Tuesday 6 April 2010

From Jesus to Church?

How did they get from the simple carpenter of Nazareth to the institutional Church, and why?

Over Easter various UK media have been preparing us breathlessly for the Archbishop of Canterbry to denounce the RC church as having lost all credibility in Ireland, indeed a 14 second soundbite implying this was carefully trailed by the BBC, and some of the ignorant and foolish fell for this advertising puff.

When Andrew Marr’s Start the Week symposium went out yesterday morning it became instantly obvious that one tiny soundbite had been culled for advertising purposes from a small section of a sentence in what was actually a highly intelligent discussion involving a fascinating cast of characters, masterfully chaired by Andrew Marr. In 45 minutes of radio, almost nothing was said about the RC Church and the travails of that particular denomination — I think I counted four sentences. The rest was a brilliant discussion of how a simple message becomes institutionalised, for good and evil — UK public radio, in fact, at its very best!

The notion that all institutionalisation is badis one core idea of Philip Pullman’s new book, and paticpants were Andrew Marr (Political commentator) Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury), Philip Pullman (novelist and atheist), Mona Siddiqui (Muslim and academic) and David Baddiel (comedian, who describes himself as “10/10 atheist”).

The debate, available for a week on iPlayer and, I believe as a podcast. I found this section fascinating — very much the money shot. It reflects ideas I remember sketching as a possible first chapter for a book twenty years ago, but being rather too busy in my day job of being an urban vicar for it to come to anything...


In many ways Philip Pullman is novelizing or fictionalizing... the institution and the essence?


I think one of the main themes to come out of Philip’s book is that very strong sense that the price you pay for transmitting a spiritual vision in institutional terms can be very high. And the question sometimes is not so much about the nature of the vision as about the price you want to pay for sustaining it. The argument of the book, if I read it rightly, is that Christianity has paid too high a price. I obviously think not, but..

You’re absolutely right. That’s what I’m saying...


Is it possible to have an effective transmitted religious life that doesn’t have large institutional structures around it?

I think it’s quite hard to imagine because you look at movements which try quite systematically to avoid that, and fifty years down the line you see mysteriously that the surface is beginning to harden. You’re beginning to get institutional transmission. Look at even the history of the Society of Friends, which I suppose in the Christian spectrum is the most anti-institutional of all. It still swings inexorably towards that, because you need some way of recognizing from generation to generation that you’re taking about the same vision. What matters is not, to me, so much whether you have the institution or not as whether the institution has in it enough things to rein you in, to draw you back to where you started and give you a real ground for saying ‘wait a minute! That’s not it...’.

It may be the case, though, that the urge to institutionalize is with all parts of human endeavor because even atheists have the Humanist Association... There are atheist schisms, there certainly are. People define themselves as agnostic or atheist or whatever. It might seem like the most individual choice, but there is a need to communicate whatever belief you have.

There is a difference, however, between institutionalized expressions of religion which give context to religious expression and context to people and reference points, and then how sacred the people who are the leaders within that structure become, and I think we need to differentiate between that.


The process seems to me always that there’s a great original visionary who says “a time is coming soon when heaven will be fulfilled and earth will be full of plenty and delight and wonder” and so on, and then it doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t happen and it goes on not happening and eventually the people who want to preserve this vision have to set up institutions to validate their own positions.


but there also have to be rules, don’t there, because all religions have a vision of the good life and what is a good way of living and that requires rules, and therefore somebody to...


That’s a vision that has a shape, and therefore you can’t say anything counts as a good life, but the temptation then is to push that more and more and more towards codes, where you can tick boxes, and.. present your score at the end, and that is one of the things that the Gospels do really try to undermine and, actually not just the gospels. I think that it’s a great fallacy to say that there’s a big difference between Jewish and Christian Scripture on this. Something of this is going on in a lot of what we call the Old Testament, as well.


Bureaucracy always overcomes vision. It’s a tragedy, and it always will be a tragedy.


But if you’ve got stories which have a strong moral or ethical content and people are forced to go back and reading the stories again and reinterpreting the stories, isn’t that part of the answer to the constant fossilization or hardening caused by the structures?


Bureaucracy will always be undermined by stories, but int he end bureaucracy will always win. That’s why I think it’s a tragedy.


In that sense you're saying a tragedy with no possible way out. the bureaucracy always wins. I think I’d say the stories are stronger than that. I hate saying that to a novelist! But I think stories are very very tough...

But isn’t part of the point of Philip's book that the bureaucracy is set up, as it were, to inject another element into the original story. i.e. to preserve what Philip talked about as a greater truth that is nothing to do with history i.e. to take what might be a story of a man who just said some good things, and make it into a much much great more powerful thing. And that’s what the bureaucracy is set up to do.


That seems to me a bit more intentional than the way a lot of these things work. What I see as I read the New Testament is a central event, the life of Jesus, the words of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and for me also the resurrection of Jesus, causing such an... explosion of ideas and puzzles that the language that already exists can’t cope with, that you have a very complicated period during which the language is settling down in new ways, and you then begin to see the emergence of what we’re calling a bureaucracy, an institutional structure to hold it all. But it’s not quite as though someone comes along and says, “That’s a really good idea here, I’ll market it for you...”

All I would add is that the authority of the Church does not lie in itself. There is a dangerous delusory tendency towards what Pullman calls the magisterium, and ultimately it can compromise and can even undermine the source of faith. The Church’s real authority is emergent, and lies in its capacity to transmit the story authentically.

The measure of its success is not that it swells into a mighty institutional empire, but that it is still possible, even after all the refractive and corrupting influence of the human beings who make up the transmission chain, to distinguish Jesus’ message from its original context, and to attempt to live it in another. The story continues to judge the medium through which it is transmitted. This is the key insight of the Reformation, and the essence a Reformed Catholic Church, to hold that the Church is always accountable to the Word and its original founder.

This programme struck me as a very much more interesting and significant dialogue between sincere atheists and Christians/ Muslims than stale idiotic sixth form knockabout...


Erika Baker said...

I loved this excerpt and I like your comment. But there is one thing missing for me. It is not just a battle between bureaucracy and a potent story. If our faith means anything at all it means that there is an active third player, God, the Spirit, the risen Jesus – whatever you may want to call it. There is a real external force that helps to keep the story alive in us – because it IS alive. If it weren’t, I think Pullman’s assertion that bureaucracy always wins would sadly be true.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Erika. It strikes me you've caught the most important dimension of all. One could misunderstand "the Spirit leading into all truth" as meaning either that the Church never goofs up, or that it has some kind of monopoly of truth — both demonstrably false propositions. I can see great mileage in what I think you're suggesting, that the Spirit's work is to pre vent the Bureaucracy from winning every time, as Pullman suggested it must left to its own devices...

Ann said...

Thanks for pointing us to the interview -- it is excellent -- so excellent I used your excerpt and the program for an Episcopal Café story this morning with attribution to your blog. I discovered that the book by Pullman is not available here in the US yet. Have it on order - more about it later.

Ann said...

I also listened to the ABC's lectures from last week on the Gospel of Mark -- excellent as well. Linked from his web site.

Rosalind said...

I too thought this a wonderful exchange - enlightening for once rather than turning differences into verbal fisticuffs. But I couldn't help think of all the time and energy being expended over the idea of an Anglican covenant when I heard RW's comment about how high a price we are prepared to pay to retain a vision. It seems to me that this is one case where the perceived need to preserve some "magisterium" risks suppressing the possibility of living in a church where the Spirit leads us into all (or some??) truth, which is too high a price for me. And the argument isn't about whether Anglicans want to remain a communion, but about if there is a price that is too high to pay.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Ann. I agree, Rosalind. The question for me that follows from this exchange is about how you work out the price. If we follow our hearts and set the price too low, we lose global coherence and destroy community. If we follow our heads (or habits) and set the price too high, we are in danger of quenching the Spirit. I beleve there are two European legal principles for integrating response to human rights that, pushed to their extremes, would destroy each other — proportioinality and subsidiarity. I wonder if they are relevant here?

Anonymous said...

The media is getting worse.
Especialy the way they act like a pack of animals tearing at its food. Even the way in which they talk. Preaching in a way as though they are mightyer than thou.

But the fact anyone in the BBC can be paid over £90,000 per year for sitting on there *rs reading a teliprompter all day with atleast a maximum of 5 headlines per day is totaly disgusting. they should try living on less than £10,000 and the same should be said for the political eleit. They aint any better than anyone else. If anything they probably cannot even fit a light bulb. But they would be able to rais ther voices over you, and make you feel small.

They like many others are purley in the job to loard it up over everyone else. Greed Power, Money.

Not one of them has one Jot of Godlyness about them, and they will for sure be turned away at the end of days.

People these days feel that just because they go to church and sit and listen to a serman or two, and pay vast or small amounts into a church pot think they are some how guarateed entry into the lords home. It makes me laugh.
Looking at all these sheep from the outside, scrabaling amoungst the decay of modern day life. Fools the lot. But there is hope for mankind if only they would open there hearts, and there minds.
Few do find it, and that is the only thing keeping this plannet spining. For without the few honest sole on this earth, for sure it would be blasted baron.

And that is the Trueth.
You are all being watched.

Rosalind said...

Thank you for your response, Bishop Alan. The problem as I see it is not so much how to balance different conflicting rights (a very 21stC., Western view - though I admit that this is the culture we are in) but whether communion is created by relationship or institutional structure. The covenant, however it is formulated, is an attempt to use an institutional structure to mend a broken or damaged relationship. I understood the reports of Indaba groups at Lambeth 2008 to be working on a relationship model - but instead of then applying this model on a larger scale the institutional mind set took over again and created a set of formulae from above instead of encouraging relationships "on the ground". So bishops can work relationally and then create a set of dogmas for the rest of us to sign up to???? That's not intended to be as cynical as it may sound - but is this an example of PP's "magisterium" over-riding the vision of a communion (and a faith?) which is essentially relational? Apply this argument to other painful conflicts in the C of E at the moment - the resort to codes of practice, rules, boundary setting, "protecting" tender consciences etc, however well-intentioned, creates institutional barriers and power where what is missing is a trusting relationship. The irony is that the formulae are designed to deal with a lack of trust and relationship - but they will only be prevented from becoming barriers if the trust is already there. So what we see is the loss of vision and its replacement by an institution with a magisterium... nevertheless I still have hope, or I wouldn't even bother writing this!
Thank you very much for your always stimulating blog and the opportunity to try out a few of these ideas and be responded to seriously.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Aha! the Covenant! I think you are onto a very significant seam of gold (or crap, or both) here.

I understand the instinct to try and articulate some basis for being a particular community other than simply the English-speaking heritage. However

(1) the history is rather against the enterprise. Most Covenants in history have either achieved nothing or, where they had teeth, became instruments for exclusion...

(2) Reforming structures is a particularly male right handed idea of how to sort out a mess. Little bopoys say if they had new football boots they'd score more goals. In fact they don't score goals because they're lazy and don't practice and are sociopathic in the team. But rather than face all that challenge, let's just pester for a new pair opf football boots.

(3) One alternative to structural tinkering is to pay attention to process. This has the advantage that most systems fail on relational or process grounds way before their structures give out. People of goodwill can operate a bad structure to produce a half decent result. People of badwill will find a way of using the most coherent and effective structures for screwing people...

(4) So my question about the Covenant, which may indeed be an excellent idea, but will have to be demonstrated to be this before people will buy it, is Who wants it, posirtively, and why?

(5) Final elephant in room: If one lot want it to police other people they don't want to talk to directly, they're wasting their time. Fact. Cuts all ways.

Ann said...

I wonder why though the ABC has to take cheap shots at the US- at ignorant "Americans" who allegedly don't know about Lebanese Christians--even after Danny Thomas and Tony Shaloub!
sort of dampens my enthusiasm for any thing he says. After all his pressing of the Covenant which I find anti-Anglican I was just thinking maybe he has something to say after listening to his lectures on the Gospel of Mark, and then hearing this comment I wonder about him.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I have to say I;ve come across all sorts of people of all Western backgrounds who make the mistake he was talking about.Someone told me last year there were more Palestinian Christians in Chicago than the west bank now.

In 2004 I went to a school's 150th anniversary and after fascinating questions about Vctorian life was asked about the war in Jerusalem in 1854, and had to say there wasn't one. Before Western powers started sorting everything out in their own inimitable way there had been centiuries of (admittedly rather dilatory) peace and tolerance all round... :-(

Anonymous said...

From WombatPPC

God Created Man, Then Made the Jews !
Jews Fight and Fight.
God Makes Sends his Son, knowing full well what will happen, but hoping mankind can change. They failed. Killed his Son.

This Upset God, even though he knew it would happen.

God Makes Muslims, To terroris Man and to punish the Jews. Which Goes on to this day. Making the land a Dry and Arid Place. Bleached dry by mans folly, and anger, until gods temper subsides.
It feels like forever to mankind, but it lest that a single breath for God.

Dry and Arid. Just like Today.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Er... WPPC, I've published your musings, with disturbing unhistorical overtones and undertones. I remember an Evangelical street preacher in the market years ago with a little enamel badge saying "you need Christ." Your post makes me realise how right he was...

Pam Smith said...

I heard ++ Rowan speak at a fresh expressions day before Easter and I was hugely inspired by his summary of our job as the church:

"We go over familiar stories and find them taking us out into the deep. What story do we want to share?'

People have to form organisations to get things done, as organisations grow they have to have structures, and structures tend to become rigid and dictate future activity.

Fortunately, Jesus did not say 'Go make organisations' but 'go make disciples'.

So while those of us that are called to grapple with the structures do so - because people who are trapped in the structures need help - if we can't make the structures conducive to the Gospel then the Gospel will spring up somewhere else.

It's frustrating that so much energy goes into maintaining the structures but it's inevitable.

At the end of my Reader training we did an excellent module on the Kingdom, there was an interesting dissonance in spending the last few weeks of our training considering the transformative nature of the Gospel before being (mainly) released back into churches that were firmly in 'maintenance' mode.

berenike said...

The magisterium *is* the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth. Really. Just because there are birettas floating about where there are bishops, doesn't mean the Holy Spirit isn't there.

Even my ultra-Calvinist (wee Wee Free) chum holds that the Holy Spirit works through a teaching authority in a visible church (though she might avoid putting it like that).

Innocent Smith writes on Pullman here.

Ann said...

Thanks Pam - so true. What I really liked in the discussion was the ABCs comment that "story" subverts institution - Pullman does not believe that (odd for an author) - but I do and it gives me hope.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for an excellent line of discussion: I'd like to reflect further on the relationship between our foundational gospel story and the institutional Church, as I believe it would help missionally to major on the former in a more focussed way.

Thanks for Innocent Smith. I like the idea that PP is doing exactly what he sees the Church as having done. It's more than possible...

Many of us would see the of Roman magisterium (in its non Philip Pullman sense) as part of the Holy Spirit leading the whole Church into all truth; but not by any manner of means the whole; actually, quite honestly, not very much of it right now. This is nothing to do with what clergy wear, and everything to do with the difficulty of believing the seemingly extravagant claims of an institution which has often in the past 1,000 years, and rather egregiously of late, showed what one can only call no higher level of moral or spiritual discernment than any other denomination's leadership. The early Church and medieval Conciliarists seem to have given a far sounder account of this Spiritual process than Cardinal Bellarmine and the later Ultramontanes...

berenike said...

With all due respect, you appear to be confusing the bishops with the magisterium...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm sorry if I'm misunderstanding this. I thought the Roman theory since 1870 had been that the pope and bishops corporately, and supremely the Pope, actually embodied the magisterium.

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