Alex Wagner is a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying accounting. He was born and raised in the Catholic Church but decided to seek out a different church due to problems with their positions on gender and sexuality, as well as what he perceived to an increasingly lower priority given to economic justice. He is currently active in the Lutheran Campus Center in Madison.
Although I agree that denominations are helpful and even necessary, I think that there are too many of them (especially in the mainline) and it can be very confusing to people. Where do you even start and what are the differences and similarities between the PCUSA, UCC, UMC, TEC, and ELCA?
The distinctions may have been sharper during the time our parents were growing up. At this point, most people don’t join mainline churches specifically because of the “brand name,” but rather they join them because of the mission of the church, or the worship style, or whatever. Denominations can be a good guide to what you can expect at a particular church, but they can also muddy the waters and make churches seem a lot more different from each other than they really are in many cases. Thus, I would like to present my radical 3 point realignment plan that will probably never happen, but I think it should happen.
1. Merge the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This would bring the two biggest mainline churches in the Reformed tradition under one umbrella. My experience with these churches, as well as what I have read about them, indicates that they are very similar in beliefs and worship style, and may benefit from consolidating and sharing resources. There is actually a precedent for this: In Canada, their versions of the PCUSA and UCC merged—in 1925. Any merging/closing of individual congregations should be left up to local leaders. To the extent that there are subtle differences between the PCUSA and UCC, celebrate them and continue them in individual churches. Just merge the administrative structure and don’t perpetuate unnecessary divisions.
2. Since the United Methodist Church seems to be bigger and healthier right now, I might leave them alone, plus I don’t know what to do with them anyway. They seem to be kind of a middle ground between the Reformed traditions and the “un-Reformed” liturgical churches. I would note that the Methodist Church of Canada was also part of that 1925 merger, so that could be an option here as well.
3. Perhaps my most radical move of all would be to essentially dissolve the Episcopal Church. The most conservative congregations of TEC might join Pope Benedict’s new ordinariate in the Catholic Church. A few others might not want to go that far, but might opt for the ACNA or the Southern Cone. The rest of TEC could stop pretending to be “Anglo-Catholics” and could once and for all embrace the fact that you have essentially evolved into being British Lutherans. While I wouldn’t want to belittle the opinions of those who believe otherwise, my impression is that some people in both TEC and ELCA exaggerate the differences between the two churches, and don’t appreciate how similar they seem to someone who is not a “cradle” Episcopalian or Lutheran.
So, sorry, Alissa, I would get rid of TEC but it is only because I love you and your Episcopal compatriots so much that I want to welcome you into the ELCA. You should keep the BCP and hymnal and “high church” liturgy and having the Eucharist as part of worship every Sunday. (Some ELCA churches only do it every other week, but I actually think it should be every week anyway.) The distinctive Anglican rites, prayers, hymns, architecture, and ways of thinking would enrich the ELCA immensely, and could even be incorporated into other Lutheran churches when desired. Conversely, I think those Anglican traditions would have a much better chance of surviving long-term if they were part of a less dysfunctional national church.
This way, instead of having the confusing “alphabet soup,” we’d now have three big mainline denominations: the Reformed, the Methodist “middle way,” and a united Anglican/Lutheran bundle of liturgical awesomeness. Unchurched people and people leaving Catholic or evangelical churches would have a much clearer idea of what to expect when exploring mainline churches. Even though this radical plan may never become a reality, my hope is that cooperation among mainline churches and their members will only continue to increase.