60 The hidden addiction -institutionalisation

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.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “60 The hidden addiction -institutionalisation

  1. Thank you Stephen,I identify totally with,”When God becomes a drug!” The Baptist lady who said:”Nothing to discuss, the Bible has all the answers”.Her belief is now power fed into the ‘God Channel’,the English station ‘Revelation TV’ preaches her belief 24/7. They are totally unchallenged up to this present time. I call upon all who are exercised by this subject to partake in their ‘Phone in’ programs? Please look upon it as, “I was in prison and you visited me!” Sincerely in hope, Chris Pitts.

  2. Many years ago when I was working for the British Council of Churches and touring the country a lot I gained an insight into this issue, which has affected my whole approach to ministry ever since. One Sunday I was invited to preach at the Harvest Festival in Brunswick Methodist Church in Newcastle. I had assumed that the minister would be there to take the service, but when I arrived, I found I had to do everything and not being a Methodist i had to sort out what to do. The service (including the sermon )was conducted from a vast Pulpit which was at least 20 feet above the congregation (and contradiction!). As I went through the service it became very clear to me that everything depended on me.
    The following Sunday I was taking the 8am Communion Service in my local Church and when it came to administering communion,I turned round, and saw all these people kneeling in front of me. It was again a dependent relationship. As you say, Church Architecture encourages this.
    Reflecting on this , when i became a Vicar I developed the adage “Nothing is going to happen in this parish unless there is someone other than the Vicar do do it” And while I did not fully live up to that I devolved a great deal on to others and it lead to quite a heathly Church life. It became clear that many Churches exist to meet the needs of the Vicar. And one could go further-Dioceses exist to meet the needs of the Bishop- the Roman Catholic Church exists to meet the needs of the Pope. This last illustration is made very clear by John Cornwell in his new book “The Empty Box” which should be required reading for people considering the issues on this site.

  3. Challenging stuff Robert! This post naturally leads into material which I have been reading over the past few years about the way that church life creates in its leaders hubris and narcissism. These findings are unconfortable to all of us in ministry and certainly I have not heard or read any discussion of this and those things you are referring to. If these insights are even half true then the church is a deeply dysfunctional place. Let us keep looking at these issues with the hope that more church people will find this blog in their good time and face up to the implications of these ideas. I had got as far as seeing that charismatic leaders create commuities to meet their needs but the idea that this is true of most if not all church leaders is something that I had not considered. Perhaps it is still a bit too challenging. But that does not make it untrue!

  4. Oh for heaven’s sake! How is this “new”. You two must have gone to meetings and fraternals with loads of clergy who have this “I’ll do it myself” attitude. I’ve been in a parish where over a relatively short space of time, there were successive vacancies. Other people kept things going. As soon as the new incumbent arrives, they get stopped and the incumbent, the incumbent’s spouse, and the incumbent’s pets take over. Everything has to start again. Nothing happened before (s)he arrived. Couldn’t possibly build on what was already there, or check that people actually wanted to be relieved of their duties before giving them the elbow. I’ve even seen a new incumbent stop the toddler group, and then a couple of years later “start a new Mums and Tots” with much fanfare and acclaim (from the Archdeacon)! I’m sorry to be so sharp with you guys, but really, if you don’t do it yourselves, and you disapprove of it, why didn’t you speak out when you saw it all around you? It needs to be stopped. Those conversations you had with your colleagues. Did you tell them they shouldn’t be just taking over? Did you believe them when they said there were no lay people willing to do things? In my experience that is never the case. In my experience, clergy do not want, and do not allow lay people to do things. Only the ones they themselves have cultivated, so they are under their control. Often not using the Readers, and inventing the term “worship leaders” for someone else with no qualifications. (That is, apart from the clergy who think “worship” = “music”, so the worship leader is the guitarist!) Using people with no training and no selection process is the thing to watch out for. Where you see that, it nearly always means the Readers have been sidelined. I see it all around me where I am now. It’s there to be spotted. So, lads, speak out!

  5. Some Questions for open and honest dialogues.:

    1. What are the essential aspects of “addictions”?
    2. Do they promote the augmentation of:
    alienation, conflicts, poverty, greed, controllers, etc.
    3. Can addictions depend on modern fast computers and complexity.
    4. Can profitable businesses be addictions?
    4. For more, search the web site at http://www.essayz.com

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