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...