Institutional power: reality or illusion?

People expect an awful lot from institutions and, of course, those who are given access to the levers of institutional power have a natural tendency to believe that the decisions they arrive at are binding and, permanent. Institutions are ‘perfectly uncomfortable’ with the notion of provisionality!

It is, of course, true that institutions  make decisions that stand the test of time, and that some decisions, once reached, appear irrevocable.

For British Christians the decision, made at the Council of Whitby, to accept Roman Catholicism as the ‘state religion,’ must have felt like the end of the matter. But, of course those arguing the toss in the synod chamber could not have predicted the political and biological challenges that Henry VIII would face, to say nothing of the  Pan-European influence of a certain M. Luther!

Nevertheless for around 1000 years (or half the length of Christian history) the decisions made in Whitby stuck.

The Council of Nicaea debated the nature of Christian belief, and, through the words of the creed, systematized Christian doctrine. But, even though churches up and down the land proclaim the creed Sunday by Sunday, those self-same churches have very different interpretations of what some of the creedal statements actually mean.

I suspect that many of the participants at Nicaea would be horrified by some, maybe even most, contemporary interpretations of the creed.

Whisper it quietly but even within the Church of England there is no homogeneous agreement on what precisely is meant by ‘the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ ‘the Communion of Saints,’ or even the ‘resurrection of the dead.’ And these are not matters of trivia!

I also suspect (well, in fact I know) that Oxford’s most ‘famous’ Churches have vastly different perspectives on the ‘sacrament of the Eucharist’ for example. But, by and large churches live, in a sate of moderately good disagreement, with ‘our’ diverse interpretations.

But when it comes to ‘extra creedal’ beliefs, such as around issues of human sexuality, or the nature of marriage, then for some reason many feel unable to disagree well and, get on with their own congregational lives.  Strange but true!

The C of E appears to be able to happily accommodate a range of views in respect of so-called ‘first order’ issues, but over ‘second order’ issues, no way! And, the irony is that the Church is threatening to tear itself apart over such issues.

Why? I suspect it has as much to do with the fear of ‘liberation’ as it does the nature of Christian doctrine. The invocation of doctrine, as the study of Church history demonstrates, is useful in the face of ambiguity, fear and perceived loss of control!

There are also some who believe that either change, or no-change, can and will be settled at the institutional, or synodical, level.

This is a deeply flawed belief for four reasons:

  • First, very little is ever irrevocably settled. Institutions can make policies, write liturgies, encourage practices but, what they cannot do is predict the future, or, mandate and control the meaning that individuals and groups will attribute to the practices and rituals they participate in.
  • Secondly, it completely ignores the real change  frequently from below, or at least from the periphery. Think of the impact of ‘liberation theology,’ or characters like St. Francis, who the Church remembered yesterday. St. Francis and the liberation theologians dramatically shaped the theology of the Church, devoid of institutional support! The Church has a tendency to co-opt theologies that gain ‘mass’ (awful pun – sorry) support. Post event strategy is a neat institutional trick! The institution, whatever it might think, is in reality, the arbiter of very little. This reality is often deeply disturbing for those of a conservative disposition.
  • Thirdly, this belief represents a misunderstanding of the characteristic nature, the DNA, of the Church of England. As Michael Mayne has argued the Church of England, is and always has been, ‘an organic, developing body within an organic changing society.’ Controlling organic change is notoriously difficult, if not impossible.
  • Fourthly, those who believe in the ‘authority of institutional’ decisions are naive when it comes to realpolitik. Last year the British electorate were assured that the ‘Scottish question’ would be definitively answered through the mechanism of a Scottish referendum. Well, it could be argued that the question, in spite of the referendum, remains open.  Will ‘our’ relationship with Europe really be resolved come the promised U.K. wide referendum?  Some issues just refuse to go away.

So if I am correct what can synods and church councils actually do?

It seems to me their members have two choices. They can either engage with issues constructively, or destructively. Put another way they can either work with or against the forces of historical and political reality (and I would also argue, theological reality).

That is all they can do, when all has been said and done. 

Working constructively means accepting the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity accepts the reality of disagreement at the institutional level whilst, devolving decision-making to the local level. Disagreement at the institutional level stands the chance of becoming ‘an objective fact’ rather than an agent of disintegration.

Working destructively involves working all out to preserve the status quo, to impose a mono-orthodoxy and, to operate under the illusion that power and authority are vested in the institution. The problem is that this is view a simply an illusion, because when all is said and done (think of the liberation theologians) communities will appropriate meaning, and develop what they believe to be appropriate responses, in situ. To a large extent theology is always contextual.

Progress and change are inevitable, or put another way, doctrine is both contested and provisional; always has been and always will be. Disagreement is a fact of life, both inside and outside the Church.

So given this reality, the only remaining question is ‘what are we as a Church going to do?’


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