Beyond the Denominational Lines

The Episcopal Church ShieldAt our recent meeting of the NAES Governing Board, Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio made the observation that, increasingly, the Episcopal Church is exploring the non-denominational character of our church. That astute comment led me to wonder if we are in fact witnessing in some way the breaking down of most denominational lines in America today.

The past few days I have been doing some research at a Roman Catholic high school for an upcoming book I am writing. It turns out that this particular school has a student body that is predominantly non-Catholic, something that may come as a shock to many people who have not been keeping up with the dramatic changes that have been taking place in Catholic education, not to mention the Catholic Church. Many of the applicants to this school come from conservative Christian—including many Baptist—churches. How could this be? Baptist students studying the Catholic view of sacraments as prescribed by the new curricular standards for Catholic schools put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops? It may seem hard to believe.

School officials would point to the fact that Baptist and other conservative Christian families see in this school a place that welcomes the study of religion, worship, and conversation about God, all things not necessarily or commonly found in many other schools, public or private. They might also see there a school that stands for and tries to inculcate values, strives for academic rigor, shows a pastoral care for their children, and is also – not the least — a safe place. In many cases, these appealing features to a school trump any type of denominational barriers for an increasing number of parents.

Many Episcopal schools have similar features that appeal to non-Episcopal, indeed non-Christian families. For some, the assumption is that parents will tolerate anything or everything that makes it an Episcopal school in their search for academic excellence, emphasis upon character education, and a sense of safety. For others the Episcopal aspect of the life of the school simply does not matter. As is so often the case, many of these families will discover by surprise the deep value of an Episcopal school once they are a part of the community.

We see this change in attitude toward denominations in so many venues and trends. During a recent visit to Denver, a friend pointed out to me just how many churches advertised the name of the church, but in much smaller letters noted the denomination with which it was affiliated. Other churches are proud of promoting themselves as being completely independent of denominational links, hoping to be of appeal to those who seek spiritual sustenance without the overtones of “organized religion.” 

Statistics point to an ever-increasing number of couples who marry across religious or denominational lines, not to mention the growing number of observant religious people who are willing to change denomination or tradition in order to find a context or practice that they find appealing or meaningful. What’s more, anyone who has worked with college students in more recent years knows that the particular denominational affiliation of a given church means very little to those students who are willing to buck the cultural trends and attend a church or the college chapel.

These blurring of denominational lines have great implications for Episcopal schools. On the one hand, our emphasis upon inclusivity can serve as a welcome and a haven for many families where parents come from different religious backgrounds yet still want a religious emphasis in their children’s school. Our traditional role as a “bridge” between Protestantism and Catholicism has traditionally served for many as welcome meeting ground and in the years ahead that bridge may be linking even more traditions together.

I speak as one who crossed denominational lines to become an Episcopalian, as well as one who deeply loves what this denomination has always stood for and now courageously embodies on so many theological and ethical fronts. Certainly I would hate to see its identity completely blurred by a cultural trend toward eschewing any institutional affiliations. What we may be doing more of, in the future, both in our churches as well as in our schools, is talking more about the “Episcopal way,” as opposed to the “Episcopal denomination.” I would not want to see us speaking solely out of a denominational framework to a culture that no longer cares much at all about the notion of denominations. At the same time, our practices, our way of doing things, are too precious to lose.

I would also venture to say that the way we do things – the Episcopal way — is something that will be deeply needed on the religious landscape in the future, whether or not we have denominations and no matter how blurred and fluctuating that landscape might turn out to be.