“We Just Want to Be Christians” — How do we react to the movement away from ‘denominational loyalty’?

An abbreviated and slightly updated version of a paper by Simon Barrow given to a CTE County Ecumenical Officers’ Conference, also drawing on some elements from the discussion that followed.


The title (a given one) introduces us to all kinds of interesting paradoxes and possibilities. Which takes precedence, for example – “we just want” or “to be Christians”?  There is a sense in which we might rightly wonder whether the emotivism and voluntarism of post-modern culture (summed up in the plea “I want”) isn’t severely contradictory of a historic notion of “being Christian” which involves baptism into a community, not just an individual experience. Similarly, what might the relationship be between “want” (as understood by the human subject) and “need” as accounted for within the Christian tradition?

On this basis it would not be too hard to come up with a pessimistic analysis about the antithesis between Christian faith and contemporary culture. This in turn could buttress existing prejudices – which might tell us that if the churches are struggling and the received traditions failing, it is the fault of someone or something else.

But a different construction is also possible. “We just want” and “to be Christian” can be seen as in fruitful dialogue too. What many contemporary (especially young) people are saying is that they do want to be Christian, but they do no want to be superseded or overwritten in the process. They wish to be recognised and included. Moreover, they do not automatically see “being Christian” as subscribing to a set of rules, conventions and dynamics prescribed by a kind of factionalism which the pious baptise as denominationalism (a term which, of course, we oft apply to others – “we are a church, you are a denomination”).

My perception suggests that there is truth in both these “readings” of this phrase. There is both healthy protest against the tribalism of Christian traditions, and me-istic protest against the idea that incorporation into a believing community might entail circumscribing our autonomy.

Our subtitle also poses interesting questions about what “denominational loyalty” might involve, and how we might discern when that was healthy and when less healthy. When enriching diversity becomes factionalism or vice versa, for example.

Additionally, we cannot avoid noticing that many, many people, when confronted with the actuality of church life and belief, are not saying, “We just want to be Christian”. They are saying something that is both more and different: “we just want to be spiritual”. And that does not mean “religious” any more than it means “Christian”, let it be noted. Those who follow the work of David Hay and others and then seek to baptise the new post-modern spiritual quest may be misunderstanding a phenomenon that is able to be much more “secular” than faith language allows.


But leaving that aside for the moment, let’s start with the movement beyond a primary identity defined in terms of denominational allegiance (as I would prefer to rephrase the matter).

All typologies are limited, and they pose as many questions as they resolve, but I would suggest that we could helpfully reflect on six categories of persons who are, as I would put it, “transgressing” the established rules of much of the church game – and who might have something to teach us about how to be church in a period of massive transition. I stress that these categories are dynamic rather than fixed, that they are simply a way of picturing diversity, and that there is considerable overlap (and movement) between them.

1. People who define themselves more by a confessional tradition than by a denominational label. For such people it is more important to be considered to be authentically evangelical, catholic or radical (say) than to be Anglican, Baptist, Reformed, RC or whatever. The defining question is “which is the most evangelistic / sacramental / socially engaged church around here?”

2. Non-, un- or post- and new-denominational churches. The most obvious are “new”, “house” and “charismatic” congregations – and alliances of self-forming churches – which are a conscious reaction against historic denominationalism, sometimes arise from splits within it, and see the “old pattern” as conforming or dead. Of course we may want to argue that these such churches often replicate the patterns they claim to dismiss (because of the inevitability of institutionalisation, or what Weber called “the routinisation of charisma”), but the fact remains that such churches have been attracting many, especially young, people.  The question about where Black church experience fits in to this picture is also an interesting and lively one! Indeed maybe the idea that it can or should “fit in” is precisely the problem white majority churches have… Many new churches are very conservative in their theological thinking and are therefore less adaptive than they may think.

3. First- or second-generation ecumenical Christians. That is, people for whom ecumenical commitment (for example through a Local Ecumenical Project) becomes more important as a “way of being Christian” than belonging to a mainline church. Children and friends of LEP attenders often come into this category, as do “ecumenical migrators” who seek something “beyond” established denominational patterns and boundaries.

4. New forms or ways of being church. I am thinking here of “base community” type models, of estate or transitory congregations formed across or between existing denominational forms. Also experiments like ‘Holy Joes’ (above a pub in Clapham) and elements of what Peter Ward is calling ‘liquid church’… emerging and disolving in different ways in the post-modern cultural mix.  See New Way of Being Church and the Prodigal Project.

5. Those with a primary allegiance to a denomination, but who also define themselves in other ways – and who may come to see their denomination from a perspective of critical loyalty or dissent.  Consider the following example: “I have been an Anglican for 40 years. In the mid 80s I attended a Methodist church (for a year) and was involved in an ecumenical base congregation (for three). I have attended an inter-denominational theological college and have been on the staff of a Roman Catholic one. I married my wife, a Mennonite who became an Episcopalian, in a URC church. I am a member of the Church of England, work for an ecumenical body and occasionally attend Quaker meeting.” [I’ll leave you to wonder who that might be!]

6. Those involved in trans-denominational experiments. Examples here would include the Anabaptist Network, Pilgrimage to Orthodoxy and those who form pressure groups, often with an informal worshipping core, around common faith causes – in relation to women’s issues, peace and justice concerns, human sexuality and so on.

7. Christians who don’t go to church. There are an increasing number of peopel who identify with the Christian cause but have given up on church. They use networks of friends and campaigns as a means of meeting and exercising spiritual needs and instincts. See the research in New Zealand by Alan Jamieson.

No doubt you can modify and add to this list from your own experience. Such phenomena are notoriously difficult to quantify, but they represent (in different ways and at different times) a genuine challenge to, and opportunity for, traditional ways of “being church.”


What, then, are the questions for the churches and for the ecumenical process that emerge from those who are transgressing established forms? They are legion. I offer the following as a starter.

· Are “denominations” inextricably bound up with a dying form of church-as-polis defined by the imperial history of Christendom?  That is, are traditional churches trapped in a territorial, hegemonic way of being church that seeks to “frame” or “shape” wider society in a way that, for a plural age, is increasingly untenable and unacceptable?

Note that this is not just a question about “establishment” (be it of the Church of England or Roman Catholic varieties), for as Loren B Meade of the Alban Institute in the US has argued, “free” churches are usually as defined by this paradigm, even in opposition to it, as others.  The alternatives to the Christendom model are many. They include both a “sectarian” approach and a more engaged understanding of church as an incarnational, creative minority both collaborating with (and countering, as the need arises) other movements and institutions.

· How do we discover appropriate balances and checks between institutionalisation (necessary for the furtherance of a cause, an idea and a life-community) with prophecy (necessary to ensure that the institutions do not atrophy, lose contact with society, and routinise the Spirit of God)?

· How do we engage with the different mindset and assumptions of Generation X, Y and beyond? (In particular, can we move away from models of church based on the ‘bounded set’, where boundaries become primary, to dynamic relational ones where direction, trajectory and proximity are more important than “who’s in and who’s out”?

· Can we discover fruitful patterns of relating those who “just want to be Christians” and those who “just want to be spiritual”?  (See the 1997 report of the Mission Theology Advisory Group, The Search for faith and the Witness of the Church, CHP.)

· How do we handle diversity? This is a core theological issue. Ecclesial and doctrinal order needs to be re-thought as part of a changing understanding of authority. “Political control” should not be what they are about.  The general ways in which the world handles difference are: competition, chaos, conflict and contract or cooperation. Can the church find ways of modelling its call to promote and practice something that moves beyond these towards communion (unity in diversity)?  See also: Peter Selby, BeLonging – challenge to a tribal church (SPCK, 1995).

· Is the move beyond primary denominational loyalty a lay-v-clergy phenomenon?  It is certainly practiced more by lay people. It would be a great shame if this were allowed to perpetuate another form of dualism in the life of the church. Clergy are often gatekeepers for the received forms, lay people sometimes challengers from the margins. What are the ways of creating synergy across this spectrum?

· Can we bring together different ways of seeing, doing and experiencing church?  To use a controversial example, the theological and ecclesiological issue of inter-communion is understood remarkably differently from different locations. Those concerned with church order are apt to see it as a result of unity, not a means towards it. Those concerned with grassroots faith often perceive lack of inter-communion as divisive or even sinful from a missionary perspective. The “official” debates have to acknowledge the existence of different practices and perceptions, and the fact that they may be both theologically rounded and seeking to be loyal to essential elements of the Gospel.

· What is it in the tradition of faith and ecclesiology which allows it to change? What is it in a changing climate that offers the possibility of a new kind of faithfulness?  These questions rest alongside important ones about how solidarity, safety and memory can be promoted in an age where these things are apt to be obliterated. The resistance of our churches to change can be a gift as well as a problem.

· How do we respond to the wants and needs of people in our culture without capitulating to neo-pious selfishness, or turning the church into a substitute for (rather than a sacrament of) the kingdom, or commonwealth, of God?

· Where and how does the “movement” bit of the ecumenical movement relate to the “churches together” model, which could be seen as giving a natural priority to the status quo in terms of church polity?


We need to be clear about the nature of the questions before us. They are radical, but they are not necessarily revolutionary (in the sense of requiring our churches simply to ditch existing forms). Put rather blandly, the challenge is to re-formulate the practice and theology of church by drawing together the best of both the past and the present – Jesus’ “old and new” from the storehouse, as St Matthew reminds us.

This is a missionary challenge; mission being, as the post-evangelical Mike Riddell puts it (Threshold of the Future, SPCK 1998), “always a move away from ourselves towards others”. And therefore, I would add, a rediscovery of ourselves.  What we need, I would suggest, is:

· Re-thinking, within our churches and ecumenically – which includes joining the mission and ecclesiology questions which are so often fractured. That question ‘what is it within the tradition that gives it permission to change?’ may be especially important in facing the theological challenges of the present and future without selling short the inheritance of the past. We cannot, pace some forms of contemporary literary practice, give up on hermeneutics without giving up on hope.

· Experimentation, perhaps through the occasional suspension of “usual ways of working” to see how church ways and forms, old and new, can be made to work together in fresh and imaginative ways in a changing world.  [Building Bridges of Hope]

· Creative space, in which to make use of the diversity we experience. Konrad Raiser (Ecumenism in Transition, WCC) is promoting the metaphors of  “the household” and of “ecumenical space” as a way of describing the “regulated pluralism” which might both characterise pilgrim churches crossing the threshold of the future and also provide a way of thinking about the contribution of the churches to a religiously, socially, politically and economically plural society. This way of thinking has tended to be formulated in Protestant terms so far. But if we move from space to time then it rapidly evokes a Catholic ecclesiology, too.

I have said nothing about Orthodox perspectives in this paper. These largely reject the notion that the church can be ‘renewed’ as a misunderstanding of the nature of the church as given. The issue is faithfulness or not to the given. But Archpriest Vladimir Fedorov (Orthodox Research Institute of Missiology and Ecumenism, St Petersburg) is among those who are challenging Orthodoxy within on, among other things, the kind of questions raised in this paper.

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