Third Party describes herself as “Christianus but Beyond Denomination (Denominatly confuddled)” on her Facebook profile. This has replaced “post-denominational” which she had for a while. It is a position which, I am only just beginning to realise, may serve her very well over the next couple of decades and give her a more comfortable transition into whatever is going to happen when the number of worshippers in many of our churches is acknowledged as having fallen belows a critical mass. It is also a position which whilst I celebrate her having I struggle with.
Keith Judson has an article in this weeks Baptist Times where he describes himself as a Christian who worships in Baptist Churches, building on the BT’s new strapline. Within it the article he says, “A few think labels such as ‘Baptist’ are unhelpful in our ecumenically enlightened times – though most ‘ecumaniacs’ recognise the value of celebrating our diverse traditions rather than ignoring them.”
How does this work in practice? I have been in two situations recently where I have been amongst those feeling they want to defend denominational identity and “our way of doing things”. (At this point regular readers may laugh and say, but you’ve only been a Methodist for a year- I’ll get to my own identity in a minute). One of the ways it works is by allowing people of other denominations to preach within our churches and not just for a special ecumenical service. Hands up here as somebody who finds herself naturally saying, but it’s a x,y, or z church. For me there is the issue, particularly with lay people that I don’t think it is right for them to parachute in and not have to conform to the same rules as somebody within that denomination and also the view, well why can’t their own denomination let them preach. I am rapidly reaching the conclusion, though, that this may not be a helpful attitude and in some ways betrays a certain bunker mentality which is going to be exactly the type of thing which helps alot of churches painfully die. Now don’t get me wrong I fully support the idea that preachers should be properly trained, although I have been allowed to effectively preach (although on each occassion I gave a “talk”) on three occassions in the past with little more than someone looking over my shoulder to check I wasn’t about to commit total heresy -twice within a Baptist church and once within an ecumenical retreat setting. The issue is that some churches simply don’t allow their members the freedom which they are given in others and so if they are to be given the chance to preach then they need to become cross-denominational. The Anglican – Methodist Covenant also gives weight to the argument that there should be more inter-denominational co-operation.
Within the covenant there is the following commitment:
“We commit ourselves to continue to welcome each other’s baptised members to participate in the fellowship, worship and mission of our churches.”
This means that to dig our heels in and become defenders of our pulpits, or more likely microphones or lecterns, is taking a step backwards not forwards. That is not to say that we should not protect the quality of our preaching and seek to ensure equal standards, training and oppotunities for lay people particularly. But it is to say that we need to realise if we are seeking to appeal to Methodist or other denominational guidelines, statements and rulings we cannot be overly selective within that. The issue for “the emerging church” in the widest sense, rather than the technical sense, will be to work out how to maintain integrity and quality within “preaching”, whatever form that takes.
For me another issue is being Methodist and having been Baptist are important to me. I value my “low church” identity and hold very tightly onto principles like the priesthood of all believers and communion being an act which all can participate in if they profess faith (and actually if I’m honest I’d probably push it to anybody who wishes to partake of the sacrament recognising what it represents). I don’t want to see these denominations and this identity wither away into a choice between a homogenous melting pot of saccerin worship songs played by loud worship bands where appearance and emotion generated can often appear more important than depth of preaching and earnestness of prayer on one hand and smells and bells theatre on the other. Note here, I know that belief and worship are honest for believers in both and I don’t wish to denigrate either but I think there is a place for more “traditional” expressions of belief and also ones which are more radically different.
So how do we play this? I don’t know. I think different traditions are important. One answer which I have alot of time for is local ecumenical partnerships where there seems to be respect for the various traditions whilst working together to move, in some way beyond them. I also have time for ecumenical services. The most memorable and beautiful time I have ever celebrated communion was at Glastonbury the first year I went. They had somebody in from each of the local churches everyday and on this occassion it was an Anglican. The service he led, as we sat looking over the festival site and on to the vale of Avalon was beautiful. It also symbolised for me the way that the creator God went through the death and ressurection for the whole world, not just those who sit in churches.
Finally I look at Third Party and how she reached her Facebook status. She grew up in a Baptist Church, but attending Spring Harvest and Greenbelt. She went to a CofE school. When she first got to Durham she went to an Icthus fellowship. She then started to come to a Methodist church with me. She goes to a Methodist youth group, but not the one in our church- refusing to attend the curcuit youth group. She also goes to another youth group held in a CofE church which is attended by people from the CofE and Icthus churches, although not by the Methodists. This Friday she is going to the Big Sleep (e-mail / Facebook me if you know her and want to sponsor her) with a couple of Methodists but going to be helping with the thing the CofE/ Icthus lot are doing aswell. I think what my daughter does, quite naturally, is living out queer theology – (using queer theology in it’s broadest way as she is always eager to emphasise she is one of the straight members of our family). She has not dismissed traditions but rather seeks not to let them hem her in on her Christian journey. As such she manages to live out “just Christian” in a way which seeks to embrace a variety of traditions rather than refuse to acknowledge their existence and impact on her but refuses to give alligence to any of them.