Mainstream versus Marginal

I would just like to get a couple of reflections in during a brief blog session. I remember as a kid in the 1960’s being brought up in a very straightforward kind of family, not very religious but highly respectful of all authorities and institutions. As a choirboy, I remember being suspicious of the Methodists until I met some some of those people and saw how straight and honest they were – at least the ones I met. My sister-in-law has often remarked how Establishment my family was (and is). If we belonged to a Church, it was the Church of England, just as we obeyed the laws of the land, considered the police to be an instrument of the authority of the law and the State. Our schools also represented institutions and authorities. That was my own experience in the 1960’s in the north of England, a bit like the 1950’s elsewhere!

Stick with the mainstream – was always the good advice of my parents. In regard to the Church, one would either be Church of England or non-religious. However, I came from a very tolerant and open family background, and never would I hear a bad word said against Roman Catholics, Methodists or Jewish people. We were Establishment, yet with feeling and tolerance towards the minorities. It was a balance we felt and expressed with the high ideal of the common good and stability of society in our eyes.

I have experienced this basis as an English Anglican, which is something different from America, where minorities and marginal faiths are the majority. There is no Establishment. In Continental Europe, there are still expressions of cujus rex ejus religio – you followed a religious expression as was that of the governing authority of your country.

The real crux of this article is the question of institutionalisation and free faith. Are we Christians because it’s the way we are brought up in our families and cultures, or is it a way of life that is freely adopted through having become convinced by its message? Reality would answer – both. The latter notion leads to the former as Christianity as a “philosophy of life” begins to influence society and its institutions, and also proves conducive to the psychological well-being of individual persons. Christianity in history built cultures and moral traditions of law.

One problem in today’s society is that the influence of Christianity is challenged by other systems of faith and morality. We live in multi-cultural societies, where Christianity is actively rejected, and this would inevitably bring us to the conclusion that there is no longer any such thing as mainstream Christianity. All Christianity is marginal as no Church has much influence on society in most countries.

After all, Christianity began as a “sect”, a counter-cultural movement. It was a persecuted minority, and historical evidence points to it being divided and fragmented from the beginning. It only survived because it was adopted by the “mainstream” – ie. the Roman Empire. The relevance of Christianity to most of us is less political, cultural and social – but what it does for me, how well it answers my existential questions. What answer does it bring to suffering and death? Then, how does it bring us to experience transcendence and lift us out of our drab existence and the mechanistic determinism of our world?

Institutionalism happens to every inspiration and insight of founders. In came the theological speculation and the urge to find the right explanation for everything. A religious society had to be organised and be given set forms of worship through liturgies and rites. Institutionalisation becomes a living symbol of the experience of the founder, and the sacred becomes embodied in profane structures. We go from experience to a balance between experience or the prophetic dimension and the institution and culture, and finally to the pure institution and a smothering of the prophetic instinct. Finally, the institution is questioned and replaced by something new and different, and a new cycle begins. Institutionalisation brings a dilemma that can never be resolved.

The institution remains alive for as long as it tolerates creativity and heroism, the cult of the saints, but the institution is there to create stability. We observe this happening when “eccentric” people begin to stretch the institutional limits between orthodoxy and heresy, and how the institution deals with it by punitive measures, a long drawn-out investigation embroiled in bureaucracy or a fundamentally open attitude. This happened in the Reformation era as in the 1960’s as “enthusiasm” came about and produced the Charismatic movement as well as the secularising currents.

Dilemma is our lot in life. Religion both needs the “mainstream” institution and suffers from it. The prophetic dimension has to find expression in “ordinary” and empirical expressions to which most of us can relate. One of these dilemmas is our motivation for adhering to our particular religious movement. We can be a disciple of a charismatic leader and be very single-minded – the words monk and monastery came from the Greek word μόνος, singleness of mind. With the arising of the stable institution, there comes another kind of motivation: power over others, prestige, aesthetic and cultural needs, security. These motivations can be quite benign in a small institution, quite iniquitous in a larger one!

What happens when self-interest prevails? The original institutions are gradually transformed and corrupted. When the corruption is complete, it is then challenged and threatened, and then forced to bring about reforming measures. We see these characteristics in the large Church bodies, particularly bureaucracy sacrificing the very goals of the institution to vested interests, official timidity and inertia. From a religion of converts, we have a Church of cultural “cradle” members.

The prayer of converts who had the “experience” becomes liturgy. We all relate to liturgy in different ways. Most of us are persons of routine. Our domestic and professional lives are generally ruled by routine and a fixed way of doing things. Rigging my boat has become almost a rite, because doing everything out of habit and routine eliminates errors and things getting out of order. Monastic life is 99% routine, and 1% quiet and unannounced experience of beauty or transcendence. Go to a high point of a city and look down, and see it functioning like a machine. That is the end result of routine, something that began by being good but which removed the heart and soul from what routine was meant to preserve.

This is liturgy. I celebrate Mass as I rig my boat, with attention and care. Naturally, ropes and sails don’t have the transcendent meaning of the Sacraments of Christ, but the approach is similar. We combine automatic habits with thinking about what we are doing. Driving a car or riding a bicycle are also conditioned habits, but we still have to keep an eye on the road to ensure our safety and that of our passengers. The sacred action of the liturgy has both to be a movement of the soul and something we do right – for the reason it is not our property but a part of the community to which we belong. The rites of Mass, the other Sacraments and the Office are autonomous and work like a machine, but they provoke a spiritual response. There is the dilemma of the Deus ex machina and spiritual anarchy. There must be an interplay between the objectiveness of the liturgy and the subjective experience of those who participate. If that link is completely broken, then the liturgy is dead. If subjectivity prevails, then there is nothing stable or objective. As rites become more routinised, the obscurity and mystery keep an element of sacredness, but also allow magical attitudes to develop.

We need to recover symbolism through knowledge and spiritual experience, so that we do not become alienated from the liturgy. To what extent has the transcendent to be symbolised? Do we not run the risk of secularising? If the balance is lost, the relationship between external and internal is lost, and then it is attacked and rejected. Much of the English Reformation was concerned about doing away with the “abomination of the popish mass“, even more so than the Papacy itself! Symbolism is rejected because it had been lost.

Spirit and letter is another dilemma, already known to Saint Paul. The letter kills and the spirit gives life. There is the old order of the law, and the new order of grace. In time, Christianity would become as legalistic as Old Testament Judaism in the Temple clergy, the Scribes and the Pharisees. This transformation happens to every religious movement that survives the death of its founder. Conversion and coercion are another difficult point. It was the whole drama of medieval Catholicism with the Inquisition and the Crusades, the forced baptism of Jews and Muslims and their persecution for relapsing into their former religious habits. One of the most difficult things a convert will find about his Church is that most of his co-religionists never experienced conversion, but are just part of the furniture. The institutional Church continues to preserve the values of spiritual conversion, enshrining belief in liturgy and canonical structures like parishes and dioceses.

Religion depends on interior dispositions of its members, but tolerates the presence of those who are nominally religious. Religious leaders are constantly tempted to use the relationship between faith and culture to enforce religion. In a totalitarian society, church leaders can find themselves in a position of using a godless dictatorship to reinforce their power. The relationship between Church and State, religious experience and political loyalties, can make religion very “mainstream” but can at the same time weaken it. Such a relationship alienates Church members opposed to that particular political ideology.

There always has been and always will be tension between the rejection of compromise with the world and evil, but yet the need to maintain a relationship with the world in order to influence it with Christian spiritual and moral values. I write from the point of view of a Continuing Anglican priest, a member of a Church that is comparatively marginal and relatively unaffected by institutionalisation. Nevertheless, any body that survives the death of its founder will go the way of institutionalisation. The first stages will be beneficial and the later stages will see its corruption and death or reform. This just seems to be a fact of our human existence.

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