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Church Type Communities and Sects
From the previous section it should be clear that the relationship between religion and society is complex.  The nature of the a sacred community’s relationship with society is one means by which sacred societies can be classified.  In particular, one can distinguish between church (or church type community) and sect. This distinction was first articulated by religious scholar Ernst Troeltsch in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  One must remember that the basis for Troeltsch’s work was early 20th century Europe where each country had a state-supported church. Obviously, such a sacred community would have a high degree of social standing and respectability since it was supported by the government or monarchy of the country.  Moreover, the state-supported church played an important role in larger society.  It was generally expected that the all or most of the citizens of the country would participate in the official church of their nation.  One would not expect such a community either to distance itself from the prevailing ideals and values of a society or to adopt a position that would be openly antagonistic to the power structure of the society in which it finds itself.
An example of what Troeltsch meant by the term church or "church type community" is the Church of England. The Queen is the head of the Church of England, she appoints archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals on the advice of the Prime Minister. The two archbishops and 24 senior bishops are members of the House of Lords. Thus, the church is both sanctioned by the state and involved in the life of the society. Moreover, over two-thirds of the people of England are members of the Church of England, even though not all of them participate actively in the church.

Canturbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral in England
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop of the Church of England.


The sect stands in contrast to such a state-supported church. In fact, a sect often arises as a protest against the prevailing society including the established or accepted church-type society. Thus, a sect demands that its members conform to its teachings and values in contrast to those of the prevailing culture. In addition, whereas the church-type organization includes all, the sect is more exclusive; it does not expect that all people will willingly adopt its standards. A sect also tends to distance itself from the larger concerns of society. This is not to say that a sect is not concerned about social problems; rather it may narrowly define which issues and concerns merit its attention and energies.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers
George Fox,
Founder of the Society of Friends

If the Church of England represents a church-type society, the Quakers or Society of Friends represent a sect in 17th century England. The Quakers were one of many groups that emerged at that time that stressed an individual approach to religion and advocated strict discipline in the Christian life. Founded by George Fox,  the Quakers distanced themselves from the prevailing ideas and values of their society by rejecting war, refusing to take oaths and calling for a complete separation of church and state. In fact, the Quakers refused to pay the mandatory tithes to the Church of England and rejected all organized religion and trained clergy. The Society of Friends was violently persecuted because of their beliefs. During the reign of Charles II over 13,000 Quakers were arrested and 338 died either in prison or as the result of violence directed at them during religious meetings. Consequently, many immigrated to the American colonies. Obviously, the Quakers represent a group that was in tension with larger society including the established Church of England.

How can the church-type and sect model be applied in the United States today?  In place of an established church there are sacred communities known as denominations.  A denomination can be defined as  "an established religious group, which has usually been in existence for many years and has geographically widespread membership. It typically unites a group of individual congregations into a single administrative body."  (Definition from  Religioustolerance.org http://www.religioustolerance.org/cults.htm. Retrieved August, 2003.) Among denominations are numerous groups that are "comfortable" with the prevailing culture. In the decades after World War II these were  the major Protestant denominations. On the other hand, any group that distances itself from the prevailing culture and the dominant church-type communities could be called a sect. In the modern religious scene the church-sect distinction is not always clear. Some organizations combine elements of both types of communities. Moreover, some organizations that were once considered sects are now considered denominations. In fact, sects that do not die out generally come to be more accepted and are classified as denominations.  Finally, the word "sect" itself can pose a  problem.  For many people the term carries a negative connotation. It is not surprising therefore that some scholars have abandoned the church-sect distinction and prefer to speak in terms of "new religious movements" rather than sects. The issue, however, becomes even more complicated as we turn our attention to cults.