As part of my post-retirement activity, I act as a volunteer in the local hospital. I have been allocated two wards to visit weekly on behalf of the chaplain, so that individuals in particular need do not get overlooked. Most of the patients are new when I see them, as the turnover in beds is very rapid these days. Few patients stay more than a few days. I know that for those who do stay longer, there are real dangers in what many describe as ‘institutionalisation’. This is a creeping malaise that depletes the patient of the ability to think for themselves or make any kind of decision. The task of living and making decisions is being done for them and so their own self-determination becomes gradually atrophied through lack of use. The task of leaving the hospital and resuming normal living is for them a real ordeal. It is not dissimilar to an addict trying to live without a drug of dependence.
Readers of this blog will know about my interest in Trinity Brentwood and the blog that is seeking to obtain an apology on behalf of all those who have been damaged by the church over 30+ years. Recently the blogmaster, Nigel Davies, received two telephone calls from current members. They pleaded with him to stop protesting outside the church on most Sundays. During the conversation they admitted that Nigel’s campaign was legitimate but they were locked into the church because they had never known anything else. The protests upset them. Leaving was something impossible to contemplate. Nigel commented that this was a clear case of institutionalisation.
Somewhere on my shelves is a book with the unlikely title, When God becomes a Drug. The incident from Brentwood and my book title led me to thinking about this whole topic of churches becoming foci of addiction and institutionalisation. It is not clear where, in fact, the boundary between being in thrall to an addictive institution and developing a healthy routine of loyalty to an organisation lies. Probably the role of stopping people becoming unhealthily dependent on a group is something that falls to the leadership of that group. But of course the leaders of addictive churches may not want their members to escape from the thrall of their dependency. Out of the dependency comes tithing, adulation and the sense of power. A leader who, for reasons of his own, needs these things will not want to discourage this creeping dependency and institutionalisation of followers. Under such a leader a church becomes an increasingly addictive institution.
I write these words without any specific solution to the issue but as an attempt to name a problem in the church. Awareness of something is one way of stopping it getting worse. As a former person in charge of congregations (I hesitate to use the word ‘leader’), I know how much I longed for people metaphorically to get up out of their seats. Far too many of the congregation seemed content to remain totally inert in the pews. The architecture of the building seems to encourage such passivity. Rows of seats face an altar and a pulpit, both of which are raised up high and this setting seems to suppress the possibility of genuine dialogue between teacher and those who are taught. People in real teaching situations would find impossible to tolerate the lack of engagement between teacher and taught that seems normal in a church setting.
The problem of institutionalisation and passivity becomes worse as you enter churches where theology and tradition make it part of the way things are. I remember the Baptist lady in a former parish who could not understand discussion groups because the Bible’s authority meant that there was nothing to discuss. Such a reliance on the Bible and on the ability of the minister always to interpret that Bible correctly, mean that many churches have little chance of escaping the accusation of being hotbeds of dependency and addiction.
I return to the image of patients in a hospital gradually losing their ability to make decisions and take any kind of responsibility for their lives. If this is an accurate description of what at least some churches do to their congregations, then we are moving a long way from the good news of Jesus. Jesus talked about ‘life in all its abundance’ and this is not something you see often in churches of any kind. The challenge for all of us is to rouse ourselves to take a stand against passivity encouraged by authoritarian teaching and institutions, especially in the church. All of us need to take steps to see that our faith is leading us, not to some kind of inertia, but to an active life-enhancing way of moving forward. Laying claim to ‘life in all its abundance’ is hard work but eminently worth pursuing. Abundant life has little in common with the addiction, obedience and dependency which is all that many churches seem to offer.