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