I recently had a interesting conversation with a Episcopalian about the need for “membership” in a church. His argument (I think) was that if a church has official members, it creates an “us vs. them” mentality. I think he’s probably right, but I wonder if that’s bad. Let me explain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up.
He was trying to convince me that I would be welcome “in his church,” which I took to mean, as a member. As a member of the Johannite Gnostic clergy, I thought this would be unlikely. This began the fundamental misunderstanding on both our parts. After some circular discussion I finally realized what he was actually trying to tell me. I would be welcome to attend mass and take communion at his parish. Great! I’ve done so at Episcopalian churches before, and he would also be welcome to do the same at my parish. His parish, as it turns out, doesn’t have any formal membership process at all. People are welcome to come and go as they feel the need to, and that’s just fine. (I should be clear that he wasn’t talking about his entire denomination, as I’m positive that the Episcopal Church does, indeed, have members.)
The Johannite Church, on the other hand, does have members, and I think that the option to become a member is spiritually useful. I also think it creates an “us” and a “them” but I can’t find too many reasons to think that’s a detriment. Yes, that kind of thing can be abused, and has been in the past, but I don’t think that’s something we do. Our membership procedures are extremely loose. At this point there is no formal process, and each parish does it slightly differently. Members in our church are not required to “renounce” their membership in other churches, or anything else, for that matter. Membership is self-selecting, and the only commitment you make to become a member is to yourself. If your path takes you elsewhere go, with my blessing. Also, our church doesn’t require membership to participate in our sacraments (with the possible exception of Holy Orders, but even that is unclear logistically). A non-member can fully participate in the life of the AJC as much or as little as s/he wants.
My problem with the “no members” model is that there is very little middle ground for the laity. You either go to mass on Sundays or you train to become clergy. Now, I realize that this is overly simplistic, but it seems to me that the “community” aspects of a church with no members would have to be transitory by their very nature. To me, the very word “church” implies a dedicated family of believers. A religious institution that has no method of formally affiliating is not much more than a community center.
It’s not that I don’t think there is a need for exactly that kind of institution. I think there is a perfectly viable niche for a non-denominational, Christian, feel-good, drop-in-when-you-need-to social club. I would just call it something other than “church.”
I’m sure I’ve created a strawman of this particular argument. I’m positive I misrepresented the reality of this particular parish. I’ll be sharing this post with the person who inspired it, with the hope that he understands that the conversation was merely a jumping-off-point for these ideas. I will be sure to post any comments he would like to make, and hopefully we can have an interesting dialogue.