David V. Barrett
Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God
Hardback, 280 pages.
Oxford University Press, 2013
British scholar David V. Barrett's earlier work includes The New Believers (Cassell, 2001), which devoted its final chapter to discussion of the WCG. Fragmentation of a Sect is based on his recent doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics.
"This... is an academic book which I hope will contribute to social science and religious scholarship, I also hope it will be read by members of the religious groups of which it is a study: the many Churches of God which are offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God. It is, after all, their story... I hope that all readers will find this account of a group of heterodox, millenarian, Sabbatarian, British-Israelite Churches, which splintered in hundreds of directions after their founder died, even a fraction as absorbing as I have for all these years I have been observing them."
From the Author's NoteAnd so the tone is set for what might be the most significant study ever published on the movement founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. Up till now there has been a great deal of heat, but not much light shed, when it has come to discussing the collapse and disintegration of the Worldwide Church of God. Partisans for the various factions are rarely able to achieve the degree of detachment necessary to rise above the battlefield and take in the wider perspective. The problem has been compounded by dilettantes outside the movement who have rushed in to support church leaders who they see as taking an agreeable position. There has been much talk about doctrine and teachings, but little about the human cost of a church - and a high-demand church at that - in freefall. Precious little talk, also, of leadership accountability.
Fragmentation of a Sect goes a long way toward redressing the balance. Stepping back from the polemic and apologetics, Barrett maintains a rare critical distance. His interest is not in theology but sociology, the people part of the equation, and provides what UCG reviewer Michael Snyder deems a "secular analysis" (which sounds suspect, but simply means the theological spin and posturing has been, for once, set aside.)
It is, after all, a fascinating story in its own right, with all the tragedy and pathos of a long-running soap opera. Some of us have had bit parts over one or more seasons, others have identified closely with certain of the lead characters. But the lessons to be learned are not only for those whose lives have been caught up in the ongoing drama, but for everyone who wants to understand how a seemingly successful religious movement can crash and burn, taking down with it the dreams and even part of the very identities of its followers.
The book has had a lengthy gestation period, and included a rigorous process of consultation and fact checking. This review, as it progresses, will seek to do justice to Fragmentation by working its way through the various sections of the book, some in greater detail than others.