Monday, October 19, 2020

True Christianity marches through the institutions, including the church?

My attention has been drawn to an article which sets out the history of the recent schism in our church (here). The article is well researched and well written and interviews some of our key religious, academic commentators. Not sure about the headline the sub-editor has given it!

Now, this post is NOT about the schism and I may or may not publish your comment if you are going to comment about the schism.

In the course of the article it quotes Peter Lineham, arguably the most well informed observer of our Kiwi religious landscape.

"That’s led to uncertainty about organised religion’s future. “The whole idea that religion can be held together through institutional structures could just be wrong,” mulled Lineham. “A lot of religiosity today is not neatly confined within traditional frameworks, as [it] used to be. And issues like [homosexuality or transgender rights], which institutions make such heavy weather of, most individuals navigate around much more easily.”"

Now, again, for clarity and for deterrance of possible comments, this post is not about issues like homosexuality or transgender rights, nor about whether institutions are making heavy weather of them compared to individuals.

The question here, the point Peter Lineham makes, which seems worth pondering (albeit at risk of making me positionally redundant) is that of whether institutions [churches in the case of Christianity] are needed to "hold religion together"?

Of course, as a simple statement of fact it is true, "A lot of religiosity today is not neatly confined within traditional frameworks, as it used to be."

It is also true that there is a way of reading the story of Jesus of Nazareth and then of his apostle, Paul of Tarsus, as the story of the breaking down of the "institution" of Judaism (as then experienced) and as the story of a religiosity - the dynamics of the Christian experience in the First Century - which could not be confined in frameworks as traditioned in the consciousness of those who became the first Christians.

What do you think?

For myself, I can see that the church is often an institution (and, on many matters, not only those most controversial, makes heavy weather of things).

But the church reads the gospel. It always has a shot at being what it is meant to be!


Jonathan said...

Community is so essential to Christianity that I wonder what a non-institutional community of believers would look like. Perhaps there is a long way to travel from Christian institutions to communities Jesus envisaged; regardless, they will have the blessings and troubles of family life. Perhaps they will be closer to being congregational than denominational. But I doubt if they could be framework-free without dissolving into a sea of individualism; of privatised spirituality. That doesn't sound like Christianity.

Peter Carrell said...

I agree with you Jonathan, though I might be biased!

I think the appropriate response to Peter Lineham's point would be (could start with) consideration of the trajectory in the NT itself where Paul's apostolic work establishing communities ends with (e.g.) 1 Corinthians 11 (and other parts of 1 Corinthians) establishing a formal framework for congregational life in response to failures.

Anonymous said...

“The whole idea that religion can be held together through institutional structures could just be wrong...”

It is.

Christians in the Roman Empire were a new ethnicity in the cities of an empire in decay.

Pre-Modern Christians in medieval Christendom were held together by loose, interlaced networks of bishops that shared patristic dogma and an evolving practice. That's not we think of as an institution, but pre-Moderns hardly lacked community.

Modern Christians lived in nation-states legitimated by continuity with Christendom, but also aspiring to secularity. Within these states, believers institutionalised as corporations that carried the continuity whilst the organs of state negotiated more secular modes of civil order and rule.

Post-Modern Christians live in nation-states that have achieved independent legitimacy and a fully secular order. What should they do with the corporations founded by Modern Christians? Some want them to become virtual nations within their states in which Christendom lives on as little changed as possible (eg Benedict Option, Diocese of Sydney). Others see reversion to Late Antiquity.


Anonymous said...


No moment is repeated; no restoration succeeds. Still, some see strong analogies between the situations of the Body through the C4 and in the West today. We could list a few--

(a) Pluralism. Christianity is a more or less senior religion among several in the same society. It is not, as in the intervening centuries, the default religion of whole societies.

(b) Competition. Christianity has close competitors in secular psychotherapy and Islam, just as it once had them in the philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism and in the cults of Isis and Mithra.

(c) Resistance. There is open resistance to Christianity per se, not just to particular churches or doctrines, in the mainstream of the culture.

(d) Culture. Persons socialised in our culture must unlearn some central themes of it to unite with Christ and his Body. For example, there is a huge difference between the mainstream idea of a self-authored life and such Christian ideas as election, calling, and providence. In antiquity, the mere idea of a Creator had to be taught from Genesis to catechumens preparing for baptism.

(e) Morality. States and their societies follow norms on sex, family, power, violence, wealth, and war that are beyond the Judaic pale of the apostolic faith. Even after the conversion of Constantine, this continued to be the case through the centuries of the conversion of the Mediterranean and the West.

(f) Compromise. States can function without the legitimation of churches, and almost no church in the West would tolerate state intervention in an internal matter. Just as the apostles would have made no compromises with Caesar (eg just war theory), so some Christians today embrace a *radical two kingdoms* (aka R2K) theology in which there is no necessary correlation between state policy and the will of God (eg Yoder, Hauerwas on Christian pacifism).

Given these and other similarities, how can liberal and conservative projects to conserve or even restore Christendom succeed? This is the Grand Topic of which That Topic was a bloody but minor subtopic. Only in their dreams are liberal Christians leading Western societies anywhere at all; they have no power, no influence, no effect on the ground. And unless they discriminate with more care than we have seen, conservative Christians will hang on to some of the relics of Christendom, but miss what perdures in its legacy for faith today. The two poles fight.

The corporations that moderns founded to organise the Body cannot contain these polar skirmishes because those are at bottom about the utility of the corporations themselves. An entirely society-loving Body is hobbled by the need to ask the permission of conservatives before doing something situational or novel. An entirely society-fearing Body can only view governance by elected members-in-society as a threat to its mission. The late unpleasantness has played out in a few churches, not through the normal synodical process, but as a stand-off between unionised conservatives and synodical majorities. Whether schism results or not, the corporation has not contained the conflict.

To be sure, those unionised conservatives can be very fond of corporations and even synods, provided that these are committed to their project of conserving Christendom as a virtual state. This charitably explains the seeming contradiction between their disobedience to Communion canons of polity and their campaign to be fully recognised by that very Communion. They are like heirs trying to get the family silver from a co-heir who prefers to eat with chopsticks. "You don't actually need it and we do, so..."

I do not choose sides; I doubt the polarisation; I respect the centre. But when I imagine the Body occupying the broad ground between the poles where the truths recognised by each of them are acknowledged, it does not have the shape of the corporations we know.

Peter Lineham's hunch appears to be correct.


Anonymous said...

Jonathan and + Peter,

You are there and I am here, and you know Peter Lineham far better. But when I read his account, it seemed to me that the "institutional structures" that he likely had in mind were the dispute-resolution mechanisms of modern denominations, not those that are organic to the Body herself.

So, yes Jonathan, those who are already in a soup of individualism will stay there if the corporations fall away. Not all Christians are so misguided.

And, yes + Peter, those who believe in salvation through participation as St Paul did will recapitulate the original discovery of the order organic to the Body. Here up yonder, we have already seen the force of geography impose episcopacy on churches that have no official knowledge of the historic episcopate. If not for our corporate walls, would we have brought them into the succession by now?


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman for setting out distinctions and differences within the concept of "institutional church" or "church as institution."

I am taken by your setting out the way in which the church can (unwittingly) think of itself as a corporation or a state and then some actions, reactions to decisions become understandable as a body corporate rather than a [the] Body of Christ.

I wonder if you are aware of the impact of American financial concerns on church as corporation far away?

We are finding in NZ that, no matter what kind of church we are re "institution", if we want a bank account as a charitable body we face increasing difficulty (at worst) or complexity (at best) as American requirements re anti-money laundering rules demand more and more documentation, formalised decision-making etc over the simplest of matters (e.g. changing a signatory to a bank account). It is getting to a point where we may need to cease this administrative nightmare by having one single bank account for (say) a whole Diocese-and-all-its parishes ... if that is not becoming a "corporation" I don't know what is!! :)

Anonymous said...

"I am taken by your setting out the way in which the church can (unwittingly) think of itself as a corporation or a state and then some actions, reactions to decisions become understandable as a body corporate rather than a [the] Body of Christ."

Peter, the Reformation distinction between the Church visible and invisible is sometimes invoked for just such purposes. In sacraments and pastoral acts, we encounter the Church invisible; in ancillary corporate entities, the Church visible. Churchfolk must keep them in due correlation.

On that account, there is nothing wrong with the Body using corporations for mundane purposes, but the Body as user cannot be reducible to the corporations that it uses. Speaking ecumenically, that has usually meant that bishops speak for the Body-as-user to boards of used corporations (eg synods, seminaries, pension funds, property) that understand this dynamic. But sometimes a bishop is recognised in the civil law as himself a *corporation sole*, and simply or complexly does what the Body needs with the entities s/he controls. The anti-laundering form-filling that you mention is bound up with these two methods.

The due correlation is the tricky part. The gap that Oliver O'Donovan laments in the 39A (and some actual confessions) leaves the ordinary Protestant unsure how to think of the Body as something present and earthly yet not corporate. That is the problem addressed by Oden's paleo-orthodoxy, various books of Robert Jenson, much of N T Wright's scholarship, Abraham's Canonical Theism, dissertations on St Maximus, reforming movements among evangelicals, etc.