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A good word about the institutional church

A good word about the institutional church

I have had some differences with Bishop Nick Baines of the Diocese of Bradford in the Church of England, and I think some too-easy culture criticism distracts from his central point in this item form his blog, nonetheless it is heartening to see someone making the case for church with a fully functioning institutional spine:

Now, there are those in England who like to think (in a rather uncommitted liberal way) that if we could only shake off the institution of the church, we could create a new way of being church without all the stuff we find embarrassing or shaming. I recognise that what I am about to say goes wholly against the grain of the self-fulfilment, instant-gratification culture we now inhabit, but such attitudes are naive. They ignore the massive achievements of the church in our cultures – intellectually, socially, educationally, politically, morally, etc. – and collude in the selective memory that encourages costless fantasy.

The Christian Church, in the UK as well as here in Switzerland and Germany, needs to recover confidence in the church itself and the vocation of the church to serve its society. Show me what difference the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association makes to local communities in every corner of the country. Show me how those Christians who want to re-invent church in terms of like-minded people joining together to re-write theology in their own convenient image change one iota of their local community for the better. If you want to do that, you need buildings, people and organisation, vision, commitment and enormous patience. All things the organised church has and uses for the sake of the society around them. The organised church has a unique vocation and needs its people to start having confidence in it again – not for its own sake, but for the sake of those it serves.

So, survival of the church is not our task. Shaping the church to better be able to serve our communities in the name (that is, according to the character of) Jesus Christ is the challenge. It isn’t an easy one, but it is more interesting and exciting than simply trying to keep an institution afloat



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Clint Davis

The tasks required by the example of Jesus just simply cannot happen in any effective manner without a community to carry them out. Second of all, a community trying to invent itself from the ground up cannot devote enough energy to those outside itself in order to carry out these tasks.

A big hat tip to you, Michael, for making the point that institutional “stuff” is inescapable, no matter what.

Michael Russell

The appeal of the new forms of churches and emergences is that they are free of institutional histories, politics, liturgies, etc.

The problem of course is that as human beings we recreate all those things anyway. From mega churches to emergent churches within a few years new histories, rituals and politics emerge. Sorry folks there is no escape.

What existing churches have is presence over time, and while that may carry a lot of baggage, well at least it continues to be there in the community. Institutions are not perfect, neither are the people who populate them, yet they somehow manage to endure over time. Despite their flaws they are there.

Brian McMichael


Preserving the institution per se is the problem.

Preserving the institution is to perpetuate the hazzard of organized religion, which involves the institutionalization of mysticism and metanoia, mercy and justice. Such a process is a little like trying to bottle lightning. The problem is in the bottling, the striving to contain for control and transmission, and quest for on-demand availability.

The problem is not in the lightning, which is always happening somewhere. I think that real spirituality recollects and reflects on the lightning. Real theology can deepen and extend the meaning and the call of lightning for us. Real religion would “go” where the lightning is, which would require discernment and flexibility, a willingness to move, to change, to shed, to risk, to be late, to be disappointed, but at least to go, to do.

Real religion might set out to create some lightning of its own, instead of trying always to convince people that it has the one, true lightning bottled up in a tradition, or in a book, or in a theology, and that there’s none around anymore (though the heartening story circulates that once a very long time ago a real humdinger of a storm was witnessed that changed everyone who lived through it).

Sometimes almost by accident, the real-thing occurs, but the causative conditions and antecedents are usually snuffed out pretty quickly by the chief lightning-bottlers, for such things is not good for business, in this model.

And there is substantial risk in thoroughly institutionalized organizations that those who rise through the ranks of lightning-bottlers are actually not the kind of people anyone would want do such a job – the selection process often unintentionally selecting for mere institutionalizers, arch-bureaucrats, insubstantial chameleons, and even ruthless sociopaths.

So, get it right and the “buildings, people and organisation, vision, commitment and enormous patience” will be there and will come. Get it wrong and focus on the maintenance of power, the thorough taming and codification of behavior and protocol, and the deep-down ossification of byzantine bureaucracies, and you will have dwindling, aging congregations in buildings they cannot afford to maintain, and thusly with no budget for any semblance of mission.

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