Amoureax by Eve Arnold

“We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam, which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation.” - First generation Quakers a Balby, York, late 17th Century1

The term ’sect’ is much less likely to be used appreciatively than it is to be used as a term of scorn or suspicion. It is my belief that there is much to learn from (some of) the groups which fall into the category of ’sect’ and I would like to advocate a more appreciative approach to matters sectarian. In particular, I would like to suggest that sects provide concrete historical examples of the missionary shape of Jesus the Messiah; that of potent 'powerlessness'. (Of course, not all sects are potent in their powerlessness but the shape of powerlessness may give rise to such creative potency if it is imitative of the Messiah.) Embodying something imitable is a mode of mission. Sects are imitable by their societies when they concretise creative alternatives. I suggest that imitability is the product of creative practice derived from imitation of the one ’through whom and for whom all things have been created.’ In as much as they embody the Messiah and thus also creative alternative lives, sects engage in a kind of mission. Through this potential for the creation of compelling contrast-societies, ’sects’ can be instructive for a Messiah-shaped practice of mission. 'Imitation' is not the only kind of mission, indeed it is an impoverished kind. I suggest, also, that 'sects' have potential to exemplify communities which induce structural as well as personal change.

1 Sectarian Suspicion

It seems quite natural to most of us most of the time to write off some groups - without knowing anything about them - on account of their bearing the name of ’sect’. I will not deny that there is a limit to the energy available to explore every group that we encounter but I do not think that ’sects’ deserve neglect as a category. Some groups which bear the name are very worthy of our energy. There remain some which I have very (very) little time for but it is not on account of their being ’sectarian’. Other ’sects’ ongoingly provide me with inspiration. I intend to write more of these later groups in the future. For now I would like to explore why ’sects’, as a category, may provide insights into a Messiah-shaped missional practice. Lets look briefly at what the category captures.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition is simply ’a class or kind of persons.’ This early definition has a close relationship to its use in Latin from which it is borrowed. This first sense, along with all senses down to the fourth, is marked as ’obsolete’. This word is no longer used with this meaning in English. The fourth sense is ’a religious following; adherence to a particular religious teacher or faith.’ but the subpart a. shows that this cannot be applied to Christianity, Judaism or Islam (and presumably any other religion) in general but only to ’different’ subparts thereof. And so we come to the dominant use which I suggest we must overcome:

“A body of persons who unite in holding certain views differing from those others who are accounted to be of the same religion; a party or school among the professions of a religion; sometimes applied to parties that are regarded as heretical, or at least deviating from the general tradition.” (emphasis added)

And so we have ’differing’, ’heretical’ and ’deviating’. I do not want to dwell long on the English usage of the word but I would like to draw attention to the Constantinian nature of the category. ’Sects’ are not named by themselves, they are named from without. It is often size and the ability to use coercive power that qualifies a group to name another group as a ’sect’. It is a name which dispenses with the need for dialogue. It does not merely name difference but a class of difference which may be ignored for the purposes of conversation because they do not possess coercive power or are somehow threatening to those who do. I would like to consider now the sociological use of the term, which will lead us into a discussion of the potentially missionary shape of ’sectarian’ groups.

Ernst Troeltsch distinguishes between two descriptive types: the Church-type and the sect-type. They are descriptive tools and form poles on a spectrum - they do not apply strictly to any particular group. For Troeltch, the Church-type is that kind which is:

“... overwhelmingly conservative, which to a certain extent accepts the secular order, and dominates the masses; in principal, therefore, it is universal, i.e. it desires to cover the whole of humanity.” - Ernst Troeltsch

The Church-type, then, is deeply connected to and dependent upon the existing social order. Its capacity for creativity is in this way somewhat more limited in scope than the sect-type. The sect-type is that kind which is constituted by:

“... comparatively small groups; they aspire after personal inward perfection, and they aim at a direct personal fellowship between the members of each group. From the very beginning, therefore, they are formed to organise themselves in small groups and to renounce the idea of dominating the world.” - Ernst Troeltsch

It is this renunciation of domination which is of particular interest to me. John Howard Yoder, commenting on Troeltsch, takes this as the relevant point also:

“The term, in this [sociological] usage, has to do not with the narrowness of the ’sect’s’ truth claims, or the pettiness of its cultural self-understanding, nor with the size of the group, but with the quality of the group’s recognition that it is not in control of the wider society.” - John Howard Yoder

I would like to suggest that this shape which has renounced dominating the world, whether explicitly or by fact of powerlessness, can provide an incubator for Christ-shaped mission. I have said already that there are particular sects that I have little time for and it must be acknowledged that this shape may be possessed by those who would dominate if they could, and if they can’t, they ’lord it over one another.’ Although I am suggesting that we do not rule out any group because they have been called ’sectarian’, I am not suggesting that ’sects’ are somehow good by virtue of the category. I do, however, think the category describes a shape which is potentially fertile ground from which Christian mission might spring, however much some who have that shape fail to realise its potential. I would like to broaden our conversation partners. The kind of conversation we might have is suggested by this shared renunciation of world domination.


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