Saturday, 2 March 2013

Fragments in Focus - 2

(This is the second part of a review of Fragmentation of a Sect. Author David Barrett is a former teacher, intelligence officer and journalist, He has been a freelance writer specialising in new religious movements for 20 years. He gained his PhD in Sociology of Religion from the London School of Economics in 2009. The present book is based on his doctoral thesis on schisms in the Worldwide Church of God, published by Oxford University Press in January this year.)

In his first chapter Barrett provides an outline of his work, its purpose, and the ground rules he followed.

Fragmentation is "an intensive case study," not of the Worldwide Church of God in general, but of the problems that arose when members (including ministers) were presented with radically conflicting demands.  On the one hand this was an extreme example of an "obey those in authority" community. Even if the Church was wrong on an issue, loyalty trumped conscience, and it was up to God to provide the necessary correction.

On the other hand, members had distinctive beliefs that had been hammered in over the decades. Few Christian communities could claim as many distinctive and uncompromising doctrinal propositions to which assent was required: the seventh-day Sabbath, the Old Testament Holy Days, a form of triple tithing, a reconceptualization of the godhead (as an expanding family), dietary restrictions, a belief that Christ was to return in their lifetimes, British Israelism, the apostleship of Herbert W. Armstrong...

So what happens when a lock-step "heterodox sect" like Worldwide becomes rapidly "denominationalized"?  One term to describe the conundrum is cognitive dissonance.

The focus of the book is, then, on what happened to "the hundreds of ministers and tens of thousands of members... who refused to 'convert' along with their movement."  This is the largely untold story of the 'reformation' that receives little examination in books written by insiders like Joe Jr. and Mike Feazell.  Those tens of thousands - including not a few readers of this blog - simply disappeared off the membership lists; where did they go and why?

But Barrett isn't writing as a journalist, but as a scholar. "I am not concerned here with the spiritual truth of the beliefs of those I am studying." In order to maintain objectivity he is studious in his terminology. WCG is described as a millennialist (or millenarian) Sabbatarian movement, rather than an Adventist body.  The prolific gaggle of fractious factions are collectively referred to as 'the Worldwide family.'

Drawing on earlier studies Barrett observes that movements like Worldwide can be placed on spectrums ranging from non-totalitarian to totalitarian, and inclusive to exclusive. Quoting one such source: "the inclusive organization retains its factions while the exclusive organization spews them forth." Barrett notes that inclusive "most certainly does not apply to the Worldwide Church of God."  A diversity of beliefs, differing perspectives and - horror of horrors - voices of dissent from "a loyal opposition" within?  Unthinkable!

A contrast is drawn to another highly schismatic form of fundamentalist Christianity, the Christadelphians. This community, unlike WCG, has had little centralization, and yet has an unenviable record for fragmenting. Perhaps there is a word of caution here for those independent bodies in the 'Worldwide family' that now imagine that they have safely sidestepped future division by adopting a local, congregational polity.

To continue.

1 comment:

  1. The hallmark of the WCG congregations was their inability to respond to the flood of changes that came rushing towards them in 1995. My guess is that the men in Pasadena knew that the congregations would not rise with the tide and many would sink. But then the church could find a new equilibrium with a new membership and the people damaged by Armstrongism would not have to be dealt with. After all, it is quite expensive and time consuming to deal with the damage in human lives caused by a cult. You can understand how the new leadership would want to write this liability off the books. A fresh start is best with fresh people. I believe that is why there is little dicussion of the wounded in books by Tkach and Feazell. Its like writing a book about the Titanic and only mentioning the survivors and how successful the rescue was.

    -- Neo