One of the best things about being part of a church like the Church of England is that we are an organisation with a long history, through which many norms and structures of organisation have developed. One of the worst things about being part of a church like the Church of England is that we are an organisation with a long history, through which many norms and structures of organisation have developed!
It is inevitable that when people come together they need structures of organisation to be able to relate both internally and externally. In addition there is much regulation relating to employment, the use of trust funds and a plethora of other legislation relating to organisations operating in a liberal democracy.
The norms and structures of the church, coupled with the requirements of legislation, become the structures which support and enable our mission and ministry. They are like a skeleton which enables the body of Christ to function, to move and to have a shape. Yet skeletons come in two distinct types – exoskeletons (like lobsters) which are obvious and protective and endoskeletons (like you and I have) which remain hidden, thus enabling relationships to be developed with the substance and not with the structures.
As I live within our church and consider how we relate to our communities, it seems to me that we have developed an exoskeleton. So much of our time is invested in sustaining the structures, the norms and the legislative requirements. People in parishes give hours and hours of their time to servicing the institution of the church and, at times, become passionate about defending it. We expend much of our ‘church related’ energy to raising money to service the institution. When people contact the church about ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ they frequently encounter the rules and regulations attached to these ministries and sometimes they are put off exploring further into our faith by this shell of institution.
Yet we are called to be witnesses to a kingdom which is about the fruits of knowing God through his spirit of love, forgiveness and life. These are things which cannot of their nature be institutionalised. Indeed you can read the gospels as a radical attack on the type of institutionalise religion which lives within an exoskeleton and so becomes exclusive.
Our structures only make sense when they give us the shape and strength to be the Easter people of our vocation. Such a people have to live with the vulnerability of love offered to the world. The more we protect ourselves with the armour of institution, then the further we move away from reflecting the crucified Christ.
So we have a problem – we cannot avoid having our structures and we cannot avoid having to put time and energy to meeting the legislative requirements of a modern democracy. But what we can do is to keep reminding ourselves that we are not a lobster – our purpose is to be exposed to the world and to offer ourselves as agents of a God who reacted so powerfully against the institutionalised religion which frustrated his mission. We can aviod developing new structures which perpetuate the notion of institution before mission. We can also look at how we shape and develop our structures to ensure that we are making the best gospel use of the time and energy which people give to the church.
Sometimes just naming a problem is all that we need to do to work against it. So I am adding a line to the creed – “I do not believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic lobster” and, as an agent of the institution, I really need reminding of this daily,