by Paul Bagshaw
What is it with institutions? You can’t live in ’em, can’t live without ’em.
I wish to suggest that institutions – specifically churches – are inherently paradoxical structures and, while it’s hard to live in the midst of paradox, nonetheless paradox has helped the church survive.
Some paradoxes are inherent in all human structures. Time itself creates a central paradox: decisions about the future can only be made retrospectively. Decisions made yesterday in response to a problem which arose the day before are effectively determinative for the following day. Organizations that are ostensibly forward looking are in fact and inevitably walking backwards through a dark forest making blind guesses about its next steps.
Paradox is also built into the role of churches. Churches sustain and validate Christian identity, sponsor mission and substantiate faith, judge innovation and sustain continuity. None of these is a matter of Solomonic judgment. Validation, mission, faith, development and authenticity – the continuous enactment of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – are not so much decisions as agonistic processes that always remain unfinished. Canons and constitutions, decisions and declarations are merely truces for the time being. The practical consequence is that faith and holiness are evoked and sustained by horse-trading, argument, devotion and bitterness.
Moreover: a church that struggles together, that fights together, is a church that stays together. The quickest way to schism is to proclaim absolute and unnegotiable Truth. (Even this is paradoxical: the proclamation of Truth in such terms entails a claim to power greater the church which nurtured the claimant.) The second quickest is to stop talking to those who disagree with you. For the most part unity and identity depend on pragmatism and conflict: on accepting the coexistence of incompatible expressions of faith within the same organization, and on agreeing to disagree on proper and possible embodiments of God’s will, all the while seeking to promote your own judgment against others’.
Churches are always insufficient for the formation of faith: they are also all we’ve got. Faith is both mundane and transcendent. The most sensitive formation can do no more than teach, lead, prompt, predispose, canalise faith. Faith is essentially God-orientated. In the evocation of faith churches point beyond themselves and yet, simultaneously, churches insist: ‘keeping looking at the pointing finger’. Thus they fulfil and frustrate their own goal.
Churches are also always inadequate to the challenges they face in the realisation of faith. The challenge is perennial: to evoke, disclose and validate Christian faith in changing circumstances. Yet digitisation and global communication means that everything is changing so rapidly – think the invention of printing raised to the power 10, at least, – that no institution can possibly keep up. Decisions made yesterday are barely relevant today and forgotten tomorrow.
This is an emotional process. Evocation and realisation of faith has gone into a state of corporate shock. Consequently it can seem perfectly rational to react by diving back into barricaded redoubts and to reassert eternal verities to hold back the chaotic tide of change. It won’t work: but it might give some breathing space. It also seems equally rational to articulate and embrace new Christian paradigms and emerging practices. They won’t last, though they may enable some adaptation.
Schism and new unities, reclaiming the past and reinventing the future, are aspects of the same processes of uncontrollable change. And no-one can know where, or even if, we’ll emerge from the storm. There is only now: all we can do is our faithful best in the moment.
And yet, curiously and positively, it may be that institutional paradoxes are themselves a hope in times of trouble.
Historically the church has repeatedly dragged words, formulae and the gospels themselves out of one intellectual and cultural world-view and re-articulated them in another, sometimes with horrendous violence, sometimes with hardly anyone noticing. It can and will happen again. The lack of a one-dimensional, single-meaning foundation for faith, the polyphony of biblical voices, that Jesus told stories rather than expounded a philosophical treatise, the paradoxical instability and persistence of the institutional church, the capacity of members to reach outside the institution for criteria of validation and action that can only be recognised inside the institution, all give hope for the future. Praise God for uncertainty.
Of course, whatever emerges in some new world, we will still be tormented by paradox and destabilised by doubt. We will still (if we live to see it) love and hate the institution, its heirs and successors. We will still make self-contradictory demands and resent each ambivalent answer. Our battles will be forgotten and new ones will have taken their place. Churches will still be necessary and insufficient, domineering and broken.
But that’s the way of institutions: they give life and they stifle it; and hope remains.
The Revd. Paul Bagshaw Paul Bagshaw is priest in two parishes in North Tyneside, UK, not far from the North Sea coast.
“Church of Saint Simeon Stylites 01” by Bernard Gagnon – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution