Monday, March 21, 2011
Mission Perspective: Why Form an Affinity Network
By Robin G. Jordan
A growing number of churches are banding together for mission in “affinity networks,” networks of churches that are united by an affinity that they share with each other. They may share a common theology, common values, and a common vision. They may share a common history. They may share other common characteristics. For example, they all may be small membership churches targeted at rural population groups.
Affinity networks may be formal or informal. They may be formed by churches in close geographic proximity to each other or at considerable distance from each other. They may span the country but have sub-networks that are territory-based.
Affinity networks may perform functions similar to those of territory-based judicators. They may provide support and assistance to the churches forming the network; recruit, train, license, deploy, and supervise licensed and ordained ministers within the network; and maintain clerical discipline. They may plant new churches.
Affinity networks may perform functions similar to those of other types of parachurch organizations. For example, they may recruit, train, and fund foreign missionary teams. They may operate special ministries targeted at key ministry focus groups like youth, university students, and other young adults.
The concept of the affinity network is not a new one. It goes back as far as the Celtic Church in the British Isles and Ireland in the fifth century. The Celtic Church was composed of loose networks of monastic communities. See Lessons for Today from the Celtic Church and Time to Think Out of the Box: Ecclesiastical Organization and Mission. The origin of the concept may predate the Celtic Church.
As we will see, affinity networks are better shaped for mission than territory-based judicatories. They offer a number of advantages to the churches forming them.
First, affinity networks enable groups with different theological outlooks to “live under the same roof” in the same denomination with less conflict. Affinity networks are not a rejection of comprehensiveness. They are a realistic approach to achieving and maintaining comprehensiveness. They permit a measure of theological diversity and flexibility in a denomination while keeping it from becoming the cause of friction and tension within the denomination. They provide a buffer between theological affinity groups in a denomination that do not see eye to eye on major issues such as the ordination of women.
Underlying the concept of affinity network is the recognition that due to the particular developments in a number of denominations there is much more theological diversity in these denominations than in other denominations. Seeking to establish greater theological uniformity in such denominations is an impossible task since it is likely to cause the migration of substantial numbers of churches to other denominations and the eventual disintegration of the denomination.
Second, affinity networks foster an environment of cooperation while territory-based judicatories promote a competitive environment. When all the churches in an ecclesiastical organization share a common theology, common values, and a common vision, they can focus their full attention on mission. There is much less likelihood that they will be distracted by the vying for hegemony that invariably characterizes territory-based judicatories in which there are two or more groups with disparate theologies, values, and visions. Each group seeks to determine the direction of the judicatory and to further its own cause.
Third, affinity networks ensure a level of theological continuity that territory-based judicatories cannot provide. Churches in an affinity network in which there is a common theology, common values, and a common vision are, if they call a new pastor from within the affinity network, less likely to call a new pastor who is a poor match with the church in theology, values, and vision.
Fourth, affinity networks provide a degree of homogeneity that is unattainable in territory-based judicatories. While our culture may value diversity, an ecclesiastical organization needs a high degree of uniformity particularly in doctrine. Affinity networks attain this uniformity by voluntary means. Territory-based judicatories achieve a much more limited degree of uniformity by involuntary means—coercion, cooption, and exclusion.
Fifth, affinity networks permit two or more groups in a denomination to engage in ministry and mission in the same territory, in the same community. Territory-based judicatories dominated by one theological affinity group may not welcome the presence of other such groups in the judicatory. They may keep clergy from these groups ministering in the judicatory as well as prevent these groups from planting new churches. They may impose restrictions upon members of these groups already in the judicatory such as refusing them permission to attend a ministerial training school that shares their theological outlook and requiring their attendance of a seminary that shares the dominant group’s theological outlook. They may, when a pastor retires or moves to a new church, prevent a church from calling another pastor of the same persuasion.
Rather than unrealistically expecting one church affiliated with the denomination and allied with the dominant theological affinity group in a particular judicatory to serve all population segments in a community, affinity networks permit two or more theological affinity groups in the denomination to plant new churches in the community, targeted at those population segments that they have been most effective in reaching, evangelizing, and enfolding into new churches. Mission to the unchurched is placed before maintenance of existing churches.
Sixth, affinity networks are compatible with a synodical polity—the most common form of ecclesiastical governance found in the global Anglican Church. In a synodical polity a bishop shares the governance of a judicatory with a synod composed of clergy and lay representatives. In an affinity network a bishop’s sphere of ministry involves the churches in the affinity network rather than a specific geographic area.
As previously noted, an affinity network might be organized into sub-networks that are territory-based. These sub-networks would be the affinity network equivalent of a deanery or in larger networks, what is referred to in the Church of England’s Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe and her Diocese of London as an “episcopal area.” An episcopal area is overseen by an assistant bishop. An episcopal area might also have an archdeacon.
Affinity networks are also compatible with a prelatical polity like the form of ecclesiastical governance found in the Roman Catholic Church. The Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans that the Roman Catholic Church is erecting around the world are affinity networks. They cross archdiocesan and diocesan boundaries in the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church has a number of similar ecclesiastical organizations for different groups within that denomination. A number of these organizations have been in existence for over a hundred years. Their origins may date back to the Middle Ages. Ordinariates are led by an ordinary and prelatures by a prelate. These officials are appointed by the Pope and are responsible to the Pope. They govern the ordinariate or prelature to which the Pope has appointed them. They may be advised by a council of priests.
In its constitution and canons the Anglican Church in North America makes provision for the formation of affinity networks as well as territory-based judicatories. But it is evident from the public statements of a number of ACNA leaders that they do not grasp the value of affinity networks not only in fulfilling Christ’s missionary imperative but also in keeping conflict in the new denomination to a minimum. They appear unable to think outside of the box. They may also have a vested interest in the retention of the territory-based judicatory due to the benefits that this form of ecclesiastical organization may yield them. If there is not the will for the present ACNA leadership to erect affinity networks in the ACNA, then it may be that congregations will have to take the matter into their own hands and develop these networks at the grassroots level.
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 7:15 AM