Sunday, 8 June 2008
Wiping the Window Clear
Earlier this week I had a most pleasant few hours sitting in the sunset at a table by a fishpond discussing life, the universe and everything with a couple of Buddhists. The Buddhists had the advantage of me because they had both once been Christian, but I have never been a Buddhist. We talked of many of the things discussed on this blog: the relationship of Buddhism and Christianity: the many similarities and the yawning, irreconcilable differences. It was a growing time for me, especially when one of them explained why she had changed faiths. "Buddhism produces enlightened people," she said. "Christianity doesn't." It was a statement that stung a little, and, as statements can only ever hurt us if they are, to some degree or other, true, I had to think a bit about what she said.
In terms of the ordinary Buddhists I meet in daily life and the ordinary Christians, I don't think the statement is, in fact, true. Both faiths seem to be filled in similar proportions with good people of varying degrees of holiness trying to live their lives according to the light they have been given. The truth of her statement starts when we move past the individuals and into the organisations we belong to. Consider for example, my honorifics, "The Venerable Doctor".
I am called "Venerable" because I am an archdeacon. Archdeacons are chosen by a bishop, and although I've been an archdeacon for some years now, no-one has ever really told me what an archdeacon is supposed to do. By default it is an administrative and pastoral position, whereby care is taken of clergy and some operational tasks are furthered. It is also a mark of standing in the church, especially in my case as I am archdeacon emeritus and don't actually have to do or be anything in return for the title. I compare this to one called "Venerable" in the Buddhist faith, a lama. A lama is one who has undertaken a three year retreat. In the course of that retreat he is constantly watched and assessed by the already established lamas, and at the end of it he is examined to see how far he has progressed spiritually. If he is deemed to have made sufficient progress in his spiritual practice he is ackowledged as one suitable to teach others and bears the honorific. In Buddhism, in other words, "The Venerable" is a mark of advanced spirituality. In our Anglican faith it is the mark of an administrative position. The Doctor bit comes because I once did some study on communication and know how to write a bibliography and couch things in the accepted dialect. No one ever thought to check out my belief system or ask me if I knew how to pray when either of these titles was bestowed. And here is the rub.
Our Anglican dioceses are largely administrative units. No matter how indignantly our cathedrals try to claim otherwise, at the centre of all of our dioceses is a suite of offices. When we talk of "the diocese" we invariably mean, not the bishop, and not the cathedral but the diocesan office. When we meet in solemn assembly it is not to further the life of the spirit. It is to refine our ever burgeoning sets of rules and, sometimes, to hatch plans to try and arrest our declining numbers. It's ironic that our decline is precisely because our organised religion has almost forgotten the religion bit in an ever increasing absorption with organisation. Buddhism is also an organised religion, but the organisation is entirely oriented to one end: the spiritual growth of individuals. Our dioceses are administrative units, but adminstering what? And for why? It seems that often the purpose of a diocese is to preserve the existence of a diocese. People are starving for the living bread and we have become so obsessed with cookbooks that somehow we have forgotten how to bake.
I'm not saying anything new here. I think most Anglicans know this. Our difficulty is in knowing what to do, and invariably we make the same mistake. We think we can address our spiritual malaise by discussing it in synod and by passing resolutions and setting up task groups and committees and inquiries. Our problems aren't administrative - we're actually quite good at that. Our problems are spiritual and can't be solved administratively, but rather only by spiritual means; that is by people learning to pray and reflect and grow in the life of the Spirit. And that can only happen subjectively; that is, in the hearts and minds of individual people.
How do we save the wider church? Forget the wider church. Let it sink or swim as the case may be. It's been around for a long time, and it will be around for a long time yet with or without me worrying about it. The wider church is a bit like a tar-baby. If you try to fight it or change it you only end up stuck to it, and the harder the struggle the more embraced and stuck you become. I must work instead with what I can actually change. I am called to wipe my own window clear and to help others - probably only a few others - to learn to wipe theirs. A diocese will be renewed when and ONLY when parishes are renewed. Parishes will be renewed when and only when individuals are renewed
Lord renew your church, starting with me.