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Between Congregation and Church, by Barry Ensign-George

13 July 2018

Paul Avis considers the case for denominations

THERE have been divisions within the Church from the beginning. The question is what our attitude to the divided Church should be. Since the rise of the ecumenical movement a century ago, and especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the mainstream Churches have had a troubled conscience about division, seeing it as a contradiction of Christ’s prayer in John 17 that all his own may be one as he and the Father are one, and as a denial of Christian love.

An extreme form of ecclesial division is denominationalism, where one’s whole sense of church identity is focused on one’s own denomination — large or small, new or old — rather than on the one Church of Christ.

In The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that denominationalism was the bane of the modern Church and had come close to destroying its unity in any meaningful sense. Niebuhr held that denominations solidified economic and ethnic distinctions between Christians and perpetuated divisions between Christian communities.

Nevertheless, at the start of the present millennium, there were 34,000 Christian denominations in the world; by now there will be thousands more. Are denominations inevitable? Are they benign? Or is the deliberate propagation of denominations a threat to the unity and integrity of the Church?

Barry Ensign-George is an accomplished apologist for the existence of denominations. His book is an ecclesiologically articulate defence of the denominational structure of the Church. For him, denominations form a vital bridge between the congregation and the universal Church. Provided they do not cut themselves off from other denominations, they form one of the building blocks of Christian unity.

But denominations arise from particular historical circumstances and are thus contingent. They have a limited role and should never become an end in themselves. Thus Ensign-George vindicates denominations without condoning the denominationalist mindset. The author executes his task with admirable care, clarity, thoroughness, and moderation.

From an Anglican perspective, however, there are several weaknesses in his approach. (a) The American free market in founding and splitting churches is taken as given. But the ecumenical climate in the UK is more cooperative, less competitive. (b) The author deliberately brackets out the question whether the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches are denominations — and he barely mentions Anglicanism. These three historic communions would resist the label “denomination’”.

(c) The local focus of the Church in this book is the congregation, but for the Church of England it is constitutionally the parish. (d) Denominations are defended as the bridging structure between the local and the universal expressions of the Church, but for the vast majority of Christians, including Anglicans, the diocese fulfils this function.

(e) National Churches and Churches that are established by law — another bridge between the local and the universal — are overlooked. (f) The treatment of ecclesial communion (koinonia, communio), though welcome, is not profound enough to challenge the basic assumption that a divided Church is acceptable.

This book is an impressive resource for studying the denominational polity of American Christianity, but in a broader ecumenical context it appears insular and limited. Ensign-George is the ablest champion that denominations set on defending their separate existence could wish for, but his arguments fall short.

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is honorary professor in the Department of Theology and Religion in the University of Durham, and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion in the University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.

Between Congregation and Church: Denomination and Christian life together
Barry Ensign-George
Bloomsbury T&T Clark £110
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