the eschatological pattern of the Kingdom.

Contrast with category of identity

The idea of vocation as the central concept in understanding what a denomination should be and do has different implications than the alternative of “identity”. Developing this contrast is helpful in outlining some of the key results that might follow from adoption of the approach proposed here.

Vocation clearly implies both a starting position, that in which the call is heard, and a destination, the position to which the call draws one. One responding to a call is always in motion, on a journey or a quest. In the Christian context it evokes thoughts of formation and ordination to ministry but also of the undertaking of other tasks, “vocations” in the broader sense. If a denomination is brought into being by a communal or corporate call this implies a formation by God to some specific ministry and thus a development of a mode of existence as well as the carrying out of a task or set of tasks.

By contrast identity implies the consolidation of a fixed self with clear boundaries and clear and understood definitive properties that will enable identification as a particular thing or person. There is less sense of movement and of formation and more of firmness and fixedness. An identity implies stability.

Furthermore, in a denominational context identity, in stressing the unity of the one identified and its differentiation from others, makes more problematic the relationship between denomination and Church as the universal people of God and body of Christ. Vocational denominations naturally see themselves as making their various contributions to the overall work of the Church while identified denominations have subsequently to grapple with the problem of their relationships.

Vocation and eschatology

There are a number of key implications for the idea that denominations should be understood primarily in terms of response to vocations that are both specific to each of them and also to be placed in the context of the call of the whole Church. Denominational life should be expected to show a pattern of communal discernment in which a struggle is constantly underway to hear where God’s call is next leading the corporate body of the denomination. This will be made more difficult because the task of the particular denomination will only be properly comprehensible in context of the ecumene, this requiring of each the humility to recognise its own partiality. The denominational vocation will be distinct from that of any congregation within it, which will be shaped by their own local setting and relationships and the resources available to them.

Most fundamentally the recognition of the eschatological dimension means that no denomination’s call will be fully realisable in this age. If the fulfilment of the mission of the Church is its dissolution into the completed rule of God then until the institution of that rule all ecclesial life partakes of a sacramental character. It represents and makes present a reality that simultaneously remains absent and only promised. Each denomination (as in the examples outlined above) expresses a part only of what is to come and in being partial remains incomplete and, therefore, marred.

The next chapter begins to develop an analysis of the United Reformed Church, its vocation in the light of the ecclesiological proposal outlined in this.


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