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The church as institution: life or death

The church as institution: life or death

by Br. Richard Edward Helmer

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. – the Book of Common Prayer

I write this as I prepare to travel to Indianapolis to attend the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church. This week, one of my colleagues wrote me that he would be “thinking of me” at General Convention. . . as he sat relaxing on the beach during his summer vacation! The implication was clear: the politics of a large legislative body doing the Church’s business just may not be his cup of tea. Maybe he’s a bit like Mary to my Martha, partaking in the “better part.”

It’s very much in fashion these days to be hard on the institutional church, and not without good reason. We have not been our own best publicists, often the focus it seems only of scandal or, at best, controversy in the secular press. The institutional models we have in The Episcopal Church, for one, are a blend of Medievalism, centuries-old democratic and parliamentary politicking, and 1950’s corporate structure. None fit at all comfortably in the rough-and-tumble of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Some of our institutional systems are in the midst of a train wreck of internecine quarrels and others have almost ground to a deathly halt as resources dry up in the ecclesiastical desert of a post-Christian world.

Many of my colleagues these days, and not a small number of church-goers and ex-church-goers all around have become quite jaded about the institutional Church for these and a host of other reasons. And, admittedly, it’s quite easy to fall into sighs when it comes to things as seemingly mundane as maintaining buildings, nursing the slow grind of legislative process, or tending a malfunctioning computer in the office.

One way of thinking about the institutional Church falls into dualism: the sense that the institutional church is not the true Church, which exists as something ineffable in the mind and heart of God — the unmeasurable gathering of all true believers everywhere. The question this line of thinking leaves us with is an uncomfortable one:

Then why have an institution at all?

Is it preferable to shed the shells and tatty clothes of the institution and return to the dusty roads the first disciples walked, where “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”? It’s a romantic notion of Church, to be sure, but is it as real or as tangible as the challenges we face these days with a fleet of buildings and organizations and a faithful band of pilgrims that need careful and attentive stewarding through the storms of both today and tomorrow?

Another way sees the institution as the Church writ large, with all of its powers, walls, and boundaries clearly delineated and illuminated by doctrine, tradition, and practice. The danger of this thinking is that the institution’s mission too easily becomes self-serving. The Church as institution becomes its own glorious, but more often ignominious end. The mission becomes rebuilding and preserving the institution as we see it, which is little better than mere survival. This model of Church doesn’t work well for me, either, if for no other reason than I have yet to meet a Christian who joined any church community merely to help the institution survive. Surely we are not in the business of resuscitating a corpse. Resurrection is something else altogether.

So with those two dubious understandings of the institutional Church before us, where do we go from here? That’s one of the questions General Convention, the highest governing body of The Episcopal Church, will be wrestling with — both implicitly and explicitly — this summer as we meet in the heat in Indianapolis.

As a child of the institutional Church and from a family now in its third generation relying largely on the institution for our livelihood, cynicism can be quite tempting. I’ve seen the institutional Church at its seedy and self-referential worst and at its uplifted best, and, most days everything in between. Cynicism’s not all that helpful for any of it.

The reality of Church for me is much more palatable when I consider the incarnation: the notion that God was born among us in all of our raw, messy, and imperfect humanity. God’s body in Jesus is both spiritual and physical. It needs spiritual nurture and purpose. It needs basic things, too, like food and shelter, even if it is only amidst the beasts, muck, and straw.

In this sense, the delineation between the imperfect institutional church and the perfect “true” Church is illusory. We can’t really have one without the other. The Body of Christ, that’s you and me and all of us together on a journey of following after Jesus, is the Church whether we are gathered together in prayer in hallowed walls, breaking bread together, or beyond the walls in the messy world in our many and myriad jobs and vocations, engaged in rough-and-tumble ministry. We need the institution in all of its messiness and imperfection to help us keep this Body real, to be a tangible vessel and sign of the grace we have received.

When is the institutional Church broken? Only when it stops serving the mission for us to follow after Christ, only when it gets in the way of our being Jesus’ eyes, ears, and hands for a world in need. The institution works when it empowers God’s people everywhere for healing and ministry and carries out the work of the Gospel by transforming hearts, by binding up the wounds of the world in love. Much of the time, of course, the institution is both broken and working: broken like the bread, the Body of Christ is broken for a world in need. . .working to live more deeply into the gracious Gospel it has been asked to carry.

There’s a great deal of talk these days about the death of the institutional Church, and a great deal of accompanying fear and defensiveness as the children step on and over one another to grab for diminishing pieces of the institutional pie. We forget too easily that the heart of our tradition holds that death always leads to resurrection, and the Church has been dying and rising again in our beloved Christ for centuries. That’s what life in a baptismal community – yet another way we describe the mystery of the Church – is about, after all. That’s the hope I carry forward with me this summer to Indianapolis, and one that leads me out of fear about the present state of things by reminding me again of the grace that has brought us this far through death. . . and forever into new life.

The Rev. Br. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA, and a novice in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. He is an alternate deputy to General Convention and secretary of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of California. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs occasionally at Caught by the Light.


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Kathy Staudt

Richard – thank you for this and especially the call to be “a tangible vessel and sign of grace.” Years of service as a Senior Warden taught me how the struggles to live together in the “institution” can be transformative and definitely ways of living into the Incarnation and all its messiness. And I thank you also for beginning with my favorite prayer for the Church, which would change us, I think, if we offered it more intentionally in congregational life as well as at ordinations.

Donald Schell


I don’t read gloom and doom in Richard’s piece. As someone who helped founded a worshiping community that bought property, built a building and is now a parish, I read Richard’s words as asking us to notice how Incarnation is lived differently in the ad hoc apostolic stage and as we grow to become more public and find ourselves thinking of next generations and relationships to other communities (both the kinds of things that require some kind of institutional thinking). And as he speaks of the institution as we know it and wonders whether that body is dying, I hear hope and trust and light in the promise of resurrection. Maybe just a different impression, but in this moment in the church’s life, I’m listening for those who don’t simply speak their fear that the church is dying or other hopeless and despairing descriptions. I’m with you that small numbers can do and have done astonishing things. So it’s not just the question of what’s dying and how to get it on life support, but also how God and our holy, faithful hope will see new community and new ways of being institution rise up from the death and dying we’re seeing. I think we see it now, already the promised and hoped for appearing by grace.


Sorry. Typo. “2.8M active and reserve…”

Kevin McGrane


Wow! What a pair of downer essays! “Nero Fiddles. Rome Burns.” “The Church – Life or Death”. Can we climb out of the tub, put down the razor at our wrists, and take a breath here for a sec?

Lots of hyperventilating about TEC’s decreased numbers and revenue. May I make a modest proposal? Maybe we should face, even embrace, two facts we seem to avoid: we’ve always been a small church, and we always will be a small church.

Once, we were REALLY small. In 1787, our first national census counted us at barely 10,000. The first GC was held in a bedroom. Over the next 200 years, we grew to about 2,000,000. Recently, the trend has been down, but let’s keeps it in perspective. We’ve grown over 200 times in the last 200 years.

Besides, small is not bad. It can be good. Look at two other small but influential organizations: the Jesuits and the Marines.

The Jesuits are the most storied and influential religious order in Christianity. Their size? 19,000 worldwide. Small. Does anyone hear a serious voice calling the Jesuits dead and irrelevant?

Or the Marine Corp. Talk about storied and influential! They are a part of the U.S. Armed Forces, which has a combined total of 2.8 active and reserve members. The number of Marines? 200,000. Again, small. Tell a Marine that the Corp is dead and irrelevant – I’ll call the ambulance for you.

We are small, and will continue to be small for the same reasons the Jesuits and Marines are small: we are authentic and demanding.

Lived properly, our Five Marks of Mission are as demanding as the Jesuit Rule of Life or the Marine Corp’s 11 General Orders. A demanding life is NOT popular among the general public.

The fastest growing churches are mega-churches with stadium seating for its congregation. They sit and listen to 5-piece bands while a minister confirms the sedate life they lead now, not call them to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger.

Is that what we want to be? A cross between a resort and a country club? Probably not.

So, let’s embrace our mission and embrace our size. Small is nimble, flexible, and capable of starting a mission or taking a beach.

The proud. The few. The Piskies! 🙂

Kevin McGrane

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