The mandate that there should be only one ecclesiastical jurisdiction in each geographical area was the first canon of the Council of Nicaea in 325. It was part of the wedding of the church to the Roman Empire. Just as, in an empire, there cannot be more than one political jurisdiction in any geographical area, it was thought that this principle should be extended to the church, for the sake of unity.
This regime lasted for well over a thousand years, until it disintegrated with the rise of secularism. Secularism’s separation of church and State led to denominationalism: the practice of having more than one Christian ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the same geographical area (for example, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Romans Catholics, Baptists, etc.). It is in fact rare for a town in America to have churches of only one denomination, or even religion. Most denominations have recognized this fact and learned at least to coexist, and often cooperate. A few extreme and eccentric denominations do still claim to be the One True Church; but these are mostly dismissed as the cranks they are.
Most denominations also abandoned “parish boundaries” – the practice of everyone in the same geographical district attending the same church – long ago. We recognize that there can be two congregations of the same denomination in the same geographical area. It is not unusual for Presbyterians to drive past one or more Presbyterian churches to get to the one they prefer… not to mention all the churches of other denominations they pass. It would be unthinkable to somehow require people to only attend the church serving the geographical area to which they belong.
So the principle of non-geographicality is already established both by the existence of many denominational jurisdictions in a single geographical area, and the disappearance of parish boundaries even within denominations. Indeed, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) we have several non-geographical presbyteries now. These serve specific ethnic and linguistic communities (Koreans and Native Americans). But the principle is now established that geographical jurisdictions are not necessary and may be overridden by missional concerns.
Why can’t we extend this principle to congregations and their relationship to presbyteries, and to presbyteries and their relationship to each other? Why can’t we encourage churches to work formally together and relate to one another even across denominational lines?
Why, for instance, can a church not align itself for mutual support and encouragement with other churches that understand, appreciate, and share the same missional approach? Why should a church be regularly stifled in its mission because the other churches of its denomination in its region don’t understand or support what they are doing? Especially in close packed urban areas like New Jersey, why should a presbytery have geographical boundaries, when there might be missionally like-minded congregations all over the State who would do better working together? Why should we not work with churches from other denominations? And why should presbyteries, or whatever we might call such intermediate gatherings of churches from several denominations, not relate to each other nationally according to their missional needs and opportunities?
In other words, what is the big deal about geography that it should override the requirements of effective mission? Is not geographical unity a holdover from the imperialist model? Or, at best, from a time when transportation and communication options were far more limited, and distinctive denominational identities more secure, than they are today?
Yes, if we were to de-geographicalize the church, many denominations would cease to exist in their current forms. But that’s happening anyway. What would emerge is a looser, more fluid system of connections between churches. Each network would agree to its own rules and ways of operating and affiliating. Certainly there would be traditionalists persisting in more conventional arrangements. And there might even be congregations living in disconnected independence, if they choose. The days of ecclesiastical one-size-fits-all approaches are officially over.
In any case, this is already happening. Many Christians are finding a lot more juice in attending conferences with like-minded disciples from across the denominational spectrum, than in official, denominational meetings. The latter often tend to be so “diverse” in terms of every measurement that their vision and mission are chronically compromised, and they wind up aiming for the lowest common denominator. Which can be pretty low. Many main-line denominations have been paralyzed by a debilitating and inconclusive debate over the status of GLBT Christians for 40 years.
The danger, of course, is that like-minded missional gatherings will become over-specialized, homogenous ghettos, deaf to other voices of creativity and balance. This liability is largely remedied by having smaller networks engage in larger, more inclusive, “higher” gatherings. I hope that someday all the followers of Jesus would be organically connected in this way. Separating from geography might thereby even serve the larger cause of Christian unity.
So, maybe it’s time to make the jump to an ecclesiastical model where alliances and relationships are formed according to missional considerations, rather than by the fact that churches happen to inhabit the same geographical area.