Essential Anarchy

Rev Adrian Skelton —

In September I suggested it was time to see the church ‘as it is’ and to recognise the meta-historical juncture that we have reached in the ‘Western’ church: partly a crisis of denominationalism. In the deafening silence of any feedback, I want to identify another crisis, that of leadership.

A decade or so ago, a church leader suggested to me that, aside from membership decline, the immediate threat to the survival of the church was quality and quantity of leadership available. We are not seeing vocations to ministry enough to sustain the current model – and the tenor of those who are offering is generally conservative, not to say reactionary. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Many aspire to lead today, but in quite other ways. The truism that ‘you are not a leader if no one follows you’ is particularly pertinent to social media players and their ‘followers’. These leaders want to be 'influencers': fame for fame’s sake. But there must also be willing followers: identifying with what the authority figures declare to be of the moment. Such followers can come to believe that they are absolved of responsibility for their own actions: conspiracy-theories, if not cults, are on the rise.

To be technical, this behaviour is known as heteronomous. Religions hand in glove with state power have long exploited this. Christianity is rarely in such a position of influence today but theocracies of other religious stripes are certainly evident: in Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, with India close behind.

One of the enduring aims of philosophy and of some religion has been in a different direction – that of autonomous decision-making. Detractors have called it heresy or anarchy but the essential aim of Socrates, the Buddha and Jesus was to get people to think for themselves: to challenge preconceptions. Only if a morality is freely chosen is it really moral, as Richard Holloway pointed out in Godless Morality (1999).

Conscious choosing of one's morality leads to responsible agency. Anarchy is the pursuit of ‘freedom’ without responsibility but autonomy is the worthy aim of mature religion, the full realisation of our own agency.

But the Celtic bard says it better:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming, W B Yeats)

Responsible churches have for centuries appreciated and encouraged the ‘ministry of the whole people of God’. Unless we recover this understanding in our church structures, we are no more relevant than the influencers and followers of Facebook.