I attended an Anglican church for a couple years while living in London. (That’s par for the course, right? Like attending NASCAR events when you’re living in North Carolina.) The thing I always liked about Anglicanism is the theological tradition of “comprehension”, of seeking a big tent in which people of wide theological conviction can still come together and worship. This was borne out of necessity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the Anglican Church was attempting to placate Puritan/non-conformists, Catholics, and the mainstream in one unified state church. And it remains an admirable goal today.
On the other hand there is that sectarianism that is concerned with purity of doctrine and practice as a condition of community to such a degree that division of community inevitably ensues like the cells of a developing embryo. The most delightful literary description of this sectarianism that I’ve come across is found in Garrison Keillor’s fictional narrative Lake Wobegon Days where the narrator recalls the history of his Brethren tradition. The following passage is drawn from pages 155-6:
We were “exclusive” Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure. Some Brethren assemblies, mostly in larger cities, were not so strict and broke bread with strangers—we referred to them as “the so-called Open Brethren,” the “so-called” implying the shakiness of their position—whereas we made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on all the details of the Faith, as set forth by the first Brethren who left the Anglican Church in 1865 to worship on the basis of correct principles. In the same year, they posed for a photograph: twenty-one bearded gentlemen in black frock coats, twelve sitting on a stone wall, nine standing behind, gazing solemnly into a sunny day in Plymouth, England, united in their opposition to the pomp and corruption of the Christian aristocracy.
Unfortunately, once free of the worldly Anglicans, these firebrands were not content to worship in peace but turned their guns on each other. Scholarly to the core and perfect literalists every one, they set to arguing over points that, to any outsider, would have seemed very minor indeed but which to them were crucial to the Faith, including the question: if Believer A is associated with Believer B who has somehow associated himself with C who holds a False Doctrine, must D break off association with A, even though A does not hold the Doctrine, to avoid the taint?
The correct answer is: Yes. Some Brethren, however, felt that D should only speak with A and urge him to break off with B. The Brethren who felt otherwise promptly broke off with them. This was the Bedford Question, one of several controversies that, inside of two years, split the Brethren into three branches.
Once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity, until by the time I came along, there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to any of the others.