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This, as I have explained, is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

There are places in New Zealand, when you stand on a spot, you can see about half a dozen different church buildings – different buildings for different Christian denominations. We have become immune to the scandal that this is.

It is a scandal that “See how these Christians love one another” has become “See how these Christians disagree with one another”! And the disagreements are over things that most people cannot articulate or understand. And even when there seem to be no doctrinal disagreements, worshipping communities, in buildings that can be seen one from the other, cannot combine – they seem to be more human empires than expressions of the Divine reign.

It is a scandal that tiny, shrinking, ageing communities effectively own hundreds of thousands, nay millions of dollars worth of property while we live in a country with poverty, a growing wealth gap, and rising cost of living. It is a scandal that the ageing congregants – mostly retired – are burdened with the maintenance of these deteriorating buildings as well as needing to pay a pastor’s remuneration, all with an undercurrent of guilt that they cannot manage to bring in new people to replace those in their community who have died (or no longer attend).

How have we got here? Slowly. Like boiling a frog to death. Many beyond the church (and even many within it) refer to these different worshipping communities as “religions” – the word (and concept) of “denominations” often seems unknown. People even talk about “converting” when someone moves from one of these communities to another – as if conversion was as simple as crossing the street to change buildings!

Often there is a capitalist lens on these different denominations: different personality types need different denominations, so this justification goes. Competition is good. This row of competing church buildings is viewed akin to a row of different supermarkets, or the row of different car sales yards, or of different restaurants.

Anglicans (and others?) follow this capitalist paradigm in providing different services at different times (or, in some cases, in different buildings on the same property at the same time). I visited a parish recently that provides the following options:

  • A traditional New Zealand Prayer Book Eucharistic Service with organ.
  • A fun service for all ages. Worship band, extended teaching and children & youth programs with communion every second Sunday
  • A space for extended sung worship, silence, intercession and the prophetic
  • An informal service followed by bring and share kai
  • A family friendly service 

Implicit is a capitalist-type competitiveness: just as the different car yards compete for the people wanting a car, so churches compete for the people wanting a church service. Denominations – says this approach – are like different flavours of ice cream, and different people just prefer different flavours. Each denomination is providing a different flavour, otherwise some personalities would never get ice cream.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think that not talking about it is part of the formula that boils the frog to death. In theory, the diversity of humanity’s variety should be able to gather around God’s one table. I think that was a central part of Jesus’ life and message. In a world wracked by division, the scandal of divided followers of Jesus does nothing to point to Jesus, his life and teaching, as source of unity.

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3 thoughts on “Denominations”

  1. One wonders, Bosco , whether – in the Early Church – Paul’s exhortation against ‘denimationalism’ “who is for Paul, or, who is for Apollos?” was the beginning of a culture of preferential theology that has separated believers on, say, the theological appeal of Johannine versus Pauline theology that, to a degree, affects Church Leaders even today?

    LOVE and LAW are so often seen as very different aspects of biblical ‘teaching’, and unless the more salvific characteristics of our faith are stressed – seen by some ‘evangelists’ as of less importance than the prospect of eternal domination – (from which, in Catholic thought, Christ has already saved the world by God’s own gift of salvation); there is always a possibility of ecclesiastical polarization about the subtleties of Grace versus Works, which even Paul seemed to find troublesome: ‘Why do I do what I know I should not do, and, why don’t I do what I know I should do.? In the end, even Paul has to acknowledge the supremacy of God’s ‘prevenient grace’ on all who look for their redemption. (Paul referred to his own righteousness as ‘filthy rags’!) – an outrageous statement to compare with God’ unfailing LOVE.

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron. I think you are correct in highlighting that divisions are evident in our faith from the start. Blessings.

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