In the world we live in today institutions are as easy to dislike as they are difficult to get rid of. In the western world we seem to have an ingrained suspicions of the institutions we need and use. The government, NHS, schools even the church all can provoke a level of suspicion that ‘they’, the institution are out to get ‘us’! Yet some of us seem, wonder of wonders, to see the good they have wrought and are called to lead them — from the hospitals where we were born to the schools where we were educated to the churches where we worship. How do we reconcile the good institutions do (even the ones we lead) with the bad of which they inarguably are capable (even the ones we lead)?
We often are called to pray for the institutions that affect our daily lives. We pray for schools and colleges at the beginning of a new academic year. We have been praying fervently for our hospitals over the last two years. Occasionally we pray for our Parliament, although I have yet to see a thunderbolt strike the Palace of Westminster!
Of course we pray for our churches, both at a local and a national level. However when we pray for our churches there are three possible paths we can take.
One path prays, “God save our church.” For this group, institutions are so important to human life generally that their collapse is unthinkable. We may find in this group leaders and financial supporters of our churches, particularly those under duress.
The strength of this position is that it acknowledges that the health of a society depends, to great degree, on the health of all its institutions. Just as it is extremely hard to have a functioning economy, let alone a healthy one, without healthy banks, so for our congregations to function as a missional community we need healthy churches and denominations.
In their eagerness to help society, those who back this position might overlook instances when it is necessary to overhaul existing institutions. Such overhauls can be painful, especially in the interim between the eclipse of one form of church and the birth of the next. Christians need only to think of the difficulty in the transition from a temple of stone to the temple of Jesus’ body. And perhaps more damagingly, adherents to this prayer can forget institutions should not exist only for their own sake, but for the sake of those they serve.
The second path prays, “God save us from institutions.” This group sees only malice. Its backers would read the current financial difficulties, for example, as evidence that banks, markets and corporations have only their own interests at heart, and that these come at the expense of all other interests. This group also may feel harmed by the church, leading them to conclude that institutional religion is essentially bad.
Those who take this line would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation: human beings tend to be good as individuals but bad in groups. We know churches that have scarred some people and have systematically oppressed others.
The position’s weakness is that it overlooks the fact that human life depends on institutions. The goods of human life — education, faith, health care, art, music — are social. The Church is defined by its congregation as much as its’s traditions or structures. There is an individual aspects to the church, but no one can pursue mission to its fullest without other people — trained people, dependent on knowledge passed down for centuries, enabled by gifts (monetary and otherwise) given by strangers and friends. Without people, a vision, a mission, money and perhaps buildings, the mission of the church tends to dissipate like water through open fingers.
The third way of prayer incorporates the strengths of the first two and avoids their weaknesses. It calls for the church to be a flourishing institution for the sake of the whole of human life in communion. The prayer is, “God save us through your church.” This prayer recognizes the deep pit of human need from which we all approach God: it is we who need saving, but not from institutions like the church.
God has no blessing for us mortals that is not institutionally mediated. God saves through Israel, ever-wrestling with God’s chosen people just as God wrestled with their father Jacob by the Jabbok. And God saves through the church: a people called out from the world to be joined in baptism to God and nurtured through Eucharist. One may judge others’ “organised” religions from the safety and isolation of one’s easy chair or the rigour of one’s study (the key word here: “one”). But Christianity joins us in Christ to one another in and through the church to a concern for the thriving of all of God’s creation.
This position will also recognise that while institutions are indispensable to God’s work, they are never frozen, unchanging, in their current form. Institutions are essential, but not static. The church may take many different forms, as dramatically different as Israel’s magnificent temple and Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, but it still is a necessary vibrant institution for God’s mission to be fulfilled here on earth.
God’s blessing through this Lenten season, Alan.