Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Kaleidoscopes, Denominations, Urinals and Emerging Church

Isn’t it difficult not to compare sizes?

Last week I was in Oxford meeting with members of staff from Baptist colleges across the country. This week we’ve been inducting the new batch of ministerial students here at Luther-King House as well as starting the foundation module for all new students – Baptist, Methodist, URC, Unitarian, Pentecostal and few others - on our BA and MA programmes. In both settings it became apparent that size does matter. At least we found ourselves talking about it quite a bit.

It looks like all the Baptist colleges have reasonably healthy intakes of new students (ours is particularly big – for us anyway) but while peering over the urinal wall here in Manchester it became apparent that one of our partners is not especially well endowed. We only have one URC ministerial student starting training this year.

In fact it turns out that Nationally the URC have only six new ministerial students (four in England and two in Scotland). Now – and I know this is a big jump – this set me thinking about the viability of some of our historic denominations and indeed the desirability of a denominational future for the Church in this country.

How do emergent types feel about denominations? There would appear to be a bit of a tension here. On the one hand it almost goes without saying that there is a (sometimes naïve) anti-institutional stripe to most emergent attitudes to church. This would seem to put denominations beyond the pale. On the other hand a big part of the emergent psyche is an antipathy towards all things Modern. This comes with an attendant desire to reach back to the pre-modern and mine (or skim the surface more likely) the wisdom, resources and practices to be found in pre-enlightenment Christianity. However, it is precisely the denominations that have been the custodians of these treasures. How is this tension to likely be resolved?

It seems to me probable that emergent Anglicans will become more and more Anglican (as did many Evangelical Anglicans did in the last quarter of the 20C). But will they be able to negotiate their relationship with the denomination in a way that keeps the institutional feel to minimum so as not to alienate pm’s? Also will people continue to confuse the Fresh Expressions movement with the genuinely emergent so that many an Anglican feels they are being much more radical than in fact they are, resulting in a veneer of reform on a fundamentally modernist substructure?

Then what about Baptists? How significant is the (relatively) recently reawakened interest in things Anabaptist likely to be for the future shape of churches in the BUGB? Are there resources/wisdom/practices here that genuinely have the potential to help renew (or whatever re word you prefer) the denomination as a whole or is this likely to remain a rather weird interest for an unrepresentative and rather geeky section of the denomination? Are Baptists so thoroughly subdivided into either baby-boomer-modern or 1950’s-Isle-of-White-nostalgic-modern as to be beyond hope of anything other than a late modern surge and an ultimate post-modern demise?

Or are denominations as we have known them destined for such a fierce twist of the kaleidoscope that what emerges will be utterly unrecognisable? If so, what realignments and new births might we anticipate? Which pieces of the picture are likely to disappear altogether? And how will the mix of newly-minted and freshly-alloyed wisdom/values/practices be carried from generation to generation? (There surely has to be some institutional framework for values to survive beyond the generation of the charismatic pioneers. Or this just a hopelessly modernist way of seeing things?)

One final question: am I starting to ramble or is there something here that anyone fancies having their own two penn’worth on?


Catriona said...

In my year-group at LKH on the BA was one Baptist (me!), 7 URCs and about 12 Methodists. Through all four years we were (by far) the smallest of the three colleges.

To every time there is a season - now it's NBCs time for the most first years.

(ps I don't really wish to know about your lavatorial habits!!)

andy amoss said...

Glen i can't begin to think about answering most of the questions you pose here, but there is one thing that 'pangs' in my gut. It's rooted in my experience of talking about my faith, so whilst there is an obvious partiallity and naivity to it, there's also something in it i'm convinced by.
It is that people (people generally as opposed to church people) don't know or care about denomination. In fact for the most part it's a stumbling block and a barrier to talking about Christianity, since the moment one says the word "Baptist" that's what the conversation becomes about. "What's 'Baptist' then?" or "What's a 'minister' then, is it like a vicar?" and from then on you're talking about denomination and tradition rather than followiing Christ. People seem to expend their quizzical energy on subsequent and peripheral stuff, rather than core stuff. The best conversations i have about faith are always the ones where denomination doesn't come into it.
I don't know how directly this addresses your questions, but it must surely feature in the discussion. Or should we even be having this discussion, since it seems terribly self indulgent to push our means of following Christ before we know what we've got to say about our Christ? When most people don't know what 'Christian' is, let alone the differences, practises and histories of denominations, i know which message i'm keenest to spread.

I say this as - did you call them 'emergents'? - an emergent, i also say it aware of the headache this leaves institutionalised denominations with.

Glen Marshall said...

Catriona - absolutely (hence the "for us" comment), one of the things that makes planning difficult is not knowing if this year is a blip or a trend. The significant thing about URC numbers is not just the NOC figure but the national, and that this (I think) is part of a trend and that it coheres with stats showing potentially terminal decline in the number members and attenders. If there is a season for everything do we just shrug our shoulders at the prospect of the death of a denomination stretching back some 400 years? Can extrapolate and say that the future no longer lies with mainstream denominations or at least not as we have known them?

Glen Marshall said...

Andy - absolutely. Most people don't give a toss - except those for whom the CofE is still vaguely respectable and therefore the only proper church. But what are the implications of this? We can't just scrap denoms as if they were irrelevant. "Denomination" after all just means "name". People will always find a name for groups of Xns who seem to share a common identity. It's the old "no label" conundrum - once you become known as s.o. who prefers not to be lablelled you get lumped together with others who feel the same and are know as one of those who prefer not to be labled. Out and out individualism is not just undesirable it is not really possible either.

Nor is it about pushing one denom in particular instead of X it is recognising that there are distinguishable ways of following X and groups of churches in relationship with others who share some of these distinctives.

Also if we utterly ignore denoms we run the risk of losing the treasures of the past of which those denoms have been the custodians.

Catriona said...

Hi Glen, no,I don't think 'seasonal' means we just shrug our shoulders and give up (but you know that anyway!)

The truth is some of us working with small, elderly, utterly dyed in the baptistery Baptist churhces know that a 'good death' might be the best we can give them unless they are willing and able to metamorphose (or die and resurrect)

When I was younger denominations were a nuisance, only as I've got older and come to understand a little of my heritage as a small c congregationalist (and I guess big B baptist, but not THAT kind) that I've felt the benefitsof being in a historic denomination.

btw you have to be grateful my kid sister is at Westminster not NoCo cos she's even more scary than me! (Yes, it is just about possible)

Andy Jones said...

It was interesting a little while ago talking to someone who valued freedom and lack of tradition within their own fellowship, but also valued going off searching for spirituality and heritage elsewhere.

Seems to be the same dilemma you write about: the deep mines of spiritual tradition needing some custodian somewhere as long as it's not us.

(e.g. the church could never rediscover its Jewish heritage if there wasn't a continuing Jewish faith).

Not sure what to make of all this so I'll go and carry on organising our Christian Aid bookstall instead.

Andy Goodliff said...

This is a great discussion. Evangelicalism has definitely levelled out a lot of differences between denominiations, but what I see is an increasing desire across denominiations to reach beyond and back to traditions outside of the evangelical diet. From a baptist perspective, I think the anabaptist conversation has much to offer, but I find myself more interested in thngis like the BU 5 Core Values and thinking through theologically what that looks like as baptist people.

Glen Marshall said...

Andy (G) - yeah, I reckon the five core values are one of the best things the Union has turned out for ages. Trouble with them though, in the context of this discussion, is that they are inevitabley a bit thin textually or inter-textually. They lack resonance with ancient practices and symbols. Part of the difficulty we have as Baptists is cos we flourished at the height of modernity we have had antipathy to the symbolic and to ritual and indeed to the value of the past which has left us disconnected from our own story and with a rather anaemic identity.

I too find stuff to interest, root and inspire me in the anabaptist thing. Last week I got to use the new anabaptist daily prayer thing and it was fine but, to my mind, after little more than a nibble, a bit bland - not distinctive enough, not obivously especially anabaptist. I find that the Northumbrian Community's daily office does it best for me. But this is not Baptist - which kind of illustrates the issue.

Glen Marshall said...

Andy (J) - you make my point well.

andy amoss said...

Not wishing to do my bitching and moaning in your domain, i've posted on my own. Take a peek if you fancy... http://narcissi-silly.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-denomination-would-jesus-be.html
(don't know if this link will work, if it doesn't click on my name above, and check the post 'What denomination would Jesus be?')