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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Hopelessly Institutional

In his novel Driftless, David Rhodes paints a sensitive and penetrating portrait of small town America.  His description of the local church is familiar to anyone who has spent time in congregational ministries of one sort or another:

“These frail, dignified ladies and gentlemen formed the core of her church, supporting it with near-sacrificial fervor.  Though many were living on Social Security or the dwindling income from the sale of their farms, their generous giving provided the lion’s share of her salary.  Their attendance at church functions bordered on fanatical, and their views on how the church should operate were tantamount to ancestral codes.  As one member said during a heated business meeting, ‘I care more about this church than about anyone in it.’  And while he possibly would have eventually conceded that the church was the people in it, he nevertheless had hit upon a significant truth,” (David Rhodes, Driftless, 2008).

It would be easy to skewer what, on the surface, is a classically ill-considered remark by a theologically unsophisticated church member.  The “spiritual but not religious crowd” or those who have been put off or wounded by the church’s failure to live out Gospel values might quickly respond, “Exactly!  It’s this kind of ‘institution before people’ hypocrisy that renders the church irrelevant or worse.”

Easy, yes.  But that would mean missing the “significant truth” that Rhodes hints at.  Institutions do matter, even the church.  They disappoint us horribly at times.  They take enormous amounts of energy to maintain.  They sometimes hide more than reveal the values they are supposed to bear across the centuries.  They become distorted and destructive.  Of course we are to care at least as much and perhaps more about the people in an institution than about the institution that shapes, orders, structures and often gives meaning to their lives.  Christian traditions that tend to idealize the church often do render it impervious to criticism, judgment, repentance and reform.  Making the church an article of faith, as the creeds do, may be theological defensible, but it is also dangerous.

And yet.  Institutions are the last bulwark against a radical individualism that privileges me and my generation along with any and all personal opinion and aspiration, including those that elevate greed, endorse callousness, and permit gross indifference toward the most vulnerable in our society.  And, institutions are also the last bulwark against a utopian collectivism that killed hundreds of millions in the last century under the banner of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their ilk.  The Tea Party crowd that wants to burn down the house in Washington and various state capitols around the country has plenty of material to work with in its “government is the problem rhetoric.”  And I am certainly not naïve about the ways the church abuses its own members, not to mention others, out of ideological zealotry or the need of leaders to preserve organizational privilege.  But are we really foolish enough to believe that communal life without democratic government or spirituality without church would guarantee a more just, peaceful, and humane world?  There are plenty of people for whom the church, the synagogue, the mosque, or the temple has no meaning or even negative meaning.  And many of these people lead lives as compassionate and loving and just as their more overtly religious neighbors.  But would the end of religious institutions liberate the world to achieve some promised moral destiny?  I doubt it.

Political philosopher Hugh Heclo reminds us of the dangers of a naïve anti-institutional fervor:

“Institutional thinking resists utopianism in projects of both social construction and self-construction.  But it also insists that mundane life is far more than a banal submission to expediency.  It views the present as thoroughly enriched by inheritance and legacy.  Again, to borrow a thought from a religious context, thinking institutionally tends to humble without humiliating us, to raise us up without flattering us,” (Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally).

Perhaps I’m just hopelessly institutional.  Or maybe I’m just smart enough or observant enough to know that “all by myself” usually leads to “all about me.”  Sin is no illusion and, left to our own devices, its embrace is both seductive and suffocating.  I wouldn’t say I love the church more than the people in it.  Like countless generations of Sunday School children, I learned the hand game that taught us “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people.”  Yes, the fingers inside are the church, but they are not severed digits, either.  They wiggle in all of their damnable delight because they are connected to the hand which is connected to the arm which is connected. . . .

No, I wouldn’t say I care about the church more than the people in it.  But I’m not ready to endorse the often narcissistic alternative.  In spite of his unintended irony that old farmer was on to something.  The people in it make the church pretty hard to love sometimes.  There may be times when we need to be away from it to protect our faith and even our lives from its abuses of power.  But in the end, a disembodied Christianity, like a disembodied Christ, fails us as much or more as the institutionalized option.  We need each other, those around us, those who went before us, those who will come after us.  Institutions, even churches, keep us connected across the miles, across the generations.  And those connections are, in Heclo’s words, what both humble and raise us up.

John H. Thomas

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