My thinking about ecclesiology has been significantly influenced by a very brief conversation, at the University of Virginia, with David Bentley Hart about the near impossibility of meaningful discussion regarding the nature of the Church. One consequence is that I try to use sociological rather than theological characterizations.
In particular, by ‘local church’ I mean (at least when talking in an ecumenical context): the smallest contiguous geographical unit of an ecclesial body which provides for the educational needs of the children of its members. Implicit in this are several assumptions:
- By ‘educational needs’, I basically mean elementary and high school.
- By ‘ecclesial body’, I mean a Christian group large enough, and serious enough, to take up the responsibility to help its members educate their children.
For example, then, in the Salt Lake area:
- The Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City is a local church.
- The congregation of the Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City is a local church.
- In the past, there was an Episcopal local church in Salt Lake City (which built Rowland Hall, and also St Marks Hospital).
- There are various Lutheran local churches in Salt Lake City.
- Given the LDS dominance in Utah, the public school system may be thought to provide for the needs of their ward members. While I do not consider the LDS to be a Christian ecclesial body, it provides a useful boundary case just as, in other parts of the United States, the public school system provides for those whom Joseph Bottom characterizes as ‘Post Protestants’ in his recent book, An Anxious Age.
The size of a local church varies widely, based on the perspectives and resources of the ecclesial body.