Insidious Institutionalism

It is sadly all too common a situation.

In the Enlightenment period, (roughly 1500-1800AD) it is apparent in the writings and the lives of most of the great thinkers. And today, one meets it regularly both inside and outside the Church.

I am talking about the disillusionment with ‘institutionalised’ Christianity.

Honest hearts, struggling with their own weaknesses and faults, look to the Church hoping to find a solid rock of Truth, a firm foundation of Hope on which to model their lives. It is to our shame that such hearts sometimes find nothing more in the Church than an organisation, an institution, a structure. The vision is missing and the original principles of Christ are, shamefully, relegated to a lower priority than principles invented by humans.

This is the great danger of becoming an institution. I hope you don’t misunderstand what I am saying; we benefit greatly from belonging to such an institution; but only if it is done right. If it is done wrong, we can suffer equally greatly.

Here are some of the more common signs of institutionalisation gone wrong:

– acceptance of using the strategies of the ‘world’, whether within the Church, or in dealing with those outside it;

divisions based on loyalty to a personality rather than to Christ Himself;

– acceptance of the principle, “The goal justifies the means”;

– emphasis on achieving things rather than on being a good person;

– dry ritualism rather than using the rites as personally-moving prayers.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the WWJD question – What Would Jesus Do? It finds an application here. If our Lord were to come to Church this Sunday, I wonder what He would think of it all? It was He who said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, and His Apostle said, “For the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life”. If Christianity teaches anything, it is that how you live your life, who you are, deep inside, is what really matters. The outer appearance is secondary, and should naturally flow from what is real inside the heart of the person.

Is it too dangerous for the Church to be an institution? Many in Western Churches have taken that view, and starting from Martin Luther back in the 16th century have gone outside the institutional Church to try to recreate the Church in a more natural setting. But I think this runs an even greater risk. Human beings are who they are, and in the absence of having “The Church” as their foundation, they will seek other foundations, and not always in the right place. Thus we see Churches that care far more about the personalities of the leaders or about being rebellious, or about being ‘hip’, or about one tiny little aspect of Christianity or… or…

The Truth of the Gospels remain untainted by the faults of those who follow the Gospels. If you have a bad experience with a surgeon, it would be irrational for you to condemn all surgery as harmful. Back in my medical days I was privileged to assist a wide variety of surgeons as an intern and resident. At one end of the spectrum was a gentleman whose operation style was anxious and jumpy. One never felt he was really quite sure of what he was doing, despite his many years of experience. At the other end of the spectrum was a quiet, elderly man whose deft, pinpoint accurate touch made every motion of his hands enchanting. I would leave his operations with the feeling that I had not witnessed an operation, but a work of art, like finely performed symphony orchestra concert. It was truly a poetry written with scalpels and stitches.

We should strive to make our institutional Church like that. Our history and our heritage are ingredients of the highest quality, and more than capable of producing works of beauty. We walk in the footsteps of Christ, and in the footsteps of those who walked in His footsteps – St Anthony of the Desert, that noble spirit who blazed the path of quiet contemplation; Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs, the scholar, the profound philosopher who was martyred with his people; St Athanasius the undaunted spirit who could not accept that evil should dominate the Church … the list goes on.

In these examples and the many thousands more whom history has not recorded lived the spirit of the true follower of Christ. For them, the institution of the Church was the arena for living out the teachings of Christ, each in their own way, and sharing that way of life with others.

The Proverb says, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness”. The Church will be, for you, whatever you make of it. If the Church is the little seed that grew into a towering tree, seek then for the sweet sap of the Love and Truth of Christ within its heart, rather than being content to gnaw upon the dry outer bark of human institutionalism.

Fr Ant

Musical Mayhem??? Part 3 (and final)

Addressing the remaining issues… (see parts 1 and 2)

C. “This is Protestant music.”

What exactly makes music Protestant?

What makes anything ‘Protestant’?

We define our denominations according to their theology, as well as their history, culture and demographics and so on. For example, we speak of the “Russian Orthodox Church”, and we know we are speaking of a group of Christians who hold to an Eastern Orthodox theology, who are mostly of Russian descent, although there are many members from other ethnic backgrounds, and who use chants and prayers and hymns in the Russian language and style.

But which of those descriptions is essential for the salvation of the Russian Orthodox individual? Which of them really characterises what it means to be Russian Orthodox? Do you have to be Russian? Do you have to speak Russian? Do you have to use that particular musical style? Certainly, the style helps define the CULTURE, but it does not define the FAITH. Greek, Macedonian and Japanese Orthodox Christians all hold to exactly the same faith, the same theology, yet they express their faith differently, according to their own culture and style of music. Without doubt, a style of music should enhance and complement one’s faith and beliefs, but there is nothing in our faith to say that only one particular style of music is going to do that.

Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely in love with the rich treasure trove of Coptic Hymnology. I wish everyone could taste it and enter into the beautiful world of the spirit it can open up. I believe strongly that it should be carefully preserved and experienced and passed on intact and inviolate to the next generation. But I also believe that there can be room in our lives for more than one style of music.

A musical style cannot, in itself, be ‘Protestant’. Yes, perhaps historically Protestants have tended to use it, but that doesn’t give them ownership over that style, anymore than Protestants doing mathematics gives them ownership over the set of natural numbers. Can you imagine that? “No! We mustn’t count in our Church! We’d become Protestants!”

D. “We don’t want to become Hillsong.”

Hillsong, if you don’t know, is a Pentecostal Assemblies of God movement based in Northwestern Sydney that has grown in numbers and in notoriety over the past few decades. It specialises in worship services that are closer to a pop concert than they are to a traditional Christian worship service. Thus they have appealed to a young generation who enjoy going to ‘church’ to sing and dance and have a great time. All the traditional Christian Churches have, I think, felt the impact of Hillsong as their own young people are at times attracted to go and find out what it’s all about, and occasionally, they stay and never come back. This has made the traditional Churches somewhat defensive whenever the name ‘Hillsong’ is mentioned.

What is it about Hillsong we don’t like? I propose that we should not be cranky about their apparent success at drawing young people in, nor about their professionalism in putting on concert services, nor about the industry standard slick CDs they put out. There is nothing inherently wrong in singing snappy, catchy tunes to praise God. Nor is their anything wrong in using the music that speaks to a new generation – “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some” quoth St Paul.

No, our problem with Hillsong is their theology, and their philosophy. Theologically, they preach what has come to be known as the “Health and Wealth Gospel“. The gist of this is that material success is a sign of God’s favour and blessing – pretty much always. Thus, they soothe the consciences of the rich (it just means you’re God’s favourite) and their pastors are quite proud of their own personal wealth (extra special favourites!) It really is Christianity for Yuppies, but with such dangerous and subtle flaws that it genuinely runs the risk of no longer being true to the Gospel of Christ who remarked that not only did He have nowhere to lay His head, but encouraged His followers to sell everything they had. If the precepts of the Health and Wealth Gospel were to be consistently followed through, then God must have totally rejected St Paul the Apostle, since he was deprived of both health and wealth in the most dramatic of ways through his whole preaching life (just read 2 Corinthians 11 & 12 if you don’t know what I mean).

Philosophically, we have a big problem with reducing Christianity to the level of a consumer item. Yes, it is true that we should follow in St Paul’s footsteps and be all things to all men that we might by all means save some, but I don’t think watering down the Gospel and commercialising it is really what he had in mind. There is s fine line between doing something professionally and doing it commercially, and I think that Hillsong too often cross that line. It is true that Hillsong have a very large “front door” with large numbers going in. But it is a lesser known fact that they also have a very large “back door”, with lots of people leaving all the time in disappointment and disillusionment. Their congregation is not as stable as most traditional Churches, but the faces are always changing. Added to that is their Pentecostalism. That is perhaps a topic for another day, but I have deep concerns about modern day Pentecostalism and its ‘showiness’ and lack of theological foundation or even of sensible purpose.

No, it’s not Hillsong music that we distrust.

E. “This will make the youth think Church is giving them permission to listen to horrible worldly music on the radio.”

And they don’t already? OK, here’s my understanding of our Church’s attitude on Christian liberty: “All things are lawful to me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful to me, but not all things build up” (St Paul again). Our role then is not to ban our youth from engaging with the secular world, but to train them and equip them with the divine wisdom, discernment and passion for God that will make the influence flow the other way – not from the world into them, but from them into the world. Whatever happened to “Let your light so shine among men” (Jesus this time)?

We only fear our youth listening to modern music because we fear it will lead them away from Christ. But surely this means we have failed miserably in instilling them with a genuine love for Christ? A person of any age who loves Christ with all his/her heart will not need anyone to tell them “Turn that song off – its leading you away from Christ”. They should be self-aware enough to sense the danger and devoted enough to make the right decision. There is even the possibility that the young person might use the secular song to bring them closer to Christ. Some love songs, for example, if sung with God in mind as the Beloved, can actually be quite beautiful prayers. This is not something new – King Solomon made a Book of the Bible out of that very concept!

Christianity, more than anything else in this world must be from free choice and sincere desire for God. Sure, we restrain younger kids with strict rules of what’s allowed and what is not in order to protect them from hurting themselves. They don’t yet know how to handle the world, so we help them do it. But is anyone really going to argue that a 25 year old, who might be responsible for millions of dollars or dozens of workers at work, can’t be trusted to be responsible for his/her own salvation?

F. “What is our Church coming to???”

Its senses, I hope. We live in a world of change, and often the answers of yesterday lose their relevance very quickly. If we are to remain strong as a Church and true to our core Christian mission, then we simply have no choice but to quickly separate the chaff from the wheat, to distinguish what is merely cultural norm from what is spiritual imperative, so that we can preserve that spiritual imperative by applying it to the ever changing cultural landscape in which we find ourselves.

I’m sorry, but musical style is not one of the spiritual imperatives of the Gospels. Yes, music has a powerful effect on people, but it is also true that it affects different people in different ways. I find today’s contemporary pop music just as cacophanous as my parents found the Beatles back in the 60’s, or their parents found jazz back in the 20’s.

Authentic Christianity isn’t bogged down in changing fashions.
It speaks the language that gets the message through, for it is the message that matters, not the medium.

Fr Ant