Institutional Failure: The Church’s internal struggles and growing irrelevancy

Yesterday, there was the shocking news that the measure to allow women bishops in the Church of England went down to defeat. Last week came the next step in the dissolution of the Episcopal Church as we’ve known it with the secession of the Diocese of South Carolina.

Outside of Anglicanism, also last week the American Roman Catholic bishops met. They were licking their wounds after a resounding defeat at the ballot box. Having put financial resources and considerable pressure, their efforts to prevent the passage of same-sex marriage failed in four states. The presidential candidate favored by most was defeated, apparently by a majority of their flock. They met with a convicted felon in their midst but no mention was made of his presence or the systemic problem underlying his conviction.

The Protestant religious right, too, is now trying to figure out what went wrong, what God is telling them, and how to move forward. Fortunately, Franklin Graham provides insight for all of us, as he speculates that God intends a total economic collapse in the US in order for us to repent and amend our ways.

Many of us who are passionate about our faith, passionate about the Good News of Jesus Christ, and about building up the Body of Christ, are also deeply committed to and passionate about the institutional church. It has nurtured and shaped us. It is one of the means through which we experience God and the love of Jesus Christ. But the institutional church, like every human institution, is deeply flawed, oppressive as well as life-giving. It can diminish us as human beings as well as enable our flourishing.

It’s pretty clear by now that many (all?) of our institutions are in crisis. Our political system is broken; our economy falters; higher education, the military, you name it. The structures of the Church, the institution of the Church is not only meant to be the means through which we come to know and love God through Jesus Christ but it is also the Body of Christ. It makes Christ present to the world and unites us to Christ’s body throughout history and across the world.

There have been times throughout history when it is very difficult to see how the institutional church incarnates the body of Christ. This may be one of those times, a period when because of human fallibility and social upheaval the institutions of the churches no longer bear witness to the fullness of Christ but have fallen prey to narrow human interest. At such times, prophets and reformers have risen up to breathe new life into old institutions or to create new ways through which God can break in upon us. It may also be that in local settings, in new media and new ways that people come together, we are already seeing hints of the new creation that God is calling into being.

In the meantime, we have to wait patiently, mourn the ways in which the churches and we ourselves fall short of God’s call, and continue to seek God’s will in the present and future. The danger is that our local efforts are ignored while institutional credibility and relevance collapse on the national and global level.

Back to women bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken publicly on the measure’s defeat. Thinking Anglicans provides full coverage of that as well as a press round up and reactions from various interest groups.

Reactions are beginning to come in. From Andrew Brown on Guardian: “I think I have just watched the Church of England commit suicide. It was a very long and very boring process.”

A view from Scotland (Kelvin Holdsworth):

Looking on at the passion of the Church of England from outside, one finds oneself trying hard to substitute compassion for pity.

There are many fine women priests and the cause for treating them equally in Canon Law is an easy one to make but one which has not been made often enough. Those female clergy deserved better than this measure. The whole church deserved better than this and now has the chance to try to find its way towards it.

The Church of England gets its chance to prove that it worships at something other than the altar of compromise.

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