What Happens When We ‘Get Conscious’ about the Istitution of The Church?

They say that in arguments, the first person to mention or make comparisons with Hitler’s Germany loses! But I read something this week that made me think. The article was talking about Adolf Eichmann and his attitude to Nazism. At his trial, Eichmann presented himself as a person of average intelligence who was ‘just doing his job.’ The writer of the article finally comes down to condemning him because “he lacked the ability to judge the system he worked for.”

But who on earth can do that? Most of us  never question the systems that we are part of. We adopt marriage and family arrangements like everyone else. We never judge the ‘system’ of Marriage and Family and question whether or not with a 40% divorce rate there is something wrong with the marriage system. Most of us never get around to asking questions about the economic and work system that we are part of or see the connection between personal stress and unfair work conditions. Rarely do we see the connection between the economic system and housing process or the economic system and the ‘displacement’ that makes us hate migrants instead of the real people who are making us scared. Much less  do we make the connections between systems to see the relationship between the marriage and family system soaring divorce rates and grandparents being the new ‘unpaid workforce’ and the economic system that now requires two members of a family to work in order to be able to afford a house. And on it goes.

To be able to do this requires a high degree of psychosocial development. Robert Kegan, whom I find convincing, wrote about this. He said that we are always ’embedded’ or ‘held’ by some system of which we are largely unconscious. We are able to be conscious of and ‘have a relationship to’ the stage of development immediately below the ‘holding’ system. Take a baby for example. As a two year old is becoming conscious of its in-take and out-put (mostly in terms of food) and developing a relationship to them, they are held by their parents, but cannot have a ‘relationship to’ them, while they are developing a relationship to their food intake and output. But later, as young adults, a person begins to develop a relationship with their relationships. They are able to ‘have’ relationships and think about them, while ‘being’ in the institution of family and marriage and the economy and work. But it is a rare group of people who manage to develop a relationship to this ‘holding’ institution.

That is why I think it is a big ask to expect Eichmann, as well as all the German people to have had a  critical relationship to the German political system. Even most politicians could not see what Hitler was really up to.

But what cannot be avoided is the necessity to commit oneself to some form of holding institution, no matter whether or not one is conscious of it or not. This is particularly important when it comes to the Church. The Church is also a kind of ‘holding institution’ in which people can live while they are developing their relationships.

Recently I had an e.mail exchange with a person who had previously committed himself to various kinds of Church, but was not treated well by them, and now has, through his pain, developed a critical awareness of the Church. This is an awareness that makes him say ‘Look at all the failures of the Church over time. They had the Spanish Inquisition, they resisted Galileo, they did not collectively resist the poverty of 19th century England, and it took a long time to get around to resisting slavery. He finishes with “The example the church set in its history presented indeed an obstacle for me to commit myself to it, when I was still wanted to. Meanwhile I have gone beyond, to the point on which I am no longer willing.”

So what are we to say? I can understand how a person will, after a bad experience want to ‘shift templates’ and just participate in another institution, not the Church. What do we say? “You have been damaged by your experience of the Church in one place, but give it another go! We are different!”  How many times can we ask that of people? But it is easier to step out of the Church than it is to step out of our political, economic and family systems.

My own experience was somewhat diffferent. First, I always had a critical awareness of the hypocrisy of the Church. We used to argue for hours with mum and dad abut the difference between ‘what the Church said’ and what our experience was. And I have not been treated all that well myself by the Church. It does not pay to believe in Jesus too much.

But there is a bottom line. First, God has committed God’s own self to the Church. I remember seeing a statue of ‘The Kiss’ in a parishioners’ hall-way. I said (Hosea-like) ‘Look, there’s Jesus kissing the Church. He says ‘You’re an old whore you know, but I still love you!’ How will there ever be any message of God’s self-emptying love in Jesus, if everyone leaves the Church and there is no one around to keep that story alive? No matter how corrupt the Church is, she is still the ‘earthen vessel’ that has had the ‘treasure’ of God’s Good News poured into her. The Church needs supporting for that reason. ‘The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, she is his new creation by water and the word.’

And although the Church is the medium through which we have access to Christ via the Story and the Sacraments, it is always good to remain critical of it as an institution. This is the genius of the Reformation. They came up with the phrase ‘Ecclesia semper Reformanda.’ This means that instead of having an uncritical adulation of the Church (theology of Glory) which turns a blind eye to her failings, the word of the Cross, which is a judgement on every human attempt to ‘climb up’ to God, means that we are always critical of our own institution. The Church has within her own theory of Church a process of continual critical awareness and reform.

One might be hard pressed to find this operational anywhere either. But none the less, one can hold one’s head high as a Christian if one is aware first and foremost of the judgement of Jesus on his bride. “Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder and heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping their cry goes up ‘How long?” My e.mail partner is one of those saints who, in his critique, is longing for the day when the Church will exhibit in fact more of those characteristics that represent her nature as she really is. I am sad that we do not have his gifts here in the congregation at Territet. And my staying in the Church is as much a result of my limitations and history and inability to function anywhere else as it is a function of God’s call and action on me. I wish too that we looked more like our true nature that we show to the World.

Now what? We have to just each keep on our journeys. It does not appear what we shall be. We need to say ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ and keep plugging away.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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