I’m glad Jonny has posted some of his thoughts and responses to these posts on his site, and Andrew Jones has some great thoughts too, backed up by a range of pieces he’s written around the issues here too.
As I set out in a long comment on Jonny’s blog, I’m not convinced that his critique is fair, mostly because I don’t think what I’m trying to do here is bashing institutions. The simply summary is this: having picked up on a trajectory that seemed to be leading away from institutional forms of faith in the 90’s and 00’s, I now feel that that trajectory has changed, and is leading back towards institutional forms. No value judgement intended.
I do want to draw in one more theme which I explore in ‘Other’ (which comes highly recommended by Pete Rollins, Brian Maclaren, Phyllis Tickle, Shane Claiborne… 😉 ) which is to do with how institutions can become damaging – and what we should do to try to counteract that.
First of all – I completely agree with Jonny when he says:
“There is plenty of research around that suggest that if you have a local church in your community it will be full of people who make life better giving themselves away on behalf of others in the community, getting involved in soup runs, parent associations, prison visiting – generally all round kind and caring people.”
Churches are full of good people. I’ve very very rarely met anyone who is not likeable or well-meaning or sincere about what they are doing. But I tend to find out these things about people after the service, over a drink or a meal. Why? Because when people begin to inhabit the framework of the institution they change.
I’ll use sermons as an example. I have rarely met anyone who thinks sermons are a good idea. They can be amusing and enjoyable and informative, but on the whole everyone I speak to considers them anachronistic and ineffective in terms of education or enrichment. Yet sermons remain. Why? Because the aggregated effect of small amounts of inertia and uncertainty about how changes could be made can lead to a huge amount of corporate inertia.
The slowness of the body to respond to environmental changes can be a good thing, but it can also be a huge disadvantage. One only need look at the difficulties in negotiating a climate deal in Copenhage that everyone individually agreed needed to happen to appreciate this.
We are communal people. We like to gather, to have community. And institutions – incorporations of our values and shared goals – are an inevitable part of life. I am not arguing here – contrary to Jonny’s interpretation – for a life beyond institutions, as we both know this is not possible. I am arguing for a new approach to corporate life though, at whatever zoom level you might take: small local groups and beyond.
One might use the Jubilee principle of regular, deliberate reorganisation as a spring board into this. What I’ve tried to do in the book is to look at how our attempts at permanence – and institutions tend to be about ensuring longevity – lead to various sorts of violence as structures and boundaries ossify. I then go on to argue that for a faith centred on death and resurrection we should be far less afraid of letting our church structures die and be reborn before they begin to be damaging and draining.
As I write in the book:
I strongly believe that while the Church has an eternal dimension, our manifestations of church should retain a deliberately temporal one. While maintaining healthy networked relationships with fellow-believers, the public expressions of our faith will emerge and spring up in marvellous ways to temporarily liberate a space or time, but will then disappear before they can petrify and harden.
In other words, I’m not arguing that relationships should be short-lived, nor that institutions – some formalising of these relationships around a shared goal or project – should not exist. Rather, I sincerely believe that while relationships are maintained in the informal work of eating and sharing lives together, the structures that form around them should be regularly deconstructed, and this will probably require the move away from full-time professionalised clergy.
Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years. Was it ineffective? No. It was a TAZ, an intensification of life for all involved. And we should be glad that it wasn’t permanent – because surely a divine Jesus could have stayed around for ever? He knew that that would lead to violence. It always does.
So my concern about the move back towards more formal institutions and more ‘hard’ forms of leadership is that in opting for a more secure structure by becoming ordained, people are prolonging the current manifestation of an institution that – looking at the comments here – has caused a great deal of pain and frustration. Perhaps that’s romantic tosh, but remember: Jesus could have, but didn’t become a Pharisee.
[Related series: Leadership and Emergence where I look at the problem of leadership within an emergent system.]
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