There is one “heresy” in the Anglican Church that seems to be more dreaded than any other. It has nothing to do with sex. It is only vaguely related to theology. This “heresy” relates to church governance or ecclesiology. It is called “congregationalism.”

Congregationalism is a Protestant system of church government in which an individual local congregation bears autonomous and self-governing authority over its own affairs. Congregationalism is a relatively sparse form of church government. Power is usually negotiated among a limited number of players including congregation members, a board, “senior” pastor, and perhaps other staff.

The Anglican Church has a more complicated form of governance. The power- sharing grid in Anglicanism is more diversified and complex than in the congregational model. Anglicans work within an intricate system in which power resides in a vast array of players including a Diocesan Bishop, synod, and committees and staff of synod. These must all operate in conversation with parish clergy, wardens, councils and committees, and ultimately all Anglican parishioners.

The accusation of “congregationalism” leveled against an Anglican parish usually seems to be a charge that the parish is not functioning as a team player with the Diocese. The balance of power is perceived to have tipped in favour of the parish operating in isolation from the Diocese.

The risk for an Anglican parish that succumbs to congregationalism is that the vision of a larger more diverse community working together for the greater good is lost. This is no small concern. In a world that is constantly torn into smaller conflicting special interest groups, any force that moves towards life-giving unity is a potential sign of God’s reconciling presence in the world. The Diocesan model has the capacity to offer an alternative vision to the self-interested individualism that drives so much of our current social discourse.

The danger for a Diocesan critic of dismissing a parish as “congregationalist,” is that individual parish and its parishioners feels pushed to the edges of an authority structure that seems out of touch with parish realities. There is a risk that parishioners come to feel like children in a family under the stern dictates of an autocratic parent who does not really listen and has not taken local needs into consideration.

Whether a church attempts to operate according to a congregational or a Diocesan model, in the end, both will fail if they refuse to give adequate consideration to the reality that church members attend church and participate in church organizations as volunteers. They are free simply to walk away at any time.

Unquestioning institutional loyalty is increasingly a thing of the past. Less and less can churches, whatever their model of governance, simply take for granted the support of the people who make up their community. When there is absolutely no social pressure to participate in church – in fact when there is significant counter pressure – churches can no longer assume allegiance from parishioners will automatically be forthcoming.

If parishioners feel that the structures of power do not have their best interests at heart or if they feel excluded from the power sharing agreement that makes things happen, they will soon stop giving themselves to the enterprise of church. Active resistance or apathetic withdrawal is the likely outcome of a constituency that experiences itself as excluded from the power-sharing agreement by which their church operates.

The challenge is the same for both a congregational church and a Diocesan church. Leaders must win the allegiance of their constituents by the quality and depth of their being. They cannot assume that their leadership will succeed simply because they hold a particular organizational position.