Tonight, I attended an event for fostering understanding between people of different beliefs. It was a panel discussion, and the panelists were members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, a self-identified liberal Methodist church, and a member of a local Independent Baptist church.
The discussion was polite and useful, and there were no surprises for me from the panelists. I was really hoping there would be some surprises for me, but unfortunately it wasn't from the designated speakers. A kindly retired gentleman in the row in front of me did ask a very interesting question, which is, "Have you studied any ways of interpreting the Bible that came before the 19th century?"
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that none of them had. Not one of them could name Origen of Alexandria or Saint Jerome, for example (just as I wouldn't have been able to before my 20s). Not to mention any of the other early Christian thinkers who compiled, translated, or interpreted the Bible. I could tell that the gentleman in front of me was a bit disappointed when he asked the question twice and received non-answers both times.
At the end of the panel discussion, I introduced myself to him and mentioned that I had actually read earlier Christian scholars of the Bible and talked about his work with a campus ministry group. At one point, he asked me, "What's your denomination?" I replied, "I don't have a denomination."
That was the end of that discussion, and we bid each other a good evening. But those who know me might wonder why I would have told him that. After all, I do go to church regularly. And the church I attend has a name and clearly defined doctrines. I'm a Roman rite Catholic. So why do I not consider myself part of a denomination?
I don't consider the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion, the Oriental Orthodox churches, or the Assyrian Church of the East to be denominations either, and for the same reason I don't consider the Catholic communion to be a denomination. The ecclesiology in light of which denominations make sense didn't exist before the Reformation; the ancient churches use a completely different frame of reference for understanding their relationships with one another.
If I were to ask a post-Reformation Christian, "Under which Patriarch's jurisdiction are you?" they would probably have no idea what I was asking. They (and my younger self) would not understand the question because their ecclesiology doesn't function even partially based on patriarchates, apostolic sees, or popes. But if I ask my Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Catholic friends, they have a frame of reference that allows them to answer the question. My Antiochian Orthodox friends can mention John X of Antioch, my Coptic Orthodox friends can mention Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, and my Catholic friends can mention the Patriarch of the West, Pope Francis of Rome.
Of course, I never ask a post-Reformation Christian, "Under which Patriarch's jurisdiction are you?" They don't have a Patriarch any more than I have a denomination. Nor do I ask a pre-Reformation Christian, "What's your denomination?" That would be the wrong question to ask, which is why I generally just ask, "What church do you go to?" when someone indicates that they are a church-going Christian.
It has the benefit of politely revealing the information I seek while not assuming that everyone shares the same ecclesiology I do. I completely understand why someone who has no significant familiarity with any form of Christianity older than the 1600s would ask this question, because they really have no way of knowing why it's not a good question.
I'm not offended when asked my denomination, but it is a good opportunity to discuss older forms of Christianity and their very different understanding of what it means to be part of the Church.