In Defense of Institutional Religion . . . Sort Of

“I’m spiritual, just not religious.” How many times have I heard that one? If I had a nickel for each time . . . well, I’d at least have enough for dinner out here in DC, but without appetizer, or dessert, or drinks. Okay, I’d have enough for a food truck. Anyway, it’s pretty common, to say the least, and it’s quite understandable. I even remember saying it myself and one point in my life.

By “religious,” people here often mean “organized” or “institutional religion.” Unless you’ve been locked up for several decades in an oubliette (I do love that word, almost as much as “anathema.), you’ve noticed that there is a lot of distrust for institutions. To be honest, a lot of it is justified. Institutions often end up serving the institution. People in power try to maintain power. “Inconvenient” truths are attacked or covered up. Dissenters are vilified and pushed out. At least that’s the common opinion, and there is truth in it.

However, over the last several years, I’ve come to appreciate the value of organized religion, of the church as a body that needs to be organized, that needs some sort of institutional cohesion. Now, some say the church should be more of a movement than an institution, a “Jesus Movement.” If you mean that in the way The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry means it, that we should have Jesus as the center of our focus, to follow Him along the Way to bring the Good News to the world, then yes, absolutely. If you mean it in the sense of a loose, free-form bunch of people being nice but pretty much doing or believing any- and everything, making it up as they go along, then I have some trouble with that.

The church is more than just following Jesus (even though one cannot truly be a Christian without following Jesus). The church is a body, in fact it is the Body, the Body of Christ. We are called not just to follow Christ but to be Christ, each one of us being members of the larger Body. The church is meant not just to inspire but also to endure, and to endure means to have some sort of structure, some sort of coherence that keeps it together.

At the same time, though, a lot of people treat the church as a historic building that has to be maintained and preserved inviolate for all time. Well, that’s not a body. That’s a corpse. Actually, even a corpse is more dynamic than the way they treat the church. The Body cannot live without the Spirit animating it, driving it, sustaining it.  To “defend” the church, to resist change, to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” betrays the dynamism needed to keep the Body living, growing, and thriving. Ecclesia semper reformanda est, the church must always be reformed. I don’t mean this in the sense of maintaining a supposed purity but the active handing down of tradition that nurtures the dynamic of keeping faith with the sources and adapting to the current day. Does the organized church serve Christ or serve itself? We always have to be on guard against the latter and to move it to the former, by evolution when possible, by revolution when necessary. (Mind you, revolution is never without unwanted consequences.)

That being said, I still value the organized church. I like a certain level of structure that connects me with others. It’s not just me and God. I cannot be part of Christ’s Body without also being connected with the other members, and that includes not just those in the same room as me on Sunday but also those who have gone before. That’s one of the reasons I’m an Episcopalian. I know that when I worship using the Book of Common Prayer, whether in the Eucharist or the Daily Office, I’m not making it up as I go along but drawing on centuries of practice. I know that there is a standard I can look to, a deep well I can draw from. Even the (very) imperfect ecclesial institutions help provide that link. A movement the church must be, but every movement that endures requires some level of organization.

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