denominational

The Disease of Denominationalism (Or “Are we pagans doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?”)

July, 2006

I have been noticing a dangerous trend in the general pagan and Wiccan communities of late. And it is one that seriously needs to be addressed. When I became truly active in the pagan community some years ago, I began discussing this topic. I have written on it in the past as well. But recent events demonstrate to me that it is time to visit the topic again.


That trend, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, is the rise of denominational divides among pagans and Wiccans of various stripes. As a member of the clergy of the Correllian Nativist Church, one that is founded on principles of pagan unity, I am appalled by the idea that pagans, after all we have been through, can actually accuse someone of being “wrong”.


In the old days, when we hid from persecution, we were just happy for company. We didn’t care about the details of the beliefs of the people sharing our hiding spot. We were just glad we weren’t alone.


Out of that situation, several large pagan churches emerged. I will only mention the one I belong to by name. My fear is that any list would be incomplete and hurt someone through my ignorance. But again, we shared ideas and professed unity and loyalty and mutual respect to one another.


But now, I see the disease has entered our communities. That is why I urges our members to read these words and act.


Having been a student of the history of the Christian Church (hereafter referred to as “the Church”) is see certain parallels in the actions of contemporary pagans and the 2000 year history of the Church.


At this point, someone is probably standing up and screaming, “Objection…. Relevance!” At which point I would ask the judge (you, the reader, in this case) for a bit of latitude. I promise to demonstrate the relevance before we finish.


In the early years of the Church, its members were persecuted. They were often tortured and put to death for their faith. There were already differences of opinion in the Church within Biblical times. Peter and Paul debated several issues hotly. But there was still a sense of unity and community. The basic tenets of the early Church were few and broad. Once a person was initiated (baptized and/or confirmed), they were members of the community. They banded together from need and sought community rather than differences.


In spite of their differences, the Church grew and spread across the Mediterranean region of the world. Members continued to hide their faith from their neighbors and the authorities. They practiced and shared their faith in secret and they continued to seek the solace of fellows of the faith.


Over the next hundred or so years, however, the persecution slackened. Neighbors and government officials began to understand the new faith. It wasn’t yet accepted, but it was decreasingly rejected out of hand. It slowly, but surely, was managing to find a place in open society.


With the easing of persecution, open exchange began. The members began to notice differences in the way others practiced this new faith. These differences were slight and meaningless; but the differences were noticed nonetheless. At this early stage of life, the body was still weak and open to infection.


Then, something remarkable happened. The mother of the emperor of the Roman Empire converted to this new faith. Suddenly, the whole thing took on a new color. The Emperor Constantine officially allowed the Church to practice in public. In time, he went so far as to make it the official religion of the empire.


And that’s when it happened. That’s when the attitude of inclusion began to be replaced by one of exclusion. The Church had caught a disease that had splintered Judaism and several previous religions over the years – denominationalism had infected the Church.


Like many diseases, the early stages are subtle and hardly noticed by those infected. The first symptoms of this particular disease are the establishment of a budding orthodoxy and the silencing of the voices of those on the “fringe.” In our historical model, this was done with the Council of Bishops at Nicea. Granted, all that group managed to do, in the early stages of the disease, was establish a hierarchy within the Church and to exclude the voices of the Essenes and Gnostics by labeling them “heretics.” But the damage was done. And even then, the disease caused a break within the church between the Eastern and the Western Churches.


However small, and seemingly insignificant, these measures appear; the Church was clearly infected and the stage was set for a plague that would last for the next thousand or so years.


As the disease progresses, three things occur fairly quickly: First, the established orthodoxy becomes more and more dogmatic and more and more hierarchical; second, a missionary zeal rises within the infected body; and third, the persecution once directed from outside is redirected inward. We will look at each of these separately for a moment.


As the Church gained prominence in Southern Europe, it became more dogmatic. More and more, the “fringe” voices were silenced in favor of the growing orthodox views of the increasingly powerful central leadership. The debates begun in Jerusalem between Peter and Paul were ended with a “winner takes all” kind of attitude.


During the “missionary zeal” phase of the disease, the body is convinced of the “rightness” of its beliefs and the inherent “wrongness” of everything else. This leads members to proselytize, sometimes forcefully, anyone whose views or religious beliefs differ in any way from the new and growing orthodoxy.


Finally, the persecutions of the past are directed inward. During this “inquisition” phase, the disease is so ingrained in the body that it turns on itself in a vain attempt at homogony. The thought police of the time take the dogma of the leadership and use it as a litmus test for every member of the body. If anyone (even their own members) differs on any salient point, they are tortured or killed to remove the “heretical” voices and “purify” the faith.


These three phases continued, unchecked, for nearly a thousand years, until the disease actually broke the body into multiple parts. At this point, we have entered the alleged “reformation” phase of the disease. And it grows quickly and frighteningly from here.


During the reformation phase, the body splinters into any number of separate and independent parts. Each of these newly formed parts now progresses through the previous three phases of a growing dogma, missionary zeal, and inquisition. For another four hundred years (give or take), the Church continued to splinter into increasingly smaller and smaller groups. Each touted the rightness of their dogma while believing the others were doomed to their eternal punishment in some sort of celestial blast furnace.


We now enter the late Twentieth Century with the very real threat of open warfare among people that allege to follow the same basic religious theory. A growing number of members of all these groups look around in horror and recognize the disease for what it is. They realize there is a need for treatment of the body and they begin their search.


Over time, they found a treatment. They called the treatment “ecumenicalism”. Through the use of ecumenicalism, the members of various smaller groups of the Church sought to find a core faith and let the petty differences that led to the infestation be seen as “personal paths” that were acceptable within the broad framework of the core faith.


Many of you have by now realized how closely we pagans are related to this frightening story of plague and destruction. Many are even looking back over this story and trying to determine which phase is now infecting our community.


GOOD!


That is the entire point of this history lesson. We need to look at this story as a lesson. We need to apply the treatment now. If we see the infection for what it is and treat it now, we might avoid two thousand years of similar death, torture, horror, and destruction.


You may also have noticed I never used the word “cure.” That’s because there is no cure for this disease. As humans, we are all carriers. Within our egos, this germ grows with our individual need to be “right.” If we allow the germ to grow without treatment, our internal needs become externalized and we perceive differences as “wrong.”


This brings us to the key point of the ecumenical treatment of denominationalism – WE ARE ALL “RIGHT”!


Each one of us carries our own spark of the divine within us. We are all called into a personal relationship with the Divine. Whatever path we take or whatever labels we use; we are all obligated – in fact, we are hardwired – to find this relationship. It is at the very core of our nature.


We are not, however, obligated (or allowed) to choose anyone else’s path for them. As teachers, many of us accept responsibility for assisting others in finding their own personal paths; but we can never choose their path for them. We can guide, and teach, and even prod our students into the mysteries of our faith. But we can NEVER choose another person’s path for them. All we can ever hope, or indeed desire, to do is show them the first few steps. The rest, they must ultimately take on their own.


At this point, I could continue this sermon on ecumenicalism vs. denominationalism until I become a cure for insomnia. But I won’t!


I will, instead, leave it to YOU – the reader – to look around on your own. I will call on each person to look within themselves and at our community. Do YOU see these diseased attitudes growing? And if your answer is “yes”, what will YOU do to help treat them?


Or, are we pagans doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?


***


author bio:


By Rev. Terry Power