Church denominations are muddly — and muddy, and kind of of icky. Like sheep, maybe — sheep in the rain in Melbourne. And I come from the City of Churches, the place where all denominations were first allowed to roam free in Australia. Baa.
Fuzzy woollen things
I’ve always had a tension with church denominations. I grew up in the Uniting Church but, as the denomination was pulling itself apart, my Mum moved to an Anglican church while my Dad stayed and worked with reforming and confessing groups. I went to a Lutheran high school which expressed quite a lively faith but then experienced an inward-looking Lutheran university group. These days, if I’m anywhere, I’m in the Anglican Church (loath though I am to admit it), which I was attached to through my church for the past eight years. Now our theological college is Anglican and even our beloved “evo-presby-bapticostal” church in Melbourne is at least formally Anglican. Anglicanism is built on a formidable collection of great Christian traditions yet, despite my occasional pretence that it is the natural home of ‘thinking Christians’, I’ve not often perceived Anglicans to be newly living out those traditions rather than just rehearsing them.
Now the future of denominations is on the line, in some ways. The strategic significance of parachurch and mission groups has increased with the spread of modern features like urban living and universities. Church planting networks, freeing themselves from established institutions, have taken up the growth of the local church. Emerging/emergent Christians (what’s the difference again?) are reimagining Christian living and witness. Meanwhile, denominations themselves have been fracturing around the world; some people are trying to reunite under confessional statements. For me, the only place I’ve ever felt at home is in interdenominational university groups, with at least the appearance of unity in diversity.
Is there still a place for denominations? In spite of everything — the gross corruption, the deep disagreements, the loved and loathed cultural quirks — denominations and their local churches remain the basic fabric of Christian community and witness. That’s where God’s people gather to encourage and challenge each other to live for Jesus. Today, denominations are still ultimately where church happens. They also remain the ministry networks with the deepest roots and broadest reach.
But this reveals another tension for me. Both Tamie and I are, first and foremost, teachers and trainers; our main gifts lie in that area. While we are certainly drawn towards university ministry, we’re not drawn towards church leadership. So we find that ministry for us is not turning out to be church ministry but parachurch ministry: tag-teaming with the local church. How does that work, though? If parachurch ministries are not the church, how do they fit in and interact with denominations?
As it turns out, I’m now in what’s called the ‘Year of Discernment’, a year of formally considering ordination in the Anglican Church. Within the Anglican Church, and here at Ridley Melbourne, the drive and the natural direction is towards parish (local church) ministry — which is entirely understandable, because that’s fundamental ministry! On Wednesday night, though, one of the YOD presentations focused on deacons in the Anglican Church. The role of deacon is one of outreach. As things go in Anglicanism, a priest (local church leader) is meant to gather and send out people for worship, while a deacon gathers and sends out people for service and interaction with the world. Deacons are therefore the messengers and bridges between the church and the world, encouraging others to do the same.
If I’m to do parachurch work, there needs to be some kind of place within a denomination for that. The encouraging thing from Wednesday night is that, as my ministry direction works out, I can at least describe and affirm my future roles in Anglican terms: parachurch work means deacons. And despite the icky woollen feel of this, I find that having that spot in the herd is still a step forward on the journey.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.