Have “the Congregationalists” Won?

The recent consecration of Mary Glasspool to the office of bishop in the Episcopal Church is one more threat to the connectional system that binds the Anglican Communion together. For many Anglicans the fact that a woman is ordained is cause enough for deep distress. The fact that this new bishop lives in a same-sex partnership compounds the challenge and calls into question whether the connections that hold the Anglican Communion together will be strong enoughto accomplish their purpose.

These developments in a tightly connected system have been especially interesting to me because I work and worship in as loosely connected a church as one can find—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Despite my church’s witness for Christian unity, this communion has for more than 200 years been marked by fractures, schisms, and the gradual drifting apart that leads to full separation.

The debate in the Episcopal Church, theologian Ellen K. Wondra wrote in 2005, is concerned with perennial tensions in the understanding of the church: “tensions between unity and diversity, and between autonomy and communion.” The recommendations by an international commission of the Anglican Communion referred to “instruments of unity,” systems that give “clear priority to unity over diversity, to community over autonomy, and to centralization of authority at the international level.”

While acknowledging the need for stronger instruments of unity, Wondra gives even stronger support to processes that would help her church discern God’s actions in the world and “especially how God is offering us direction and guidance through ideas and events and practice that we find more frequently outside the church than we do inside it.”

The tensions that Wondra describes are felt across the full spectrum of churches, and the tendencies today seem to favor splitting up rather than staying together. In a conference on religion in the Pacific Northwest  (see my column dated May 24), historian Patricia O’Connell Killen declared that “the congregationalists have won,” by which she meant that regardless of the formal polity of a communion, the power of the local church seems to win the battles.

Wondra implies that in the gender-based debates, the move away from central control encourages the development of new understandings of the church. Important developments in church life, including the acceptance of divorced people and the ordination of women, have come from congregations and dioceses that stretched, perhaps defied, the norms of their ecclesial families.

The movement toward the local, however, is often inspired and empowered by people who are determined to preserve an existing church culture rather than open it to the new, as is seen in many of the parishes now leaving their dioceses. I am inclined to believe that Killen’s congregationalists—perhaps localists is a better word—have more often held back progress and that new ideas and incentives to try them have tended to come from the more connected parts of ecclesial networks.

For me, and for many other people in the churches, the apparent victory of the localists is therefore not a happy development. It means that the gospel and its implications for life in the world are more likely to be no larger than what we and the people immediately around us are able or willing to understand and accept.

Throughout the church’s history, one resolution to this problem has been expressed by the idea of covenant. We bind ourselves to one another with promises of respect and loyalty. Our mutual allegiance to a common center—faith in Christ, commitment to the Scriptures, shared history—is declared to be enough to keep us together despite the strains that come over time.

Unfortunately, the determination to be correct, and to insist that others live according to our understanding of correctness, constantly puts covenantal relations to the test. Even when connectional systems—the instruments of unity—reinforce the covenants, the center may not hold. I am too much the congregationalist, however, to encourage the strengthening of the systems of control. Is not the better course of action to focus our energy upon reaffirming the theological center that empowers the covenant? And to engage in open, vigorous, principled discussions at every level of church life?

Wondra concludes her address with the prayer that this kind of discussion will strengthen the “bonds of affection” that maintain “the cohesion” of her church.” My prayer is that this same kind of conversation will persuade us all “to be united in the same mind and purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10).

Ellen K. Wondra’s address “The Highest Degree of Communion Possible,” is published in Anglican Theological Review 87/2 (Spring 2005), 136-206).

2 Responses to Have “the Congregationalists” Won?

  1. Bob Cornwall says:


    Thank you for this meditation. As Disciples the local does seem to always come first, and too often we just go to our rooms and ignore the rest of the church if we don’t like this or that. Our connections are week, but they seem almost as week in much more connectional systems.

    What I appreciate here is that you name localism as resistance to progress, rather than being innovative. So, may we listen to our brothers and sisters outside the local domain, and seek to be of one purpose and mind!

  2. I am currently in the midst of a devestating battle of “centralism” vs. “localism” in an ELCA congregation, so your posts come at an opportune time.
    Seems both can have their positives and negatives, as can the spectrum of “liberal/progessive” vs. “conservative/status quo.” Perhaps what is more at work is an interrelated dynamic of these two spectrums rather than any simple linear polarity. That is, local vs. central on one axis, and “progressive” vs. “conservative” on the other, forming quadrants. Even then I’m not sure we can ‘always’ name any particular quadrant as helpful or hurtful. There are times the church–local or central–needs to hold the status quo, and there are times it needs to be moved out of its status quo.

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