A Church, not a Denomination

When my sister and her family moved to their new house they were faced with one more challenge: finding a new church. She was at home in the Reformed tradition — we spent high school and she spent her college years in that tradition — and their first house was across the street from a really dynamic Reformed church.  Then they moved too far away to drive back on Sunday mornings.  Over time, she church-shopped and was drawn to a nearby Methodist church, which she and her family currently attend.  I remember one of her early questions: “What do Methodists believe?”

I remember her asking because that’s never been a leading question for me.  I’m not saying it’s unimportant, but I – and, I’d say, my sister and her family and most likely a whole lot of people today – aren’t looking, first, for what a church believes, but who they are — how they live together, what they do together, how vibrant their common life is, how comfortable they are talking and praying about Jesus and what God is doing in their lives and this world.  Growing up, my parents took us to the local, neighborhood church that was reported to be good with families and kids and had good things going on.  It just so happened to be loosely identified with the Congregationalist Church, which meant that, officially, we were part of a denomination that considers itself the descendants of the Puritan, later Congregationalist tradition but the denomination, itself, is small (they didn’t merge to become the UCC in the late ’50s) and — being Congregationalists! — are pretty  disconnected and, well, congregationalist.  It was a good church, but once you moved out of the neighborhood you were pretty much on your own.

In my own search for a Christian, spiritual home I resisted thinking in denominational terms.  (That was a particularly pronounced issue when I was a ministry student at an academic divinity school in which most of my friends were coming from some denominational background and, at least in broad terms, thinking of serving that denomination in the future.)  Many of my friends at the Divinity School were Episcopalians and my best friend growing up was a member of that church — although I thought “liturgy” was a bad word, and they seemed awfully “catholic”, another bad word for Congregationalists.  But as much as I was drawn to them they seemed to take their denomination too darn seriously.  At least they liked to talk about being Episcopalian a whole lot.  That was, to me, then, a turnoff.

from the Brent House Facebook page

Fast forward through a lot of stuff that will surface in future posts … One day I walked in and experienced The Episcopal Church through the ministry of Brent House, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Chicago.  A stately Georgian mansion sitting on a tree-lined street, Brent House is not a red-doored, neo-Gothic Episcopal Cathedral.  It’s wonderfully unassuming.  I went with friends to Sunday evening worship and ate a meal afterward, enjoyed conversation and, best of all, met interesting people with whom I had something in common, something deeply in common.  The chapel’s in the basement.  It’s clean and painted and in its simplicity (pipes running overhead, whitewashed walls, battleship gray floor, industrial chairs…) there is a profound beauty unlike that of many liturgical spaces I’ve experienced.  Perhaps because it places the attention on the quietude of prayer, the simple majesty of an ancient liturgy, timely and prayerfully offered, and the funky and diverse selection of women and men gathered.  Here were people from this amazing University (people a whole lot smarter than me and who, I’m still amazed, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend and get to know), people who were or would soon be at the top of their careers — medical doctors, philosophers, future Nobel laureates, anthropologists, biologists, and inventors of the next great thing — who said the name Jesus and meant it as God, who gathered around a simple table to receive His Body and Blood, who sang God’s praise, who were unafraid to pray, and who gave Christ’s Peace as if they really knew it or wanted it.

I also worshiped in the neighborhood Episcopal parish, and found the same mixture of people there.  I went to one of the smells and bells Anglo-Catholic parishes on Chicago’s northside (what doesn’t get a Protestant kid buzzing but Evensong & Benediction?).  Even there, through the cloud of incense, I had the same experience as in a basement chapel on Woodlawn Avenue.  Wherever I went in the Episcopal Church, I continued to find the same, strange, funky, mixture of folks — people who, if they were forced to take a poll, probably disagreed politically or theologically or philosophically or about the nature of everything under the sun but who, together, were at home with God in Christ in this timeless, holy liturgy that was more an experience of the divine than recitations from a cookbook of prayers.

That’s the moment I knew I had already become an Episcopalian.  While I thought they were using the term Episcopalian as a denominational catch-phrase, what they really meant is Christian, and it was the only word they had to call themselves a Christian and mean it in the most catholic — the broadest, most universal sense of that term.  They were not a denomination and, now I can say, we are not a denomination when we’re at our best.  We’re a church, and there’s a world of difference between a church and a denomination.

And that difference, I’ll say, is what makes all the difference in the world.


What, precisely, the difference is between a church and a denomination will be the subject of Part 2 of this post, coming later or soon or whenever.  I’ve been thinking about the 77th General Convention of our Episcopal Church which just wrapped up in Indianapolis.  Lots of good stuff came out of the convention, and I’m not only talking about legislation and resolutions; in fact, I’m probably not thinking, first of all, about that official stuff.  I’m talking about reflections in the Twitterverse or on Facebook, interesting and challenging blogs, insightful ruminations by bishops, other clergy, and lay leaders as they make their way home to Olympia or Springfield or South Carolina or Chicago or Alexandria or Washington, DC.  I’m going to read and re-read and ask myself, again, whether we’re remaining a church … or whether we’re becoming a denomination.

For what it’s worth, here’s what’s got me thinking and what I’m reading…

  • The official statements and what I’d call the majority reports and statements of those who consider themselves in the minority are pretty well summarized on Episcopal Cafe or the Episcopal News Service.
  • Bishop Daniel Martins of Springfield regularly offers insightful posts, especially this one.
  • Fr. Anthony Clavier, also, is a good one to follow, and this post  of his got me thinking.
  • Or what I thought was a genuine and courageous point raised by The Very Rev’d Ian Markham, dean of the Virginia Seminary, in July 9th’s Center Aisle: General Convention Needs Genuine Diversity.

One thought on “A Church, not a Denomination

  1. this certainly brings back memories. at present I am attending a lutheran church for the deaf, the specific division evades me.i dont think its missouri synod. it’s cozy and comfortable, but ive been thinking a little about finding a place where I can grow and a way to contribute. im glad u started this blog for a variety of reasons 🙂

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