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Parish or Sect

Started by Mark Brown, August 06, 2020, 01:02:24 PM

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Mark Brown

This article is by a parish priest in England (CoE).  I found it fascinating and maybe more applicable to LCMS life than people might think, or at least the tensions.

Here is the nut I would say.
QuoteThe parish priest, protected by the rules of incumbency, is the very model of subsidiarity — the bishop has lots of moral authority within a parish, but much less actual authority than many imagine. This means that a bishop is not able to sack clergy with whom he disagrees with theologically. These ancient terms of employment were historically the basis for academic tenure, and exist for the same reason: to maintain a diversity of thought, highly necessary in such a broad theological coalition as the Church of England.

But the downside of these structures is that ineffective clergy are often impossible to remove. Changes in some parishes can only come about through death or retirement. In other words, the traditional structures of the Church of England emphasise stability and subsidiarity, but not necessarily the energy and dynamism required for missionary zeal. And given that these structures are lodged in the law of the land, it is almost impossible to change them. That is why those who want to start a theological revolution from within the Church of England often find they have to leave it to bring about their vision — see Methodism.

Now transplanting that from an established church situation to the American field is interesting.  I made a comment elsewhere about my daughter specifically, but about my kids in general.  The gist of it was "Yes, I'd love to have all my kids be lifelong Lutherans, for I believe that is the truth of the faith best expressed.  I think they will have a hard time getting away from it.  But, looking at reality, I'd would happily take a family of Latin Mass Catholics rather than have them ripped away from the church."  The response was two fold: 1) Those who fully understood what I was saying and 2) Those who questioned my ability to be Pastor if I would make such a statement.

I bring that up to talk about some of the differences between the field.  The article details how the CoE has stripped the parishes to establish what is essentially a sect.  In the United States this was accomplished through Worship Style as the the Non-Denoms and their imitators strip mined the local parishes.  But in the US there is another sectarian force that the established churches of England don't really deal with.  My phrase is that it isn't the theology that has failed, but the sociology.  The only reason I would make my statement above is that I have clear eyes as to the overall health of the Lutheran Church.  There are lots of things that are not of the essence of the church but are for her good, and many congregations are below the point that they can effectively provide any of those goods.  For example, eligible men.  The sectarian response is that my statement is heretical and almost disqualifying because our church of 30 provides all the essentials.  And this might be true, but it also just leaves the sheep open to wolves of every kind in important ways.  To avoid being a sect, a diminishing one at that, would require figuring out how to address the sociology, which a parish traditionally did.  The established church doesn't deal with this, because it doesn't necessarily pit congregation against congregation.  We do.  Which is why we don't (address the sociology).

Our congregationalism, which can be a very good thing, right now is what pushes toward being a sect.  And I'm pretty sure, other than death and retirement, there isn't a way to address it.



I've read your comment through twice and I still and quite sure I do not understand what you are saying. Can you put this into lingo that I might be able to get?

Mark Brown

I'll try.  First I'd say that there are the things that are of the essence of the church.  A church that does nothing other than proclaim the gospel is still an outpost of the church.  We might label most of these things "theology".  There are lots of things that are for the good of the church, but not of the essence.  You could have a lot going on, but not be a church if you miss the gospel, but just because they aren't necessary doesn't mean they aren't good.  I'd label most of these things sociology.  For example, having enough people of the appropriate ages that marriage within the fold is possible is a good thing.  There are lots of others.  The key thing to realize here is that the LCMS as an institution in places like I serve I believe meets the first, but being honest not the second.  All those stories of the generation passing that met at "Walther League", just not possible.  It is not the theology that has failed, but the sociology.  Call it the church at Philadelphia problem.

Ok, the second part of this is why has the sociology failed?  There are lots of answers.  One of them is what happened in the late '80s to the '00s, the strip-mining of denominational churches, usually over worship style, toward non-denoms and those that mimic them.  These places are essentially sects in that their theology is not shared beyond their walls.  They don't play by any rules other than their own.  In the article it appears that the CoE is trying to build these now, the same way that many of ours were built by "scaffolding" from the old parish structure.  But the CoE has one advantage, they are parishes and not pure congregations.  In my experience, we all recognize that we are unable to supply or encourage a good sociology.  And that it would be to our benefit to develop some type of institutional response to that.  But we can't because in our pure congregational structure there is pull toward being a sect from within.  I trumpet my orthodoxy, i.e. I talk a lot about supplying the essence of a church, Lutheran distinctives. And I shy away from any larger "parish" activity that might help with the sociology, because we are all in competition.  The CoE doesn't have that competition element.  But we do.  And it keep us, absent retirements and deaths, from any real institutional response to the failure of the sociology.

Any attempt to re-build a church - not a sect, but a church - that takes its responsibility to serve an area - parishes - is going to have to address that.  Philadelphia doesn't close, but it isn't exactly thriving either.


Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the effort at explicating. I think part of the problem for me is that it's not my own lived experience. Each Sunday I get to attend (and often assist at) the Lutheran Mass celebrated with a maximal of traditional Lutheran ceremonial and mining the richness of Lutheran Church music. My children are all married to Lutherans (eldest daughter married son of a parish in a town to our south by about 15-20 miles; son married daughter of parish directly to our south by about 10 miles; youngest daughter married son of a WELS pastor, who since became LCMS and are members of a parish about 2 hours south of us) and my nine grandchildren are being raised within the Church. Sociologically, in my experience at any rate, the Synod is still "on track." I work for an organization that has aimed from its getgo at supporting the "esse" and expanding the "bene" of the Church—LPR offers 24 hour a day Lutheran music; 24 hour a day talk radio; and my own 15 minute a day verse by verse Bible Study. It's part of a valiant effort to provide a bit of that Lutheran sociological advantage out in the diaspora. So putting myself into your shoes is rather hard for me; and I appreciate the effort you put forth to allow me get a read of what you were talking about. P.S. I mentioned you in an Issues show a couple days ago, on Thy Strong Word. Franzmann only wrote 4 stanzas originally! It was expanded to the six at the request of Buszin to cover the longer processional needed at seminary.

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