The geographicalization of the church was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Each city or region was to have a single bishop and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. There were to be no free-lance ministers, or meddling by one bishop in the affairs of another. At the time, this policy was part of the imperialization of the church. As with government authority, it was assumed that there could be only one church authority in each geographical district. The fact that the church felt it necessary to make such a rule indicates that prior to the Council there were in fact multiple overlapping jurisdictions.
This system functioned for at least 1500 years. Though there were competing forms of Christianity in some cities, there was only supposed to be one Catholic jurisdiction in each geographical region. Even in the Reformation this principle was largely maintained. Whole countries might stay Roman Catholic, or become Lutheran or Reformed, but other forms of Christianity in each country were repressed, sometimes violently. There was still only one official church in each country.
After the 17th century, the established State-church system started breaking down in many places. It was replaced by the system we have today: denominationalism. Today we are used to having multiple ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the same geographical area. Only extremist and eccentric groups still claim that their church is the only legitimate one. It doesn’t even occur to us that there is anything particularly unusual about the fact that a single town will have many different churches: Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and so on. Even among the Orthodox, for whom it is specifically forbidden, differences in language and ethnic origin have led to different overlapping jurisdictions in America: Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, Ukrainian, etc. So, like it or not, the wider church has in fact been de-geographicalized for many decades.
But within particular denominations, the pretense of being the only legitimate ecclesiastical presence in a given region has been maintained. Each denomination is structured so that there is only one jurisdiction in each geographical area. While there are a few exceptions to this rule, usually for ethnic and linguistic minorities, for instance, within each denomination there are no overlapping dioceses, presbyteries, conferences, classes, etc. (Though this doesn’t usually hold at the local parish level.) These jurisdictions have actual “boundaries.”
Now we are finding pressure building to undermine even this last vestige of the geographical framework. It started, as I said, as theoretically temporary arrangements with ethnic and linguistic communities within the denominations. But as denominations buckle under the growing strain of ideological and theological differences within their ranks, some would like to establish non-geographical jurisdictions based on theological commitments. In other words, some Presbyterians (and I would guess this is true for other denominations) find they have more in common with like-minded sub-groups within the denomination, than they have with the broader denomination itself. Rather than continue to try and work together with other Presbyterians with whom they have disagreements, some are expressing the desire to have their own non-geographical presbyteries, based on their common views. (This would avoid the trauma of actually pulling out of the denomination altogether and forming their own ecclesiastical jurisdiction.)
The practice of wedding ecclesiastical jurisdictions to geographical areas has positive and negative effects. The obvious downside is that it tends to enforce unity from above and stamp out variations. This was the point when this system was established in the 4th century: one Empire in one geographical area required one religious authority. This understanding still rules in our polity, and majorities in some presbyteries can and do attempt to enforce unity by keeping out ministers who hold divergent views.
But in our context the geographical church also has the value of encouraging if not compelling conversation and negotiation between the different groups that happen to occupy the same geography. This has often meant that the denominational structure in a given area was more balanced by the influence of minority views. The minority might not have many victories, but their voices were heard and their influence felt. Possibly the will of the majority was modified by their presence.
One problem with non-geographicality is that it can creates ghettos or silos of like-minded people. It becomes easier to veer into eccentric theologies and practices, not having any counterweight to their views in the regional system. Furthermore, like denominationalism itself, unmooring the church from geography can also lead to ever more specific and arcane differences being emphasized, and ever more specialized non-geographical entities. While it may seem beneficial at first to divide into conservative and liberal non-geographical presbyteries, how long will it be before we have different kinds of liberals and conservatives breaking off again.
Another difficulty with moving to non-geographicality is that the divisions within denominations are not always so absolutely drawn. Thus there are evangelicals who also believe in social justice, liberals who adopt contemporary worship, and so on. The idea that having a non-geographical presbytery is going to alleviate the tension between different views is probably unfounded.
And finally we also find that congregations themselves are not theologically or otherwise monolithic. If a majority pulls the congregation into a non-geographical presbytery based on their own commitments, what happens to the minority that was happy to be in the geographical presbytery where there were more people who shared their views?
All that being said, I do see the attraction to a non-geographical arrangement. I have worked with presbyteries. I know them often to be often clueless, incompetent, crippled by inertia, hamstrung by vested interested and cliques, and paralyzed by the sense of having to please, include, or get the approval of every faction and squeaky-wheel personality before anything can be done. It is very tempting for a group of churches to detach from this mess and be free to do mission according to their own gifts and energy. Frankly, I sometimes fantasize about an “emergent” presbytery where we could move beyond the turf wars and the conventional definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” and organize to do mission in innovative and imaginative ways.
But in the end I think a better solution is to develop more permission-giving structures, give local churches more autonomy, establish more lateral connections between churches instead of the centralized, top-down model, and nurture a polity that not only gets out of the way of local churches, but actually supports them in their mission.
Of course, if we retain the imperialist view that says we can only work with and even tolerate people who think exactly as we do, then we still have a problem. In the end, that perspective will lead either to each person being their own private denomination, or the tyranny of majorities that try to impose their view on the rest of the body.
Perhaps the ultimate question in all this is: “Where do we find our unity?” In the end, all Christians share the same geography: planet Earth. And we share the same Lord: Jesus Christ. Within those two constants, we are going to have to deal with, and even celebrate, a broad diversity of opinion and practice. I know this is a benefit for the survival and spread of Jesus’ Way.