One of the first things I thought when I began studying the multi-site church that was a part of my research was: “this must be like Roman Catholic polity.” I have noticed that a fair amount of other people who come out of free-church traditions make similar assumptions. In part, this is born out of being outsiders to the Catholic tradition and the rest of us making assumptions about how the Catholic church understands itself. This is true too for Anglican or other episcopal polity churches, so I really had to dig in and do my best to understand how episcopal polity churches understand themselves, and then see how that fits in with a multi-site ecclesiology. Here’s what I came up with:
For Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, the diocese is the considered the local or particular church. Historically, however, with increasing geographical spread and numbers of Christians, the idea of local was stretched as helper-priests were added to administer sacraments and preside over worship in smaller congregations when the bishop could not be present. The way that the local idea is still preserved in episcopal polity is that the bishop remains the pastor of all congregations within his diocese, even while priests perform ministerial duties in their parishes each week. This is, in a sense, a local church within a local church. The bishop of each diocese has jurisdiction within it, and a priest or bishop from another diocese must obtain permission from the bishop before being able to perform ministerial functions within the diocese. Thus, the diocesan idea has a geographical, territorial emphasis.
The idea of a local church is further complicated in Orthodox understanding where an autocephalous national church headed by a patriarch with subordinate bishoprics over a large region (i.e. Greece or Russia) can also considered to be a local church. This has caused complications in the United States where Syrian, Albanian, Greek and other Orthodox have existed in the same geographic area while still remaining a part of their local church in another country. The various churches which constitute the worldwide Anglican Communion have a similar understanding of a national church also being a local church. However, Anglican and Orthodox polities differ from Roman Catholicism in that neither group has one patriarch or archbishop who is preeminent above the others that head the various autonomous national churches such as Catholics have with the Bishop of Rome.
Multi-site ecclesiology shares an emphasis on geographic ideas with episcopal polity churches partially because of their widespread nature. However, some multi-site churches differ significantly from episcopal polity churches in that hierarchy is purposefully deemphasized. Though one person can be called the lead pastor, there still can be a sense of collegiality and equality between all the pastors in the network. There is not really the “bishop” idea like what is found in Episcopal polity churches.
Like with the ELCA, a multi-site ecclesiology shares with episcopal polity churches an understanding of church that sees it as something more than a local gathering of believers. This can be on a metropolitan, regional, or even worldwide level for multi-site churches. For all of these ecclesiologies, church is something that has a larger organizational presence beyond a local gathering. In episcopal polity churches, this can be at the diocesan, national, or even worldwide level.
Clearly, though there are some similarities, a multi-site polity/ecclesiology differs substantially from Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox understandings. These traditions have had hundreds or thousands of years to develop their ecclesiologies, while the multi-site idea is still in its infancy. It will be interesting to see how this develops for multi-site churches as time progresses.