Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: When Congregations Leave Their Denominations

More and more, conservative congregations are choosing to leave liberal denominations. Rarely does the opposite occur with a liberal congregation withdrawing to unite with a more conservative denomination.

“I think conservative Christians generally take their faith seriously,” says Dr. Jeffry Marlett, an associate professor of religious studies at The College of Saint Rose in Ablany, N.Y. “They feel that it’s better to stand by their faith and not become conformed to the ways of the world, which is why you see conservative congregations leaving liberal denominations and not vice versa.”

In December 2006, parishioners of Truro Epsicopal Church in Fairfax, Va., voted overwhelmingly to sever ties with The Episcopal Church (TEC), igniting a hailstorm of controversy. While church leaders pointed to TEC’s gradual shift away from the traditional teachings of TEC on the authority of Scripture and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the core reasons for the disfellowship, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the election of Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003.

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“That was our wakeup call,” says Warren Thrasher, executive director of Truro. Starting in 2003 and continuing over the next few years, Truro leaders had a number of meetings with TEC officials in Virginia to resolve the issue of Robinson’s election and its implications for TEC’s teachings on marriage being between one woman and one man.

Then in mid-2006, the bishops elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as head of TEC in America. Schori said in a Time magazine interview shortly after her election that “Christ was a vehicle to the divine – that Jesus is not unique,” says Thrasher. “Basically, she expressed the universalistic view that all religions lead to God.”

A few months later, Truro, along with eight other congregations, withdrew from TEC and joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a mission initiative of the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

In today’s increasingly pluralistic society, Truro’s experience is not unique.

Losing Denominational Identity

While we hear more quickly these days about seemingly every church tiff no matter how small because of the numerous media outlets and social media, congregations leaving their denominations is nothing new. During the 19th century, Presbyterians split into northern and southern factions over the issue of slavery before the Civil War. More than a century elasped before the two halves reunited.

“We see it all through church history – these endless splits, mergers and reorganizations,” says Timothy Beal, Florence Harkness professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The splits always have to do with theology, property or worship practices.”

For the 21st century church, a loss of denominational identity has contributed to these separations.

“In the United States, these conservative congregations pulling out of mainline denominations are part of a broader issue relating to the loss of denominational identity and coherence generally,” says Douglas Jacobsen, distinguished professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. “Both liberal and conservative denominations across the board don’t have the kind of loyalty or connectiveness with their congregations that they had 20 or 30 years ago.”

Part of that loss comes from the decrease in ethnic ties to certain denominations. “Denominational identity has become less connected to family identity, which means people no longer belong to the same denomination as their parents or grandparents,” says Beal.

The trend toward innocuous, non-denominational names for churches – even if the congregation belongs to a denomination – also is loosening the national identity of denominations. “Denominational labels are seen as pushing people away and a non-denominational name is seen as more embracing,” says Jacobsen.

Forging a New Identity

For many Christians, denominations do not have the same meaning or place in their lives as they did in the 20th century. Thus, when a congregation leaves its denomination, most become non-denominational either permanently or for a time.

“You don’t often see one congregation pulling out of one and going immediately into another except perhaps in Presbyterian circles moving from the Presbyterian Church USA to the Presbyterian Church in America, or TEC, which has to be under a bishop’s authority,” says Jacobsen.

No matter where the congregation decides to go, the transition out of a denomination can be rocky because of the issues of doctrine, property and worship styles. For Truro, the decision to leave TEC and go into the CANA has not been easy. TEC sued Truro over its property, and Truro has been ensnared in litigation for years, which has taken a toll on the congregation.

“It’s been a huge distraction from our ministry and costly for the congregation in terms of time and money,” says Thrasher. This fall, a ruling by the Fairfax Circuit Court on to whom the property belongs is expected. Until then, Truro continues its ministry and hopes for the best.

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