Monday, June 15, 2015

Cornell West and 'institutional' Christianity

American superstar academic (as he was billed by the Sydney Morning Herald), Cornell West recently appeared on the ABC's Q&A.  Responding to a question about Gay Marriage and the Catholic church, West staked out his own credentials. His reply was prefaced as follows.

"I am a revolutionary Christian, which means I have a deep suspicion of institutional Christianity."

This comment drew one of the largest cheers of the evening. The cheering was both surprising and unsurprising. Surprising - because it was a reminder that Christianity still has enough cultural purchase for the distinction even to register in what could be assumed to be a relatively randomly constructed audience. Unsurprising - because once such a distinction is made, no one is going to stand up and cheer for institutional Christianity. The very phrase, 'institutional Christianity', presents to many, both within and beyond the church, as some kind of oxymoronic mutual contradiction, the error of which will be self-evident to anyone whose eyes are only half open to the manifest failings of Christian institutions. So the argument goes.

What exactly, however, is wrong with Christianity being 'institutional', or least with having institutional aspects? Are the manifest recent failings of the churches due to their institutional character? Are there substantial theological reasons for treating 'institutional Christianity' as an oxymoron. Is there something about the Christian gospel which is inherently anti-institutional?

It is possible to lament the recent failures of the churches, to share in their necessary repentance and be committed to their institutional reform without rejecting the role of institutions as somehow non-Christian.

Indeed, what is it that actually drives this wedge between 'institution' and 'Christianity'? What is it that leads many to argue that Christianity is a 'movement' and not an 'institution'? Certainly, Jesus never laid out a constitution or a set of regulations for running an organisation. Yet the very impulse of his preaching, and of the later preaching about him, was to call together a new people, a new community. And a 'community' is different from a 'movement' - at least the two words suggest different kinds of allusions and resonances. 'Movement' seems to suggest freedom, spontaneity and heroism. 'Community' suggests accountability, mutuality and a degree of order. So defined, I think 'community' is much closer than 'movement' to the forms of life to which the gospel calls us.

More generally, beyond the church, 'community' has been pitted against 'institution' - and with some serious costs. Indeed, there is a certain romance about 'community' and its alleged capacity to save us from the ills of institutions. The American sociologist, Richard Sennett, puts his finger on this romance quite brilliantly in his The Culture of the New Capitalism.

The insurgents of [the 1960s] believed that by dismantling institutions they could produce communities: face to face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a communal realm in which people became sensitive to one another's' needs. This has certainly not happened. The fragmenting of big institutions has left many people's lives in a fragmented state: the places they work more resembling train stations rather than villages.... Taking institutions apart has not produced more community. (1)

Sennett goes on: "Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions." (2)

I think this is salutary for our thinking about the extent to which Christianity is, isn't, should be or shouldn't be 'institutional'. There is certainly an argument for developing more nuanced rhetoric than Cornell West employed on Q&A - much as I loved just about everything else he said. Christians, of all people, need to remember (as if they needed reminding) that 'movements' and 'communities' can sin as much as individuals and institutions. The challenge for the church is not to find a way of being a movement at the expense of being a community or institution. Rather, our challenge is to find ways of being flexibly institutional without becoming institutionalised.

(1) Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.2.
(2) Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, p.3.

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Some of these ideas were worked out at greater length in relation to the Uniting Church in some reflections I offered at the 2014 meeting of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania which can be read here.

1 comment:

Bunsen said...

Hi Geoff,

When you hear the stories of the abuse of children in institutional care, you can understand the current dislike of institutions in the popular domain. It is particularly poignant when the institution of the church, where an institution places itself as a moral and ethical authority and then uses its power and influence to protect its institutional interests ahead of doing what is right for people hurt by individuals within the institution (and often bad things can then become part of the institutional core.)

Yes, it is inevitable that humans working together form institutions and ways of government. However, as the UCA has attempted to institute in its own structures and ways of being, this structure needs to be constantly reviewed to remind the institution of its purpose for being: following Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, finding life in the Father through self-sacrificing love for the world. That is the genius of the Basis of Union, and developments like the Manual for Meetings - The structure and nature of the Church as an institution needs to flow from the purpose and nature of the church that is only realised fleetingly and provisionally in the world.

That being said, there is always room to improve - institutionalisation is a constant pressure. One example of this in the life of our church, for me, is the description of ordained ministry. The Basis describes this as those "called of God to preach the Gospel, to lead the people in worship, to care for the flock, to share in government and to serve those in need in the world." By the time we get to the 2012 regulations (sorry I don't have the 2015 yet) it is up to 12 competencies in addition to the statement of call and the Code of Ethics adds another couple in the supervision section. I understand that for the purpose of discipline we need to be clear about what our expectations of ministers are, but the risk is that our structures begin to value the function of those who serve in ministry over the character.

So, yes, I agree that we need an institutional life, but we also need the strain within us that reminds us that the institution that is the Church needs to constantly remember its purpose for existence.