Localized versus Centralized -- questions of practical church polity

Does progress take place in the church from the top down or the bottom up?  Is localism or centralism the hope of the future?  What is it that links us together?  These are some the ecclesiastical questions that come up regularly in our common discussions. 

I grew up Episcopalian, which in theory is a highly connectional tradition.  But, of course, the American church has strong democratic elements that aren't present in other parts of the church (see Diana Butler Bass's recent piece in the Huffington Post).  This can be good or bad, of course, depending on your perspective and on the issue at hand.

I happen to be part of a rather loose fellowship of churches joined together in covenant relationship -- we use the word covenant to define our relationship with entities beyond the local congregation.  We're congregationalists in many ways, and yet we seek to be more than mere congregationalists (at least some of us desire for this to be true).  Keith Watkins, who like me, is part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has written a piece that deserves some attention.  Keith, who is the father of the current General Minister and President of the Disciples -- Sharon Watkins, points us to an article that looks at the current crisis within the Anglican communion, especially as it relates to the ordination as bishop, Mary Glasspool, who is a Lesbian.  

Keith considers the question brought up by an article in the Anglican Theological Review, that asks:   "Have 'the Congregationalists Won?'"  Keith writes sympathetically about the concerns by many that the connectional systems are breaking down and churches are doing their own thing -- if they don't like what they see, they walk.  Keith notes that in many cases the Localists are not pushing for change, they want things to stay the same.   Keith, is of course, a Disciple and he prefers a bit looser polity than the Episcopal community allows, but he wonders:

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.
The problem is that covenantal understandings of our ecclesiastical relationships can be tenuous, subject to the degradations of our own perspectives. 

So, how do we wrestle with the issues of the day without falling prey to a coercive centralism or the tyranny of the local?    And, by the same token, how do we maintain the unity of the body of Christ in the midst of this conversation? 

I invite you to read the entire piece on Keith's blog and engage in a conversation both there and here. 


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