here’s a think: denominations

March 6, 2014

at some point in this last two years, I seem to have discovered the desire to be a better Anglican. It’s a quiet desire at best, but it’s a constant underthread in my ecclesiastical decisions; I’m slowly shaping myself to be more partisan about the traditions and qualities that make the Anglican church unique among the various denominations.

This is motivated in part by the fact that I study in a Baptist college, with a whole heap of Baptist pastors and leaders in training. The theological stands and assumptions of the Baptist church are often the norm- which isn’t to say that the norm isn’t challenged, critiqued or praised, because all three happen often (and most of it appears to be critique)- but in teaching, my lecturers are often actively involved in threading through the facets of that denomination first, before they cover others, trying theologically and pastorally to assess weaknesses and flaws and build up strengths.

It’s helpful. Denominations exist for a reason, I’m learning. When I was younger and more firmly mired in the homogenous wash of boundary-blurring charismatic Protestantism, denominations were finicky, meaningless names; if you were a Christian you were a Christian, and whether you were Anglican or Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian was entirely insignificant. The only major difference was if you were Catholic, and then you were totally suspect and maybe not really even Christian because there was something fishy going on there with Mary and the saints.* The Eastern Orthodox church wasn’t even on the map.

Not coincidentally, when I was younger, I also had very little knowledge of what I believed in, which includes all the details of what we believe and the myriad complications that come with trying to work out exactly how one lives according to those beliefs. Details like is Jesus still human now? and do we really go to heaven when we die? and what does heaven look like? Details like does God punish us when we do bad things? and can we pray for people who are already dead or things that have already happened? and if I believe really hard and keep asking for it, will God do this thing I want him to do? 

Complications like should we bother trying to tell people about God if who gets into heaven is already all set out beforehand? and do we baptise children if they believe? can children be trusted to know what they believe? and should women teach? Complications like do we take care of the planet or assume it’s all going to pot anyway? and how literally should we take the Bible, particularly when it talks about stoning? and should we ask for the gift of tongues? and does it need to be bread and wine (what about coke and chips)?

These, these are the details that separate denominations from each other; what they believe about what it means to be a Christian, and how one goes about doing this. And the more viewpoints you learn- as well as the reasoning behind those viewpoints and decisions, sound or not (the advantages of a theological education)- the more you learn about what you agree with and what you don’t. And when you start mapping out what you do believe and don’t believe about the details of Christianity, you start seeing the differences in the denominations and you really do start locating yourself on the map.

 

When I was younger, I had unquestioned assumptions natural to the culture I was in, as any fish who grows up in water does. These things were just the way things were; it was how the world worked as sure as the sun coming up in the morning, and as I was rarely met with any alternative, the worldview I’d grown up in was left unshaken. People spoke in tongues and prophesied and it was normal; we sang Away in the Manger at Christmas,** we recited the creed and greeted each other with the peace of the Lord and much hugging, we expected miraculous healings and spiritual gifts. I was baptised as a kid; the guitar was played softly in the background when the pastor was inviting the church into a time of reflection or prayer; we prayed together en masse for the world in a babble of overlapping voices; we had songs with actions and Sunday School, we watched Veggietales, we had tea and coffee and church lunches; sections of the Bible were read out at intervals on Sunday; after I was baptised, I could line up with everyone else to take communion and I was a dipper, not a sipper.

Now, having met and listened to people from myriad different denominations and faiths, and having learned a whole lot more about the details of my own belief thanks to this theological education thing I’m doing, I’m aware that a lot of that is typical of the charismatic or Pentecostal church. The creeds were Anglican, as was the liturgical structure of the Sunday service and the year, but the fact that we went once to a youth conference where there was a workshop on prophetic songleading and prophetic discernment and we finished off the evening in an ecstasy of chanting about revival really clues me in as to my old church’s perspective on the involvement of the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Again, the more I clarify where I stand on theological and conceptual issues- whether this comes through learning about the issue in class, or coming across it in conversation with someone who has a different perspective- the more I begin to locate myself within a sector of belief. It’s a long and involved- but rather organic and quite enjoyable- learning process. I identify as Anglican, for example, in part because I grew up under that name,*** and in part because I have learned and am still learning to love the Anglican liturgy; the liturgical year and the daily office are, I think, beautifully, wonderfully structured for the purpose of orienting our time- both our hours and the way we go through our year- around our relationship with God and around the way he has shown himself to work in the world. With regards to the liturgical year in particular it is both a way of actively remembering what we believe, by living it, and a way of restructuring the way we see time; the year doesn’t begin on January the 1st, it begins with the season of Advent, when we prepare for the coming of Christ, and thus the whole year pins itself around the events of Christ’s life.

Now, keep in mind I’m still learning about what Anglicans do and why we do it. I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of this, but I want to; I think the tradition of the church is an important part of our identity as both individual Christians and the corporate Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ and our decisions and beliefs and unity in Christ don’t just extend across space, but across time too (another reason I enjoy the Anglican emphasis on tradition). Moreover, I like tradition and ritual (some of this affection admittedly belongs to my history as a theatre student); I believe both are rich with meaning and symbolism, and I particularly love the way ritual makes physical and present what is invisible and conceptual- making visible and human what is mysterious and divine, which bears a delightful similarity to the way the Incarnation works.

 

Basically, I’m beginning to learn that it’s good to be partisan, and that denominations are excellent things to inhabit and learn about and identify with, not least because that way one learns a whole lot more about what one believes, and why one believes (or should believe) what one believes. I’m beginning to think that having differing denominations actually contributes a lot to the Body, particularly when the denominations actually work together despite their differences; humanity is complex and vast, and so the church needs to be complex and multifaceted to address the myriad faces of the world. 

 

 

*Not indicative of my current beliefs and attitude to Catholicism. Promise.
**As an adult, I am not a fan of Away in a Manger. It makes a determined effort to infantilise Jesus (‘sweet head’? ‘little Lord’?), it thoroughly patronises the child audience for which it was written, and is completed with the crowning line ‘the baby awakes! the Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’. This is quite probably nitpicking, but I’m pretty sure that a baby, when woken by loud cows, cries. I feel like it’s diminishing the humanity of Christ in order to emphasise in a sickly-sweet manner his eye-in-the-sky special qualities, also known as docetism (or else it’s a hint to the child at hand that crying isn’t a thing Jesus did, so you shouldn’t either). It’s mawkish and maudlin and I object on both aesthetic and theological grounds. Ban the thing.
***But not wholly because of this. I also grew up charismatic, and now I tend to avoid charismatic churches like the plague- less due to any theological disagreements, because I really don’t know enough quite yet to have theological disagreements, and more simply because of temperament, different desires and discomforting past experiences with the charismatic church. I have a deep fondness for contemplation, silence, tradition, theologically rich lyrics- which, often, belong to hymns- ritual, symbolism, emphasis on visual or aural beauty, and reflection. Charismatic churches- and this is a generalisation- often don’t contain any of these things.
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One Response to “here’s a think: denominations”

  1. Peta-Maria Says:

    I love this val, you write so thoughtfully and sincerely, it’s like having a conversation with you. I’m so so glad you’re studying at Carey and also that you’re sharing some of your learnings on here. Let’s talk more when I see you next. Love you


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