Inside and Out

The following lecture was the second half of the pair with the earlier offering on lay ministry.  It was also delivered first to the Eastern Region Ministry Course, and slightly after at Ripon College Cuddesdon and the Oxford Ministry Course, as part of the masters’ level instruction in ecclesiology.

As I invite people to contribute stories of leaving church, it makes sense to offer my thoughts on what it means to be an “outsider”.  That is further developed in my contribution here.

Inside and Out

Ecclesiology: Michaelmas Term

Wendy Dackson

6 November 2007

Secularization theories rely on the assumption that there was once a ‘golden age’ of the Church, in which most of the public were devout believers who attended services regularly and for whom the Church was a central focus of their lives. This thesis has been challenged recently, claiming that devoted followers of Christ have always been relatively few in numbers.  Yet, there have been those for whom the presence of the Church provided an important sense of stability and continuity, and who have been like the buttresses of a cathedral:  supporting the church from the outside.  In this lecture, I will explore the insider/outsider status of people to the Church, and raise questions about how this status is fluid, rather than fixed, throughout a person’s lifetime.


  1. Introduction: The Grey Areas


     I think it’s good to begin by saying that I don’t want to spend much time on the obvious. So, I am not going to say very much at all about the clergy, or about deeply involved lay members of congregations, who work, pray, and give for the spread of the Christian faith.  Nor do I want to talk very much, if at all about those who are openly hostile or indifferent to the Christian message.  I don’t think it’s helpful to spend much time debating the relationship to the church of those who have clearly defined themselves as within or without its membership, and whose place in the church seems obvious to others.

Black and white are not all that interesting, whether we are speaking of staunch believers or unbelievers.  Grey is a more interesting range of tones to explore, and that is what I wish to talk about—the nuances between committed belief and considered unbelief which illustrate the complexities of saying who or what is inside or outside the church.

I’m not sure that debating whether or not classic secularisation theories are helpful here.  They typically involve the claim that there was a golden age of the church where most of the population was devoutly Christian, attended worship regularly, and adhered to the moral standards promoted by the Church’s teaching, but that such a Christendom model began to decay in the late 18th or early 19th century (with various revolutions in politics and industry).  The theory, which is not universally accepted, argues additionally that the decline in the rate of religious influence accelerated in the mid 20th century.

No doubt, by most quantitative standards, church attendance and participation is indeed has decreased in the recent past.  But that does not settle the issue of whether or not the Christian faith is truly irrelevant to contemporary society, and that the Church is no longer an important influence in British culture.  Still, it is not my main area of concern for this next hour.

I would rather spend this time thinking through some issues about the insider/outsider status in the concrete churches as we know and experience them today—not simply a ‘spiritual’ connection that individuals may feel to a particular church, or to the entire company of all faithful people.  The issues I’d like to explore involve things like what defines the status, who declares the status (and how), some human markers of belonging, and whether or not insider/outsider status is fixed or fluid.


Defining insider/outsider

So, the first thing we need to inquire about is what makes one inside or outside the church.  Is it right belief, practice and behaviour?  Is it a common religious understanding and experience?  Is it ‘holiness’ (which is certainly tied to at least some of the foregoing)?  Is it attendance or regular reception of Holy Communion?  Any of these definitions has its difficulties as a marker.

The question of right belief, practice and behaviour, is more difficult than it looks at first glance.  How is that belief to be defined?  Is it a matter of assent to a formula such as the historic creeds?  If so, probably most people in church on any given Sunday, if they had to think about it, wouldn’t really be able to do that.  The Nicene Creed, for example, uses philosophical concepts (‘one being with the Father’) which contemporary minds often find hard to swallow; the procession of the Son and the Holy Spirit from the Father, together as equals, cuts out all of Orthodox Christianity.  Belief about what actually happens in the service of Holy Communion is another point on which Christians can, and have, anathematised one another.

Additionally, belief is more often dynamic rather than static over the course of a lifetime.  Personal circumstances may pose serious challenges to a person’s confidence in the good and loving God proclaimed by the Christian church, or an individual may, in good conscience, question the authority of a particular minister or the general public policy of his or her church.  Should such questionings, whether temporary or enduring, put a person outside the church—and if so, by whose pronouncement should this happen?

Practice is another sticky question.  How often one receives communion, how much of one’s income is pledged (and actually given) to the church, and a host of other things can signal to other Christians (and outsiders) that a person is either in or out of the church.  They can also, in extreme cases, cause doubt or anxiety on the part of an individual Christian concerning his or her place in the Church, especially if approached by an authority figure such as a church warden or ordained leader.  Some Christians consider certain practices essential (frequent communion, tithing, rites of confession and reconciliation), and believe that the typical Anglican position of ‘all may, some should, none must’ to be just a bit too ambiguous.  Communal practices of the churches’ public life—especially the place of women in worship and other leadership or political and social prophetic action—are equally things that may cause Christians to declare one another (singly or collectively) in or out of the church.

Furthermore, practices that were at one time strongly identified with a particular group within the Christian churches, or even a sub-group of a denomination, may shift.  A good example is the set of practices encouraged by the Church Union in the 1930s as identifying marks of Anglo-Catholic churches:  the celebrant facing east while celebrating Holy Communion, candles on the altar, Eucharistic vestments, unleavened bread, a mixed chalice and incense (along with support of reunion with Roman Catholicism).  Individual laymen (it says nothing about women) were encouraged to attend ‘mass’ on Sunday, receive communion three times annually, say confession once a year, observe Fridays as fast days, give alms, and observe forbidden degrees in marriage.  If, at the time all of these were strong and distinctive identifiers of Anglo-Catholicism (which I personally find questionable), they have ceased to be so.  Many of these practices have been adopted by churches and individual Anglicans who would not necessarily identify themselves as Anglo-Catholic.  Furthermore, in the period from 1877 to 1882, four priests were actually imprisoned for introducing Catholic practices (especially adoration of the sacrament and Eucharistic vestments) in their parishes.  These are hardly things that the rest of the church might blink at today.  As well, the Anglo-Catholic clergy of the 19th and early 20th centuries identified someone’s ‘making confession’ as a mark of conversion—exactly the sort of thing that the more reformed clergy would be against.  After the first world war, more moderate to evangelical clergy saw the value of some sort of pastoral ministry that resembled auricular confession.  So, particular practices as markers for being inside or outside the church as a whole, a denomination, or even a group within a denomination, are of questionable use.

Behaviour is equally fraught, if not more so.  First, who polices the behaviours by which one may be tagged as inside or outside the church?  At present, this is a hot-button issue concerning sexual behaviours.  Some Christians believe that sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman are absolutely wrong, and should be cause for exclusion—if not from the church in general, at least from holding public leadership in the church.  Others believe that acceptable sexual behaviour is not quite so absolute, but covers a continuum based on the maturity of individuals, ability to consent, the motivating intentions behind each particular action, and the level of mutual care present in the relationship.  With the advent of legal civil partnerships for same-sex couples in the UK, there has been a call from some quarters to extract promises from clergy that they will not engage in sexual relations with domestic partners.  The Church of England has largely declined to do this, to the relief of some and the irritation of others.

Secondly, a major problem with behaviour is that what is and is not acceptable shifts with cultural and economic changes—and the churches tend to adapt.  In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, for example, dissent from the Church of England, particularly in the form of Methodism, was rising among the working classes.  Thrift and simplicity were considered virtuous, and thus elaborate dress (which many could not afford anyway) was a marker of a less-than-holy manner of living.  Industriousness led to career advancement and careful saving led to greater wealth—and once more luxurious wardrobes were affordable for more people, the stigma of adornment quietly receded.  Other things that the Church once considered to be outside the pale—the charging of interest, or bringing civil lawsuits against others in the community—are behaviours that few Christians think about in terms of their status of being inside or outside the church.  At one time it was quite acceptable for Christians to own slaves or physically abuse their wives and children, with various bits of support from Holy Scripture.  Today most Christians, not only the very liberal, would consider these activities unacceptable.  Modern scholarship indicates that the Bible is a set of culturally conditioned documents which believers have to scrutinise continually in order to discern what is of enduring value, and what should be left behind.  Simply to say ‘Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation’ is not the same as saying that everything in Holy Scripture is necessary to salvation.

Behaviour and holiness are hard to separate out from one another, because the former is so often taken as an outward sign of the latter.  But it should be asked, are there minimum requirements of prayer, devotion, or even attitude, which mark a person as either in the church or outside it?

In addition to belief/practice/behaviour/holiness, is it attendance that marks a person as an insider or outsider?  Anglican churches, in general, consider that receiving communion three times annually is a basic marker of who is inside—a ‘communicant in good standing.’  Ordinarily, that would involve attending church three times a year (or arranging home communion for those who for good reason cannot get to church).  By the standards of some other denominations, that is a fairly lax requirement.  Inadequate attendance in some denominations may mean that one is removed from the church roll, and would either have to be reinstated, or in the case of moving house, re-register in the new location.  Roman Catholic practice has historically required attendance at Mass on a weekly basis (usually during the 24 hour period beginning with sundown on Saturday), and confession and absolution twice annually, unless there is good cause, to remain a Catholic in good standing.

Much has been made of Grace Davie’s phrase, ‘believing but not belonging’ as the spiritual or religious condition of many British people.  But is it possible to attend, and to conform externally to the expectations of the church, but not actually believe?  There was a notable story of an Episcopal church in (not surprisingly) California where a high percentage of prominent and financially supportive members of the congregation claimed not to believe, but to like the ritual and community of the church.   Are these people inside or outside the church?  And, if outside, should they be asked to leave—or welcomed in the hope that contact with the Christian tradition of ritual and community will deepen and clarify belief?  It raises questions about the extent to which people attend because they believe, or if belief is fostered by attendance.

Finally, we need to question whether it is the experience of God, and the response to or interpretation of that experience, which determines insider/outsider status.  I think this is particularly noticeable in charismatic/Pentecostal circles, where such things as speaking in tongues may be seen as an authentic mark of the ‘insider.’  But the individual’s response to God may mark him or her as an outsider in other ways, either subtle or dramatic.  In the early 1960s, white clergy in the southern United States could risk alienation from their peers for participating in civil rights demonstrations, even if they could clearly point to how doing so was a direct result of their experience of what God requires.  Much the same can probably be said of any activity that upsets a social or religious status quo, and once again, over time, the ‘obvious’ correct response and interpretation may shift as the denomination’s or congregation’s thinking progresses.


  1. Who declares the insider/outsider status?

     As I mentioned earlier, a few years ago there was a story about an Episcopal church with an active group of members who attended regularly, worked untiringly, and gave generously for the support of the church. And yet, they claimed not to be Christians, or to believe anything the church taught about God or Jesus.  They just liked the community and the ritual of the church.

If these non-believing Episcopalians are ‘outsiders,’ whose declaration makes it so?  In the Episcopal Church, as probably is true in the Church of England, probably nobody would say very much, or ask them to leave, at least in most congregations.  But in any denomination, there are three possible categories of person or group that could decide whether individuals are insiders or outsiders to the church community.  They are (a) the clergy, (b) the gathered community, and (c) the person or persons in question.

In some denominations, the clergy (sometimes alone, occasionally in partnership with lay leaders) make the determination of insider or outsider status.  They may pronounce the insider status by means of ritual, such as baptism (either infant or adult), or in non-episcopal churches, by confirmation or dedication services.  In Episcopal churches, ‘insider’ status is reinforced by the local priest’s presenting candidates to the bishop for confirmation, or recommending their being considered for ordained ministry themselves.  Sometimes, individuals are incorporated into the ordained minister’s ‘inner circle’ of lay advisors and confidants, or asked to serve in special capacities, such as a churchwarden, or invited to consider an authorised ministry such as Reader.  But what of the parishes I visited in Derbyshire?  There are people who mow grass and pull weeds in the churchyard who wouldn’t even know which door to enter for a service; in another, an appeal for financial support to all the households in the parish was immensely successful, with many more people giving than attend services.  Are people who support and care for the churches inside or outside?

Just as clergy can acknowledge (or ritually establish) ‘insider’ status, in some cases they may also declare an individual or group to be ‘outside’ their particular ecclesial community.  The extreme example of this is excommunication in Roman Catholicism; however, this not only involves more than the authority of the local parish priest, it is also in reality quite rare to permanently excommunicate a member (although a priest, usually with the bishop’s permission, may refuse communion to someone who has confessed, but not repented, of serious sin).  Denominational bodies may also declare an ‘outsider’; an example is ‘ceasing to meet’ the Methodist membership requirements of obligations of prayer, service and giving.  ‘Outsider’ status in the Anglican churches is usually a matter of ceasing to be counted for the parish electoral roll (or transferring allegiance to another religious group), rather than a failure in some theological or moral obligation.

Strong individual leaders who are not ordained may also have a strong (if unofficial) voice in saying who is and is not an insider.  Martyn Percy’s work on the Toronto Blessing is interesting in this regard.  The Blessing, at the time Martyn did his research, did not authorise women as ordained leaders.  However, certain strong women (often married to ordained male leaders) asserted a very potent ‘insider’ status within this church, largely through interpretation of (their own) mystical experiences.  One notable story was of a woman who claimed to have a vision where she was a Bride of Christ—and at the wedding feast, Jesus had asked her to dance before all the other brides.  This clearly asserts that she is an ‘insider’, that the other ‘brides’ (who are not identified in her vision) are perhaps lesser insiders.  And what of the women who are not brides at all?

The gathered congregation can also confer insider or outsider status, although this is usually done in a less formal or official (but not necessarily less dramatic) way.  For example, a Charismatic congregation can recognise an incomer as a part of the group by authenticating his or her speaking in tongues; a woman in an Episcopal congregation may be invited to serve on the Altar Guild (which, in some parishes, is a very elite and almost hereditary group).  But the congregation can also choose to approach a member whose behaviour does not meet the group’s norms, and require either repentance or removal.  Shunning is often what happens in such an instance.

The individual in question also makes some determination.  By a declaration of faith, he or she makes a claim of solidarity with those who profess similar beliefs—whether as part of an actual local congregation, or in terms of a more spiritual, mystical union.  But it seems to me that it is more common for individuals to disassociate with churches, either by declaring a lack of belief (especially in terms of ‘loss of faith’), or through being frustrated or hurt by the church community, and consciously choosing to distance oneself from it, even if still professing reasonably orthodox Christian faith claims.

So, there is not a single locus of authority by which a person is declared inside or outside the church.  As well, the most visible ways may not be the most official ways of signalling insider/outsider status, and the various agents by which status is conferred or denied may be in conflict with one another.

  1. Human Markers of Belonging

     Last year, when I was talking on this topic with students on one of the courses, two very interesting assertions were made. I think they should both be taken seriously, although I think they are both, ultimately, wrong.  The first was the claim that the only determinant of whether a person is inside or outside the church is the feeling of the person in question.  A person may have very strong feelings, whether positive or negative, or little feeling at all, towards the church in general, or a particular concrete embodiment of the church, and may consider that she or he is part of it whether or not there is any concrete connection.  Of course, this is entirely possible in the case of an established church such as the Church of England, where one is in unless he or she opts out.  The other student felt rather strongly that we shouldn’t even talk about who is inside and who is outside the church, because the radical inclusivity of the Gospel makes that kind of thinking inappropriate.

Although I think the first is difficult to argue, I do want to question whether a simple failure to opt out or make one’s departure from the church known, is sufficient to say that the person is an ‘insider’ in any meaningful sense.  The second claim, about Gospel inclusion, is more complex.  First, although it has merit, there is plenty to support that if someone refuses to hear, the disciples were to shake the dust off their feet and continue on.  Those who refuse the gospel have set themselves outside the visible church, although it is impossible to say that they are outside God’s love and concern.

Secondly, and more importantly, it seems to me that the thing humans do best is to make distinctions of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’.  Christians are at least as good at this as the general population.  And because the idea of ‘church’ is almost unintelligible without considering concrete examples and experiences, I want to mention just a few things that human beings do and use that, consciously or not, include some and exclude others.  In the US, there are signs to the local churches, saying things like ‘The Episcopal Church Welcomes You’.  You would probably never see a sign in front of a church that says ‘The Episcopal Church Wants You To Think Very Hard About Being Here.’  But that might be more honest, and there are a number of ways we make people question whether or not they belong in a particular church.

The first is the way we use language.  Of course, every church conducts its services in some language or other, but I am talking about more than whether we use English or Punjabi (although, in the US, the language of the service is often a strong way of maintaining ethnic identities and affiliations in an immigrant situation).  But by what words do we denote what functions, objects, and such?  Again going back to the Anglo-Catholicism ambiguities, most 19th and early 20th century Anglican ministers were not called ‘father,’ and the Holy Communion was not called ‘mass.’  These usages, and a detailed knowledge of the terms for the various Eucharistic paraphernalia set up a language by which Anglo-Catholics identified themselves, and by which a newcomer either knew that he would be at home in a particular church, or not.

Another question is what kind of semantic environments do we set up, and who knows how to behave linguistically in that setting? Semantic environment is a term I first encountered in reading Neil Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (How we defeat ourselves by the way we talk—and what to do about it).  Broadly speaking, a semantic environment is the structure in which language is used, and the rules that govern the appropriate linguistic behaviours.  A lecture is one kind of semantic environment; a stand-up comedy club is another (although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, especially if it’s not good comedy).  Churches are no different in this regard.  There are things that are not done/said in church that are appropriate elsewhere.  There are linguistic behaviours that differ from setting to setting—the attempt to harmonise biblical faith with modern scientific thinking probably won’t go down well in a Fundamentalist congregation in the southern US.  Certain ways of referring to God, or of responding (or not) to those leading worship are right in some settings, and completely wrong in others.

Music is another marker for who is in and who is out.  Every congregation has its own version of ‘how we do it here.’  It’s not just in church that music is used as a social identifier—adolescents, especially, seem to make quite a fuss about who is worthy of admiration and who deserves scorn, based on musical tastes (although these seem to change on a weekly basis).  But style (whether traditional or contemporary) is only one marker.  The degree to which participation is encouraged or not is also something only known to insiders.  Let me briefly recount some concrete experiences.  The first was evensong at a notable Anglo-Catholic church.  I entered the narthex, and two greeters had a table full of books and handouts—service leaflet, a small laminated card telling you what to look for in each part of the liturgy, BCP and then the ostentatious question, ‘Do you want just words or music?’ when they handed me the hymnal.  I read music, so I wanted the music.  But within two bars of the first hymn, it was clear that NONE of the regulars were singing along.  At another ‘open evangelical’ church, there was contemporary praise music that was done better than I’ve ever heard (and this is NOT my thing), the words were clearly projected (but not obtrusively) on screens on the walls, and the introduction to each song was basically an instrumental where the tune was very easily heard.  It was VERY easy for an outsider to participate in this.

(Hand out hymnal pages, with the Anglican side up.)  Finally, let’s look at the different experience I had when I first came here last year.  In the village church, a typical page in the hymnal looked like the first side of this sheet. If you don’t know the tunes, and the organist isn’t particularly good, or they don’t play an entire stanza through, it doesn’t make it easier to participate.  Even if you have the music, however, it’s one verse printed between the staves, and the rest below—easier, but there can still be places where the note changes in a place you don’t expect it to given the way words fall.  So there you are, standing out like a sore thumb.  Now, if you turn it over, you see what you’d see in a typical American Episcopal church.  All of the participatory problems in terms of music that I had when I came here are gone.  BUT—what are some of the difficulties of using this song, which is supposedly words that are appropriate to native North Americans as they were evangelised?  It’s still definitely one culture’s appraisal of another, with ‘indigenous’ words written by an English speaker imposed on a French tune.  If your ethnic identity included any of the North American First Nations that are supposedly covered by this, what impression would it make?  Sometimes, when we try to be politically correct and sensitive, we get it terribly wrong.

Finally, the use of the interior space of the church, and with what symbols it is decorated, will indicate whether someone is inside or outside that particular church.  A church where stations of the cross and a prominent rack of votive candles may signal to an evangelical Christian that this is not the place he or she will be happiest.  Some of the Derby diocese churches I visited try to have a lot of symbols and decorative elements that could speak to newcomers with little prior experience of the church, rather than just to those who are already fairly knowledgeable Christians.

I do not think it is possible to have a concrete church that does not have some markers that indicate who will and will not be (at least initially) an insider or an outsider to that particular expression of Christian community.  What I do want to say is that I believe it is sound practice to be aware of markers such as these, and to examine our language, music and use of space so that they really do express what kind of people a particular church believes itself to be, and who will find a place there.

  1. Summary: Impermeable barrier or osmotic membrane?

Although baptism is indelible and irreversible, whether someone is ‘inside’ the church permanently once baptised, is an open question.  Infant baptism does leave open the possibility that the child will not reach a mature faith.  Furthermore, because (particularly Church of England) ministers are frequently approached by non-churchgoing parents to baptise infants, it is entirely likely that the child will receive no specific instruction or example in the Christian religion whatsoever.  Even ‘believer’s baptism’ does not rule out a change of heart or reconsideration of conviction at some future date.  Furthermore, a deepening of faith leading to a change of theological view may cause a person to leave a congregation, and may (if there has been a shift from liberal to conservative or vice versa) make it difficult to find a congenial place to worship and develop spiritually.  And, of course, in an increasingly mobile society, a person or family may move away from one congregation and not find another (for various reasons).  The longer the time between congregations, the lower the likelihood of re-entering one at any future point.  As well, illness, loss of partner (through death or divorce), or pastoral malfeasance may make it impossible or deeply painful or embarrassing to continue to attend church, whether or not the person believes.

Likewise, a person may leave the church due to any of these reasons, but be open to the idea of return at a later date.  Finding a congregation where one feels welcome is important, and sometimes, particularly long absence, it may be difficult to return to the same faith community.  A fresh start in a new place may be in order.

What of those who approach the local vicar for occasional services such as baptism of a child, solemnization of a marriage, or burial of a loved one?  Although they may not have strong connections to the church, unless they have opted out, they do have the prerogative to make these requests.  Allan Billings, in his book Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts makes the case that it is wise to ask what the person understands these rites to mean, and to try to accommodate those aspirations and doubts into the pastoral care that goes along with the ritual celebrations.  This, he argues, will keep a door open between those who are clearly inside the church and those who are not, with the potential for the benefit of both parties.

I hope it’s clear that I think that the divide between insider and outsider should be permeable, seeking a balance on both sides rather than a walling-off of one from the other.  As well, I think it’s realistic to say that even the most faithful believers will be more inside the church at some points in their lives than at others.  I think good pastoral practice needs to realise this and respond to the fluidity of insider/outsider status, rather than take it as an unchanging ‘given’.


2 thoughts on “Inside and Out

  1. Thanks again, Wendy.
    This reminds me of some reflection I had to do *many* moons ago on weaknesses in the traditional evangelical perspectives on “being saved” … when we were already out working in Uganda. Sadly I don’t have access to my notes & books, but I recall some very helpful anthropological reflections on “emic” vs. “etic” perspectives … including some stuff by Paul Hiebert.
    It wasn’t so much about barriers & membranes, but about the fact of using a boundary of any sort as the defining element on who was “in” and who was “out”. As I recall, it was suggested (very attractively I believe) that it wasn’t the boundary that was definitive (or even particularly) important, but the orientation of the individual towards the centre (which was seen as being Christ in some form) – whether movement was towards this centre or away from it.
    Wish I could add chapter & verse to this jumble of thoughts. But thanks for your own, and for prompting me to think about these important issues once again 🙂

    1. I did this a few years ago as a lecture to ordinands in the CofE as part of their ecclesiology training. I’m thinking about it more these days as I ponder my own state of being both in and out–“one foot and two toes” are out, but three toes still stay inside.

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