The Godless Church

This morning, thanks to Dr William Tighe’s e-mails of news links, I read this interview of Benedict XVI by a German newspaper – Benedict XVI laments lack of faith in German Catholic officialdom. This expression of his thought is quite powerful, and it is something I have felt in my own life: an organisation that fails to recognise a person as such, but as a number, a cog in the machinery of mass humanity. It is certainly what would inspire a poet to write the words of William Blake :

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic Mills?

Institutionalisation is a constant in history. In the case of the Church, it was the Peace of Constantine in 313 when it received official status in the Roman Empire. This process has sapped the spiritual and specifically Christian content of the Church over the centuries, but some spontaneity continued to exist at a local level in parishes and other small communities. We live in a time when the Church, not only Roman Catholic but Anglican too, loses credibility in terms of a spiritual testimony.

One thing I have noticed in my own experience is that we have to be perfect in every way, completely “stable” and free from any canonical irregularity. It is all about one’s institutional profile, originating from the right kind of family (preferably a source of money). It isn’t just me. I noticed this for others in seminary as they ingratiated themselves with superiors and the little hierarchies of authority. Life in a community has constraints and necessary limits of freedom, as in society at large. It is just a question of degree and balance between rules and their reason for existing.

I no longer have any contact with the French Church. I observed little groups of conservative-looking priests in discussion after a ceremony at Pontmain. I certainly did not expect any of them to run up to me, in civil dress, shake my hand and tell me wonderful things. Why should they, any more than any stranger in the street? I was once a part of that world but no longer. They and I live in different worlds, different universes. What about the German Church of which Josef Ratzinger was an Archbishop? It seems to be as impersonal as any social security agency treating its subjects according to criteria and how well each person would fit into which category.

Ratzinger finds that the German Church is no longer about faith and religion but about politics and social issues.

Many people are involved in decisive positions who do not support the internal mission of the church and thus often obscure the witness of this institution.

The “official church”

insinuates an inner contradiction between what faith actually wants and means, and its depersonalization.

It has become a machine. In the 1980’s when I contemplated returning to the Church of England, I discerned the tendencies that would become ever more pronounced in time. I would have to prove how I would be identical to mass humanity and its criteria rather than be dealt with as a person. Without doubt, it is not as monolithic as I feared and there are expressions of faith and mysticism.

Josef Ratzinger as a young professor “asked a young bishop who was a friend of his to contribute a text to be published in the Catholic magazine Communio, in which the bishop described his work at the bishops’ conference”. He read the text and expressed this critical idea:

The manuscript he sent us, however, was obviously written by his section and was in fact the language of the apparatus, not the language of a person. Unfortunately, this experience was repeated many times later.

How is the balance found? How can the Church be in the world and not of the world?

Benedict expressed this astounding idea in an essay he published in 2019:

A world without God can only be a world without meaning. For where, then, does everything that is come from? In any case, it has no spiritual purpose. It is somehow simply there and has neither any goal nor any sense. Then there are no standards of good or evil. Then only what is stronger than the other can assert itself. Power is then the only principle. Truth does not count, it actually does not exist. Only if things have a spiritual reason, are intended and conceived — only if there is a Creator God who is good and wants the good — can the life of man also have meaning.

If the Church loses its spiritual purpose, then only power, money and sexual libido have any importance. The spectre of Nazism rears its ugly head, because it is an image of depravity and hell going far beyond earthly politics or ideologies. Should this bureaucratic organisation go the way of anything that has lost its fitness for purpose? Close it down and sell off the buildings? Perhaps. Perhaps the Church needs to be modelled on the communities in the catacombs before the Edict of Milan of 313.

We are brought to think of the Roman Catholic traditionalists and continuing Anglicans, like John Wesley and the first Methodists of the eighteenth century. They were and are a challenge to the bureaucratic notion of the Church that exists for no more than its own sake.

Should a Church not be organised? The Anglican Catholic Church to which I belong is organised. It has administration, financial reports, secretary’s reports and everything needed to keep some internal coherence. We are attentive to the danger of potential sexual predators in the clergy, hopefully without being too paranoid about it. We make sure that our places of worship meet certain rules about safety so that no one has an accident through our negligence. All associations and businesses are run according to similar rules, according to their finality. A business earns money. A sailing club promotes sailing. A church promotes faith and prayer, together with communion between the souls who attend church services and other common activities.

At the same time, I don’t see my Church as bureaucratic. Bureaucracy needs definition, and this is not easy. Generally, we can find several definitions:

  • an administrative system within the social structure of modern, mass society
  • a hierarchical arrangement between the parts of an organisation in which the pyramid order is based on division of function and authority
  • a power-wielding organisation with a hierarchy of ranks, the statuses and functions of which are planned in advance and in which the official activities of personnel are supervised by the next higher rank, up to the apex of control
  • a large-scale formal organisation that is designed to coordinate the activities of many individuals in the pursuit of administrative tasks.

We recognise here the structures of the government of a country or very big business corporations, or in the Vatican or the levers of power in the Church of England. The defining word would seem to be impersonality and dehumanisation. The governing principle is Groupthink and the extinction of personal talent. In my work as a translator, I deal with many texts about corporate management. Some forward-thinking corporations are discovering that they do better to respect individual persons and welcome their contribution of skills and values. The Church is always fifty years behind the cutting edge of secular society!

One tendency I notice in modern Churches is a kind of Jacobinism. It characterises what has just happened when Pope Francis issued his motu proprio Traditiones Custodes. I suspect, unconventionally, that it is not a swipe against traditionalists as such but the beginning of a purge of diocesan bishops who are sympathetic to communities under their oversight wanting to use the old Latin liturgy – and critical of the bureaucratic model of the institutional Church. I have read many commentaries on this story, and this is the theory I suspect might have some basis in fact. The Pope is gambling, and he knows that he is going the way of all mortal flesh. It is a bit late for a Pope to be declaring this kind of internal war in the Church. Now he has done so, we can expect this little Napoleon or Robespierre to meet his Waterloo! How long will that take?

What happens in those big “mainstream” churches is not really my problem. At the same time, they affect the credibility of Christianity in the world among souls seeking a spiritual and idealistic way of life away from bureaucracy and materialism, the Machine. I think the big institutional Churches will empty out and run out of money. It makes anyone sad to see churches sold off today, cathedrals tomorrow. What a waste and what an epitaph to centuries of history! Like Non-Conformists of yesterday, our little Churches and communities will try to witness to the credibility of Christianity in spite of human evil, both corporate and individual.

Like in the early Church, I celebrate Mass in an upstairs room of a house, hidden from the world. I just try to keep going, knowing that I am not alone but in communion with fellow Christians in England, America and many other parts of the world.

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3 Responses to The Godless Church

  1. Dear Fr Anthony, I am enjoying these recent posts very much. Glad to see that you have settled into your new abode. You may have already seen this, but the following 2004 article by David Mills dovetails nicely into so much of what you say. Blessings.

    • Many thanks for your comment. Yes, life is much better.

      From what I have read of the David Mills article, his analysis and mine converge. He and I react away from this scourge as the Romantics did in regard to Robespierre and Napoleon. If something has a purpose, like a financial committee to keep a parish out of debt, then that is important. If it is to behave like the pigs in Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, then something is very seriously wrong. Centralism and micromanagement = the Jacobinism that set up the guillotine and produced the cartloads of headless corpses dripping blood that caused Wordsworth to feel sick and decide to return to England – also before he would get his own mown off. The ideology has evolved only in terms of technology and vocabulary. Power and money are all that is left when God is banished. I will read the article again this evening with my supper.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this! I wonder when (or if) we will easily get access to the original („War ich ein guter Seelsorger ?“) without ordering a pdf for 3.90 euro (or finding a library which subscribes to Herder Korrespondenz), or (better yet) a handy reliable full English translation, as well?

    When you say, “The Anglican Catholic Church to which I belong is organised. It has administration, financial reports, secretary’s reports and everything needed to keep some internal coherence”, that would seem to be something like what David Mills (for which, thanks, Father David!) is calling for – necessary ‘bureaus’ (the capable, sensible people behind ‘desks’ in ‘offices’ – to give two synonyms for ‘bureaus’) without ‘bureaucracy’.

    Curiously, before arriving here and seeing this article, I had just encountered Anthony Trollope’s Clergymen of the Church of England (1866) when looking for an audiobook to listen to while doing the washing up, and have embarked upon it with interest (though with a sharp sense of how much context I lack which would have been obvious to a reader in 1866).

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