Christian teaching has often emphasisted the importance of getting our beliefs right.

It began with the early Church’s claims about Jesus, and was accentuated in the sixteenth century Reformation debates. Modern religions generally define themselves by what they believe and what they do. On the other hand sociologists have pointed out the importance of belonging, regardless of the believing.

In practice we are a diverse bunch. Some people are naturally inclined to blue skies thinking about the nature of God and the spiritual life, and a thriving church will contain some of them; but it will contain far more people who would rather clean the floor, fill in the forms or visit the sick, leaving the theorising to others.

Churches have a proper place for those who value the belonging but don’t worry much about the believing. Not that churchgoers can be divided neatly into these two types: most of us are a bit of both, but nature and nurture between them push some towards one end of the spectrum, some towards the other. A healthy church has a variety of different personalities doing different things.

Difficulties arise when the needs of the belongers restrict the believing. I observed this in my work as a university chaplain. The most popular religious societies for students in the 18-21 age range were invariably the ones with a sharp distinction between those they defined as Christians and everybody else – me included – who were not. That Gnostic sense of belonging to a minority elite of true believers seems to have been particularly popular for young adults, away from their parents for the first time, with nobody to cook their meals, wash their clothes, advise them where not to go and set deadlines for their return home. The sense of dislocation naturally produces a desire for a replacement identity, a community where they belong and have a role. It is often accentuated by the sudden onrush of freedom: the apparently limitless opportunities for sex, alcohol and drugs needs to be regulated somehow. For some, a much-needed discipline is provided by a sense of Christian identity which convinces them that they are not like other students. 

It comes at a price. When we examine our beliefs critically we tend to relativise them. They apply in one situation but not in another; or the meanings of key words need careful definition. When beliefs get relativised they no longer provide such a black-and-white sense of identity. People who long for a strong sense of belonging are therefore rarely in a position to do blue skies thinking about the nature of religious truth. If anything, they feel a need to be defended against it. The belonging suppresses critical examination of the believing.

Many church controversies express this tension. The current debate about women bishops is an obvious one but there have been plenty of others, such as the gay bishops debate and, longer ago, the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme. For some what matters most is church definition: where are the boundaries, what makes the individual part of it, what determines why others are excluded? These concerns address the question: ‘Where do I belong?’ For others, what matters most is the truth, or moral correctness, of the matter under dispute. What, if anything, makes women unable to be bishops? What is it about ordination, or the prayer of consecration, that makes Methodist ministers different from Anglican priests? If we don’t know the answers perhaps we are arguing about nothing; if we do know them, maybe we should adapt our church institutions to reflect them.

If churches serve a valued purpose by giving people somewhere to belong, that’s good in itself but any local organisation can serve that purpose. If churches are to be about God and how we live for God and relate to God, then part of their purpose should be about helping people to overcome their anxieties about where they belong – or at least locate them within a bigger, more inclusive account of where the human race belongs.

Jonathan Clatworthy published a longer discussion of this in our quarterly newsletter, Signs of the Times, in April 2010 - Read more.