All nucleated organisms generate excess calcium as a waste product. Since at least the Cambrian times, organisms have accumulated those calcium reserves, and put them to good use: building shells, teeth, skeletons. Your ability to walk upright is due to evolution’s knack for recycling its toxic waste.
The Church ought not to have to think about its principle of Order any more than a healthy man thinks about his spine. He knows he has one, but does not think about it until something is wrong.
(William Temple, ‘The Background of the Re-Union Problem’, in The York Quarterly, January 1930)
He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these dry bones live?’
(Ezekiel 37: 3, New Jerusalem Bible)
Whether or not Stephen Johnson’s claim about the evolution of skeletons is good science, there is no question that it is, at least for me, theologically evocative, given my interest in the church’s institutional structures. Could it be that the authority and accountability structures of the Christian community came from the very life processes of the early church—and rather than accumulating as dangerous waste products, they have been re-purposed in helpful and life-giving ways?
Certainly, even in the earliest gathering of disciples, there were some toxic by-products of community life. There are power struggles (Mark 10: 15ff; Luke 9:46), misunderstandings (Mark 9:2ff), arguments over the allocation of resources (Mark 14:3ff), betrayals (Mark14:10). And that is just a sampling from two of the synoptic gospels! The great hymn describing love from 1 Corinthians 13 can be seen as a call to better behaviour: ‘Love is patient, love is kind’, and you are not exhibiting those qualities, are you, brothers and sisters? It does not take a radical reading of the New Testament to see that much of it is dedicated to organizing the life of the community, and to put safeguards in place for to minimize the effects of undesirable behaviour, and to maximize the possibility for spreading the gospel.
The by-products of human interaction—jealousy, impatience, power struggles, secrecy—can be toxic, just like that excess of calcium that is the by-product of most life forms. The question becomes, what do we do with the undesirable residue of our nature as embodied and social beings? How do we not only neutralize these inevitable toxins, but use them creatively to enhance life rather than endanger it?
If Johnson is correct, as life evolved and multicellular animal life developed specialized tissues, the toxic calcium accumulations were used creatively (even if unconsciously) to improve the life of the organism. Teeth made taking nutrition easier; skeletons not only provided protection for more fragile organs, but also assisted in locomotion. Eventually, as quadrupeds became bipeds, the firm but flexible structure of bones, muscles, and connective tissue, allowed hominids to stand higher in their surroundings, and take in a wider view of the world than had previously been possible.
In like fashion, the church has taken the inevitable waste products of its communal life, and sought to use them to create something that would protect it from harm, help it move through its environment, and take in a wider view of the world than would be possible for any single believer or local community would have been able to do on its own.
In important ways, the institutional structures of the church have worked, and have done good beyond what individuals or small groups could have managed without extensive organization. From the earliest post-resurrection communities, followers of Jesus have created mechanisms for sharing resources, solving problems, and setting the standards of behaviour and belief that were to define what it meant to belong to the Christian church. As time went on, the church was in large part for the establishment of schools, universities, hospitals, and other benevolent associations throughout Europe, and through trade and exploration, in many other parts of the world. Christians should be proud of this legacy, and should seek to find ways that church institutions can continue this rich and honourable tradition.
This is far from saying that the institutions of the Christian church always work as they are intended to do, and or that they never need examination, critique and adjustment. The quote from Archbishop Temple, again comparing the ‘principle of order’ which structures our life together to the human spine, says that the operation is usually so smooth and works so well that we simply get on with our life and work. However, when something isn’t working, it’s a sign of ill health, and we need to pay attention and fix it. It is important to note that we fix, rather than abolish those structures. It may be effective to cure high blood pressure by stopping the heart from beating—but eventually, that causes more problems than it solves.
There is no question that our structures aren’t always serving us as well as they should. Sometimes, an organizational principle that once worked but is no longer appropriate needs to be reworked; this is the situation which occasions the Review published by the Church in Wales. The Episcopal Church (USA) has also voted this summer at its triennial General Convention to re-examine its structures. In both cases, there is a financial element to the pressure for reorganization, but as a wise bishop said to me once, ‘Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks in dollar signs.’ The demographics of churches in the northern hemisphere Anglican provinces are also changing, and we are questioning how to rework our institutions to better reach young people, find an appropriate Christian witness in increasingly plural societies, and nurture the spiritual lives of the faithful. At the same time, not just Anglican Communion churches but all Christian communions are under unprecedented scrutiny concerning issues of both alleged and real sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement. Our institutions need to work toward transparency, integrity and accountability, both for those within the churches and for those in the wider society.
When institutional structures are unhealthy, it is important to rework them, not abandon them. Although our threefold order of deacons, priests and bishops can sometimes seem rigid, and our accountability structures of parishes, archdeaconries, dioceses, and provincial synodical organizations can seem labyrinthine, they have important functions. Individual faith may be able to survive with only small groups to support and nurture it, but faith in action is much more effective if resources can be acquired and distributed by larger collaborative arrangements. And in the instance of malfeasance, our organizations provide clear lines of accountability provided by strong organizations to safeguard the vulnerable.
So, it is time perhaps to think through how to make our structures work, to adjust what Temple called our ‘principle of order’—not in the interest of being disorderly, but to strengthen our organizational life to be strong yet light and flexible. To evolve our ecclesial skeleton this way, we protect our more delicate inner workings while still allowing the church to move through the world and interact with it, yet still to stand tall and see further than our most immediate environment. That kind of structure will help us survive and thrive.
With proper care, yes, I believe these dry bones can live.
Skeletons of human and gorilla in MIAT museum – front view, Gent, Belgium; photograph downloaded from Wikimedia under licence