In the comment thread to the blog post before this one – about Quiet Church – Peter posed a question that entirely grabbed my attention: ‘Can we ever completely escape the institution, even if we wanted to?’
It was in response to my explaining the reservations I feel regarding both the enormous expenditure of maintaining the infrastructure of an Anglican church, and the psychological clamour of church politics with all its pressures and agendas.
He wrote understanding why someone like me might want to walk out on it all, but questioning if one ever really can.
Well, I don’t think leaving a church is ever really possible. Such a thing is illusory. Jesus prayed for his household of faith, that we may all be one (John 17). He got very explicit about it, praying that we would be in him and he is us, just as he is in the Father and the Father is in him – that we might be completely one.
The epistle of James says ‘the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective.’
In late May of 1986, my friends Jan and Tim Leavers came to stay with our family, to do some of their wonderful presentations for children in our Sunday morning worship. During their stay, I happened to remark that this text made me uneasy because I was by no means thoroughly righteous so my praying probably would be weak and ineffective. Tim’s answer lodged right in my heart and has stayed with me to this day: ‘But Pen – you aren’t the righteous man; Jesus is.’ What a burden that lifted. Because Jesus has prayed for me (and for you).
Because Jesus is the righteous man, we can be sure that his prayers are powerful and effective, and he has prayed that we may be completely one – inextricably connected, in communion with Jesus in the heart of the Father for all time.
For this reason, a Christian cannot leave this church or that church and join another. There is only one Church, and all Christians are in it. Forever.
In the tussling back and forth about homosexuality and about women in the priesthood over the last few decades, I have been firmly in the inclusion camp for LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and not in favour of women priests or bishops only in as much as I think we should keep the women and get rid of the priesthood. I believe in the priesthood of all believers and am not sold on hierarchies. But whatever I think and however profoundly I disagree with my fellow-Christians, I have never gone down the line of talk about splitting the church. Not because it always felt comfortable but because I do not believe splitting the church can be done.
So when Peter asks ‘Can we ever completely escape the institution, even if we wanted to?’ I believe the answer is ‘No’, assuming that by ‘institution’ we mean the church instituted by Jesus – the company of his friends, the ones who have given their lives to him.
Enlarging our horizons to include not just the household of faith but the human family – or even beyond that to the whole order of creation, I think the same principles apply.
I’ve been searching online for something I believe I read in a book by Wayne Dyer, but I just can’t find it now. My apologies for not quoting and crediting it properly, but I do believe it is Wayne Dyer I have to thank for the thought and the story.
It concerns an Indian guru on his deathbed. As the great teacher neared the end of his life, his disciples, weeping, pleaded with him not to leave them. To which he answered something like: ‘Leave you? But where would I go? We are all now here.’
Not suggesting anyone reading this is dim or anything, but just in case you didn’t immediately spot it, that’s a kind of pun.
WE ARE ALL NOW HERE
WE ARE ALL NOWHERE
It is both true that our lives are all meaningfully, truly and immediately connected; and that all things are passing, transient and unimportant. It is all everything and all nothing – and this is extraordinarily hard to explain!
When we die, we are not lost, we are gathered up into the infinite – ‘into the mystic’. We are subsumed into life. Nothing is lost except form, and form is essentially illusory – a means of experience and communication. What we are – The I AM bit of us, the image of God in us – is energetic – like the Force of Star Wars. This is what makes the theology of transubstantiation workable for Catholics – the ‘accidents’ of physical form are entirely mutable, and the inner reality is both unshakeably true and pretty much impossible to pin down.
So, coming again to the question, this time with reference to the whole of life: ‘Can we ever completely escape the institution, even if we wanted to?’
We are life. Holographically, fractals of the I AM, emanations of infinite mystery. Life is not something else. It is us, we are it. To escape one another or any aspect of life is a meaningless concept. As Thich Nhat Hanh put is, ‘We inter-are’.
A friend of my once commented that having a No Smoking area in a restaurant was as meaningless as designating a No Peeing area in a swimming pool. ‘Can we ever completely escape the institution, even if we wanted to?’ No.
I tackled this issue head-on in dietary and lifestyle matters. Gandhi’s ahimsa means a lot to me, and I’ve spent stretches of time being vegan, which didn’t sit well with my physical constitution. But looking more deeply into it, I realized it was not that easy to escape our society with all its exploitative cruelty toward other living beings. Even a Jain who carries a little brush to sweep the path ahead, ensuring he does not tread on any tiny creatures might still inadvertently kill them with the brush. I’ve seen a dead badger electrocuted on the live rail of a train track; and I suppose there may be vegans who travel by train. Certainly vegans travel by car, and I don’t know about their windscreens, but mine is covered with the corpses of greenfly in the summer.
So I had to face the reality that, as the old C of E funeral service put it, ‘In the midst of life we are in death’.
‘Can we ever completely escape the institution, even if we wanted to?’ No.
In my passion of grief over environmental degradation, and longing for a simpler, purer way of life, I had to realize that even if I went to live in a croft in the wilds of the Scottish hills, I’d still breathe the same air and bear the same responsibilities and still be part of the human race. ‘Can we ever completely escape the institution, even if we wanted to?’ No.
However. An orchestra plays in harmony, not in unison. Each instrument has its own score, its own part, its own contribution.
Each one of us has to work out when to be silent and when to speak, which activity to take up and which to put down, which values to espouse and from which to step back.
In our choices – what we do and what we don’t – we make our souls and we set an example, we hum a tune that others around us pick up without realizing and start to join in.
The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, the Methodists, Baptists, Quakers – the monastics, the laity, the ordained people – they are not different churches one can join or leave (even if they think they are). There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.’
In my thoughts about Quiet Church, I am not thinking of leaving anything or anyone – because we are all now here – but trying to work out how I, being what I am, may more constructively play my part.
It’s because you can’t have a No Peeing area in the swimming pool that understanding my instrument and finding the part I must play does really matter. I belong to the whole. I owe my best to the community. I’m trying to feel my way to what truth looks like from exactly where I stand, because as I see it, that’s what I came here to do. If that makes sense.