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Do we need 'institutional' religion?

Do we need 'institutional' religion?

For all that 'spirituality' is in vogue today, 'institutional religion' is rather less fashionable. The recent furore over sharia law was just the latest story to lay bare our most popular stereotypes: institutional religion is either dangerous or ludicrous (or both).

The truth, as ever, is not so simple.

Institutions come into being whenever human beings enter into structured relationships. When we do this we immediately need rules, procedures and commitments. These can vary enormously, so institutions come in many different forms: churches and mosques, tenants' associations and trade unions, Scout packs and colleges.

For all their variety, such entities have at least one thing in common. They all sit uneasily in our culture, which values individual autonomy and immediate experience over the longer-term goods which institutions help us gain and share.

The most basic human institution is the family. Its value flows from a simple fact: for humans to feel secure and to flourish, they need structured, committed love. This is particularly true in childhood, when there is a special dependence on and vulnerability to others. When adults simply act on impulse, childhood becomes a fearful place. This is why we have structures, procedures and commitments – marriage and adoption, godparents, stepparents and guardians.

Like many institutions, however, 'the family' can have a shadow side. It is important to remember that families exist for human flourishing and not the other way round. Hence the vigorous debates within religions and societies about when and how people might be released from their marriage vows – and what kinds of partnerships might be formed by those who are not married.

What about religious institutions and, in particular, the church? It is common to contrast the (dynamic) 'spiritual message of Jesus' with the (stagnant) 'institutional church'. The world of the Gospels does seem distant from the flower rotas and committee meetings of most congregations, let alone the clerical hierarchies which teeter above them.

St Mary's,

Cable Street
 - just down the road from my home in East London - is a prime example of the institutional church.

Each week, around thirty people gather to celebrate the Eucharist. This Anglican congregation comes with all the usual paraphernalia: rotas and raffles, jumble sales and Parochial Church Council meetings. On the surface, its life is hardly dramatic - but through the doors of this one church, and through the lives of its people, hundreds, perhaps thousands will come to be baptised, married and buried. Hundreds, perhaps thousands wrestling with addiction will be helped by the drugs project the church now hosts. And tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will be lifted from poverty wages, because of an innovative alliance of which this church is a member.

The alliance is called London Citizens – a broad-based movement of religious and civic institutions in the city's most deprived areas. As well as churches, its members include mosques, gurdwaras, trade and student unions and schools. In just a few years, London Citizens has had an extraordinary impact. Since 2005, its Living Wage Campaign has added £19 million to the incomes of London's poorest households. And it has now persuaded the Olympic Delivery Agency to make London 2012 the first 'Living Wage Olympics'

It is no coincidence that religious congregations are the largest, best-mobilised part of the movement. They are the places where thousands gather week by week, to listen to one another's stories and to locate them in a wider narrative of meaning and of value. This listening and reflection leads on to a practical response – prayer, support, charity, and action for social change.

It is in religious institutions that we see the intentional nurturing of relationships, local leadership and vision. Their rules, procedures and commitments may seem old-fashioned, but some such framework is essential if our 'spiritual' aspirations are to be made flesh. We see this again in the campaign for the Millennium Development Goals. For much the same reasons, congregations have a vital role in mobilising the international will to eradicate extreme poverty.

History suggests that when humans build religious institutions, they get a great deal wrong. It would be dishonest to deny the shadow side of these organisations. One of the reasons people separate the 'spiritual message of Jesus' from the church is his own unflinching analysis of these failings.

Should we be surprised, then, that one of Jesus' first acts was to appoint disciples – to set up a structure of leadership by which his Gospel would continue to be taught and embodied? Only if we forget one simple fact, namely, that the alternatives to institutions are chaos or atomisation.

It is one thing to note that the institutional church is full of sinners, and to bemoan its structural and individual failings. That's all depressingly and undeniably true. It's quite another thing to imagine we are less vulnerable to sin, less open to delusion, when we seek a spiritual path in isolation from our neighbour.

The Revd Dr Angus Ritchie is the Director of the Contextual Theology Centre, East London and Fellows' Chaplain at Magdalen College, Oxford. For more information on London Citizens, click here.  

Angus Ritchie

Angus Ritchie

Rev Canon Dr Angus Ritchie is an Anglican priest, Director of the Centre for Theology & Community and the author of the Theos publications From Goodness To God and The Case For Christian Humanism.


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Posted 10 August 2011


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