Monday, August 17, 2015

In Defense of Denominations

So I had a really great experience the other day. I got to wake up early on a Saturday and spend the day in a Presbytery meeting.

"But Katey," I hear you exclaim, "how can a Presbytery meeting possibly be a great experience??"

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Presbyterian form of government, the Presbytery is a regional body, made up of teaching elders (Pastors) and ruling elders (members of each church's governing board) that essentially serve the role of Bishop in other denominations. Each pastor is held accountable by its Presbytery; each Presbytery is responsible for the churches within its boundaries. Pastors are not members of the church for whom they work, but of their local Presbytery.

So anyway, back to my great experience.

On August 15, 2015, for only the second time in my life, I was examined by a Presbytery for membership. The first time (back in March 2014) was special because I was being examined not only for membership, but for ordination, and the examination was carried out by the Presbytery that had nourished me from childhood, walked with me through the ordination process, and supported me every step of the way. This most recent time, the final step before I was officially accepted at my new call, it was special because I was home.

After spending two years working in a validated ministry with the Episcopal Church, I had become like a nomad, a "resident alien", as several translations of scripture put it. I love St. Thomas', and by the end of two years, I was totally comfortable leading worship there, but it was someone else's worship, not mine. I could appreciate the poetry of the liturgy, the majesty of the hymns, the pageantry of the processions, but I never quite felt entirely connected to it. I imagine that it was kind of like reading someone else's speech--you can believe in it wholeheartedly, and mean the words that you say, but there still isn't a sense of it being a part of you. Or like putting a round peg into a square hole--it goes in, but you can't quite say that it fits.

But when I sat in the Boise Presbytery meeting this past weekend, heard about what was going on in the local churches, worshiped with them--I felt like a round peg finally rediscovering its round hole. The way decisions were made, the elements of worship, the thought processes that the people went through: it all fit again.

And this is why I love denominations. I do passionately believe in (and pray for the true unification of) the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but unity doesn't need to mean homogeneity. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned at St. Thomas' was that we shouldn't suppress our differences; we should celebrate them. Human beings are beautifully, messily, enormously diverse. We don't experience God the same way; we don't celebrate the same way; we don't communicate the same way; we don't problem solve the same way. So why should we be required to live our faith in the same way? Certainly, there should be some standards: Jesus does a pretty good job of outlining them in scripture. But beyond that, if we try to make all churches identical, then we'll wind up with a whole lot of round pegs in square holes. And that doesn't lend itself to a genuine relationship with Christ.

Plus, if we conform to one understanding of worship, faith, and the divine, we run a really big risk of assuming that we've got it all figured out--and odds are that we'd be entirely wrong on one point or another. Through denominations, we are able to continue exploring, questioning, and challenging one another.

Obviously, I don't think that denominations are "THE ANSWER" to divisions within the church, or else we'd be all set and clearly, we're not. I just think that they don't need to be the stumbling block that some people make them out to be. The trick is to not let denominations serve as barriers, but as jumping off points for conversation, "home bases" that we can return to when the challenge of being a Christian in this world (and yes, it is--and should be--a challenge) drains us. Just because you have a "nuclear family" doesn't mean that you cut off all ties with other people (your extended family, work community, neighborhood, etc.) Denominations, at their best, should serve a similar purpose.

P.S. I readily acknowledge that, having been raised in the Presbyterian Church, I have a much more specific sense of denominational "home" than some others do. However, I still believe that each denomination has something different to offer those who seek to follow Christ, whether life-long churchgoers or newbies. My sense of "home" may be clear and solidified, but I think that even those for whom church is a nebulous concept gravitate towards certain types of worship or methods of organizing or approaches to education, etc., which different denominations provide.

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