Like many Christians, I grew up with what I now believe to be a grossly deficient view of the role and purpose of the church. My parents were Baptists. I was baptized, and eventually ordained, in that tradition, which is characterized by a strongly congregational polity (i.e. form or system of government). That is, while Baptist churches may link together for certain kinds of cooperative endeavors, each local congregation is viewed as an autonomous entity, not subject to any kind of outside authority so far as its decision-making apparatus is concerned.
In some Baptist churches, the form of government in the local congregation is something close to a pure democracy, where a vote of the membership is required for virtually every decision of any significance. Others operate under a system in which the pastor, as the lone “elder” in the church, pretty well runs the show, assisted to some degree by a board of “deacons” who presumably advise the pastor and, in rare cases, may actually possess sufficient authority to override a pastoral decision.
A similar polity is favored by “independent, non-denominational” churches, many of which use terms like “Bible Church” or “Community Church” in their names. My first two pastorates were served in churches of this sort, without denominational identity but decidedly congregational in polity. I was in my thirties before I began to think of “church” as anything other than a local, autonomous assembly, responsible for its own program, accountable to nobody except its own membership, and sometimes not even to them.
Well, that’s not entirely true. As a Bible college graduate, I understood the term “church” to be used in the New Testament with reference to the “body of Christ,” composed of all Christians, everywhere, across the centuries of “church” history. But this “universal church” was sometimes called the “invisible church,” and a church that you could not see was, in practical terms, nonexistent. The only church I knew anything about, so far as personal experience was concerned, was a local, independent entity, operating according to its own perception of Christian doctrine, and often in competition with similar local churches in the same general area.
Eventually, I came to believe that affiliation with a local church assembly alone, to the exclusion of formal and official identification with a broader, more diverse community of Christian believers (as in a denomination), revealed an inadequate understanding of the concept of the church as the “body of Christ.” I had read the Nicene Creed, with its declaration that “we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” and I wanted to do something, in terms of formal identification and official membership, which reflected my commitment to that church.
The proliferation of Christian denominations, I maintain, is one negative consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it is not possible, in organizational and institutional terms, to identify formally and officially with the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Even the Roman Catholic Church, since Vatican II, recognizes that there are genuine Christian believers not covered by its umbrella. The best we can do, or so it would seem, is to identify with a denomination—ideally one with worldwide membership—which also recognizes its place within the family of churches, denominations, fellowships, coalitions, and alliances which, ostensibly, worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and King of the Universe.
That was the decision to which I came, nearly thirty years ago, when I became a member of what is now Mennonite Church USA. MCUSA is a tiny denomination, but it is linked to a worldwide Mennonite/Anabaptist network. Moreover, at the time, affiliation with even a small denomination was a big step for someone with my background to take.
I took that decision seriously. I could have embraced many of the distinctives which drew me to Anabaptism—an emphasis on radical discipleship, Biblical nonresistance, simplicity, and a commitment to social justice, for example—without actually joining the Mennonite Church. But I was ready to identify with an entity that included brothers and sisters in Christ outside of my local congregation.
Twenty-five years later, I was captivated by the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship. For a time, I tried to “scratch the liturgical itch” without identifying formally with a denomination in the liturgical tradition. Initially, I wanted to be an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities. The more I learned about Anglicanism, however, the more I was drawn into the communion as much for its polity, its history,
and its worldwide witness as for its liturgy. Today I consider myself an Anglican with Anabaptist sensibilities.
Anglican polity is decidedly not congregational or democratic. It is episcopal, which is the English form of a Greek word often translated “overseer” and is the etymological root for the English word bishop. In Baptist churches, authority rests with the congregation. In Anglican churches, authority rests (or is supposed to rest) with the bishop. The bishop’s authority extends to a specified number of local congregations (known as parishes) which all together comprise what is known as a diocese.
In congregational polity, the local church is the fundamental unit of ecclesiastical identification. In Anglican polity, it is the diocese. Local parishes exist to embody the vision and mission of the diocese in a particular community. They are the means by which the diocese interfaces with a specific neighborhood. Clergy are not members of a local parish. They are members of the diocese only, and their role is to represent the bishop in the parishes where they serve in a variety of roles.
This system of government, which is based on a particular understanding of terms and patterns found in the New Testament, has some weaknesses, but overall it is workable and efficient. Its efficiency and its effectiveness depend on the character and competence of the bishop and the faithfulness and commitment of the diocesan clergy to the system and to their vows of loyalty to the bishop.
I believe that episcopal polity (i.e. parishes in a diocese living under the watchcare and authority of a bishop) is not only efficient and effective (at least in theory) for the organization and operation of local churches or parishes. It is also tailor-made (again, in theory) as a mechanism for the planting of new parishes.
Here’s what I mean. A single local parish within a diocese may not possess sufficient resources, either human or material, to support the birth and development of a new church in its area, even when the need for such a new congregation is obvious and indisputable. By pooling the available resources from all the parishes in the diocese, the cost of planting a new church could be underwritten for a year or two. As the new church grew and took on responsibility for its own support, diocesan funds could be re-directed toward another area with a need for a new church. In this way, each new church would be a joint effort of the diocese, and the entire diocese could rejoice in its success and benefit from its ministry.
I have proposed a pattern such as this for consideration by the parishes in my own diocese. So far, it has gone nowhere. That makes me sad, since I have pretty much concluded that this approach may be the only way our vision for St. Patrick’s Church can be realized. And it may be the only mechanism by which I can find a context for vocational ministry in the Anglican communion.