A wider question

Church must decide whether to continue in community or alone as institution
May 1, 2006

In about A month and a half, the Episcopal Church will send its deputies to Columbus, Ohio, and there it will deal with many issues. It will continue a process that currently involves -- and will involve for some years to come -- not only ourselves but the entire Anglican Communion.

Forget about homosexuality or the status of women or global warming or any of the other highly emotional questions that have emerged over the past years. These are not issues -- they are symptoms. The decision we, and worldwide Anglicanism, will make can be stated simply: Are we to continue as a community or as an institution?

The words are simple; the reality is dauntingly complex. Definitions are difficult -- communities and institutions, after all, share certain key features. Both communities and institutions have purpose and goals, both develop a leadership corps, and -- most startlingly -- both require an external threat, for without this there will be no internal bonding. (I remember my shocked disbelief on reading, in a book on leadership skills, the blunt statement, "There has to be an enemy." )

We also should note that both communities and institutions may be either good or bad. There has been an assumption, almost a mantra, in the Episcopal Church that "building community" should be a primary goal -- but there is nothing inherently good about community. The Ku Klux Klan is a community. A street gang is a community. The differentiating factor is a purpose or goal that can override the built-in dangers inherent in such groups: the fact that, by creating an "us" the community automatically creates a "not-us," with all its temptations to exclusivity and oppression.

The second factor in both community and institution is leadership, which may be formal (a priest in a parish, an officer in a combat unit) or much more open and flexible, allowing those with talent (and persuasiveness) to assume leadership roles that may vary widely from group to group.

And the third key fact is, of course, the enemy. This may be a commonly agreed on problem such as poverty or justice or civil rights, or it may be defined on a corporate level as a competitor or on a personal level as those who are different or those who do not agree with the majority and therefore are seen as a threat.

So what are the differences between communities and institutions? We need, I think, to ask what happens when a community fails. There can be many causes for this, the happiest being that it achieves its goals and disbands, the members going on easily to the next challenge. More commonly, however, it is torn apart by internal dissension and either splits or disintegrates altogether.

Or it ceases to be a community and becomes an institution. When this happens, there is a subtle shift in purpose: The community ceases to look outward and, rather, begins to turn inward on itself. The church is especially, it seems, vulnerable to this; the church, on a local, national or even worldwide level, ceases to see itself as a vehicle of healing and redemption and instead focuses on itself as an entity to be preserved.

The bonding mechanism of the community shifts from a base of loyalty and trust to a base of fear, generally the fear of losing one's place in an institution that is now more and more restricting its qualifications for membership. The goodness or rightness of an action becomes less important than the threat it may pose to the institution. Leadership becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer persons, who usually see themselves as preservers or protectors rather than innovators.

It's impossible, of course, to cover a subject about which many books have been written in the space of a short column; the above is by no means an attempt at more than a few thoughts thrown out for what I believe to be a necessary discussion. I'll like it if you agree with me, and I'll like it just as much if you don't.

As long as we keep talking.

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