The Church: Resentment and Reality

This is not a theological post (although I shall try to write one on the subject some day), more a musing-aloud about something that perplexes me. When people refer to ‘the Church’, what do they have in mind? For example, even practising Catholics will sometimes refer to the Church as though it were something other — most frequently, the clergy, the Vatican, or some amorphous institution quite separate from that which they experience whenever they go to Mass and of which they are themselves members. Those who profess no belief can be forgiven for using the term even more loosely. What tends to be common both to believers and non-believers when they speak thus, however, is a kind of resentment of the Church — especially, its wealth, power, and rules.

The wealth of the Church is certainly arguable, for not only is some of it bound up in works of art that are, literally, priceless (and therefore a net drain on resources), but there is no single body called ‘the Church’ that owns it all. Ownership is vested in different groups: dioceses, religious orders, individual communities, and so on. The power of the Church is easier to reckon because there are millions of people throughout the world  who live by its doctrines and help shape the society to which they belong. The numerous agencies of the Church providing healthcare, education and other services are another example of power, if you like, though in this case exercised through service. It is when we come to the rules of the Church, the disciplines it expects its adherents to observe, that the real difficulty begins. Then there is a kind of double whammy. Sometimes ‘the Church’ is regarded as wrong to impose rules (e.g. the ban on abortion) or is held to be deeply hypocritical because some of its members break them (as in the case of sexual abuse). There is even the notion that people today are responsible for what happened in the past, even if they had no connection with that past other than being members of the same Church. Two examples may help explain what I mean.

When I was first asked, in all seriousness, to apologize for the Crusades, I looked rather blank. I have not the slightest idea whether any of my ancestors were involved and feel no sense of personal responsibility for them. When asked to apologize for (unproven) allegations of abuse by religious sisters in another country, I pointed out that (a) I’m a nun, not a religious sister, (b) I’m English and (c) I wasn’t even born when the alleged events took place so doubted whether my responsibility were any greater than my interlocutor’s, who was at least a citizen of the country in question and an adult when the alleged abuse took place. It didn’t go down well. I was accused of tying to wriggle out of responsibility. In fact, I was trying to get at the truth. What is the degree of responsibility individuals have, as members of the Church, especially for events in the past? Is it different in kind from the responsibility we have as citizens for whatever our country may have done in the past? Is there a cut-off point, an unwritten statute of limitations, as it were, or is resentment distorting reality?

I have no answer to those questions. What principally concerns me is working out how to satisfy the demands of truth and charity when faced with the consequences of what I’d call lazy but commonplace thinking. In the end, what people think the Church is is almost as important as what the Church actually is, and we who belong to her must do the best we can to reflect the mind of Christ in any and every situation. Perhaps, deep down, I resent that a little, but it is the reality I know I must try to live. Q.E.D.?

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16 thoughts on “The Church: Resentment and Reality”

  1. Yes, it’s really complicated isn’t it? I can remember being on holiday with a Scottish lady who thought that I should feel guilty about the Highland clearances.
    This might sound a bit simplistic but it helps me, even though living it sometimes feels impossible. “Everyone is my brother and sister” As the person who first said it to me commented, “It is that simple and that difficult.”

  2. You make an interesting point about how people talk about and view the Church and take the view that you must be both representative of the Church and personally to blame or all ills that they attribute to the Church.

    From my perspective, I believe that I had a similar viewpoint, until I first came back to church and secondly, engaged with people and sites like yours, which quickly made me revise and repent my jaundiced views. Sometimes we need to debate in a constructive, not destructive way to learn and to grow, and I attribute much of my own growth to engaging here and elsewhere with people who can present a fresh and unbiased view of events and things that might just change both our views and us, ourselves.

    I thank God for that opportunity, because continuing the way that I was, has only one way and that is perdition 🙁

    • That’s very refreshing, Ernie. I think we who are Church members also need to think about how we ourselves talk about the Church. We fall into all the traps!

  3. It’s much easier to complain about things than make the effort to understand and bring about some healing.

    Personally I refuse to be drawn in to this kind of thing. Am I responsible for the horrible end of Archbishop Cranmer because I live in Oxford? How ridiculous and illogical. Unless time-travel becomes a possibility I can have no influence on events 400 years ago. However, I can teach others so they understand what happened and I can do everything in my power to work together with my Anglican brothers and sisters as fellow Christians now.

    I doubt whether your interrogators wanted a reasoned discussion – people just love mud-slinging and Christians are a good target (sorry, I’m a bit grumbly this morning!)

    • Unfortunately, one can be drawn into ‘discussions’ like this. I think one needs to assert the right to silence, but that doesn’t always go down well, does it?

  4. Agreed! All churches, faiths, countries, organisations, etc. have things in their history of which they can rightly be ashamed but of which todays members cannot be held responsible. I, an Anglican, am horrified and saddened by the way previous generations behaved towards Roman Catholics and would love to turn the clock back and undo the split between our churches, but clearly can change nothing from the past. I am, therefore, hurt when a Catholic friend feels the need to keep reminding me of the sufferings of Catholics at the hands of Protestants. If only we could all put the past where it belongs and look to the future with love for all God’s children.

  5. “It’s much easier to complain about things than make the effort to understand and bring about some healing.” So true. Surely, the whole point of remembering the past is to learn from it and to make sure that the same mistakes are not allowed to replay themselves again and again?

  6. I would say that we should not feel forced to bear a responsibility which is plainly not ours, like the examples you quote. But we can willingly assume a responsibility in a spiritual sense, and seek God’s forgiveness and healing. That’s what Jesus did, and before Him Moses, Jeremiah, Daniel, to name three who come immediately to mind.

  7. The problem is believers are very good at playing up ‘the church’, ‘The Church’ and ‘Christianity’ for all its worth – there is an eagerness to bank Christianity’s symbolic capital when it suits. Therefore many grasp the past (or their version of it) with both hands and thrust it in the faces of anyone willing to listen when that past is glorifying Christianity and Christians. Christians DO happily skate over the mistakes and errors of the past and/or present a sanitised, self-magnifying history.

    When conducting research interviews for my PhD (on faith-based welfare) I was struck by how often Christians in particular (of varying hues) made a comment which basically ran along the lines of: ‘Of course you’ve us Christians to thank for the welfare state – we initiated many of the great social reforms of the 19th century…’. (N.B. note the ‘WE’ in this comment…) As I’ve noted elsewhere this (self-magnifying) version of history, raises more questions than it answers. 1) Given Britain was FAR more ‘Christian’ in the late 18th and thro’ out the 19th century, why was reform needed in a country that had been Christian for a millennium and a half; if there was something inherent in Christianity that produces an equitable and caring society, why did it need social reforms and legal statute to produce this? 2) The vast bulk of reformers were non-conformists (Quakers and Unitarians being particularly proactive in challenging the status quo – Wilberforce built on their work, not vice versa). The role of Enlightenment and/or Humanist thinking is conveniently side-stepped or forgotten by those Christians desirous of claiming ownership of the work by association of a tiny, but vocal number of Christians who were able (in Britain who usually achieved reform by entering into parliamentary alliances with Humanists) to initiate social reform. As I’ve said before when commenting on this blog, history has a habit of being told to suit the needs of the present rather a desire to present an objective view of things past.

    We also see Christians are happy to claim this or that social movement as their own. At present ‘free speech’ is something we see as being the rallying cry of certain flavour of disenfranchised, usually reactionary conservative Christians (from Catholics to Evangelicals) who by ‘Free Speech’ usually mean the right to discriminate and abuse homosexuals and anything polluted with ideological liberalism. The ironic fact that the greatest enemy of free speech for much of Western history has been political Christianity seems to pass these souls by. There are many more such instances of the rights and freedoms of secular, liberal democracy being seen as having their origins in ‘Christianity’ when the truth is far more complex and sometimes the very opposite!

    Hence caution is needed when trying to dissociate oneself from uncomfortable actions of Christians. There is a vague belief that somewhere there is ‘true’ Christianity and that social and political errors and failings are the result of a failing in this ‘true Christianity’. And that we personally have no connection with these errors (though strangely many are eager to bathe in the reflected glory of Christian successes of past and present). Yet, particularly in a catholic understanding of Christianity, where individual Christians see themselves as part of the Suma Tou Christou – the Body of Christ – part of a communion of saints and that all history is bound up in the ‘telos’ of Christ’s incarnation and means of redemption, it is not so easy to dissociate oneself with the errors of other Christians, past and present.

    From a contemplative theological perspective repentance and reparation are a Christian duty – not just for one’s own failings, but those of Christians, Christianity and humanity as a whole. The ‘Our Father’ states ‘forgive our sins…’ not ‘my sins’. Similarly the theology of the Eucharist is not bound up with our individual salvation (oh how we delight in the inverted pride of our own sinfulness and redemption!) but it is offered on behalf of the all. Like all sacraments, it is a representation in time and space of the Heavenly Kingdom – and in that sense is outside of time and space. History itself is brought to the altar for redemption.

    How one deals with accusations is difficult to say. But I would ask people to consider that the effect of the sinful behaviour of ‘The Church’ and ‘Christians’ during the Crusades, is still with us today (much of the enmity between Christians and Muslims (not to mention between Christians – esp. Roman and the various Orthodox and Monophosite churches) can be traced back to the horrors of the Crusades. My aged (88) mother has a dislike and distrust of nuns because of her RC upbringing… Hence, the effect of the past IS felt in the present and therefore there is a role for repentance and reparation for the errors of our forebears. To say this isn’t the case, is rather like Jesus saying ‘these aren’t my sins – so why should I suffer for them!’.

    The real problem is how to acknowledge one’s connectedness with the past and yet not fall foul of a fatalistic pessimism? I think the answer is to acknowledge that Christians get it wrong – often! Jesus may be the truth, the way and the Life, but Christians are sinful, flawed creatures, who do not always know best, who do not have a special handle on sanctity, or morality (as much as some would like to claim) and are daily in need of redemption. Humility is something lacking from much vocal (i.e. the rantings on the internet et el) Christianity at present – I think this ‘lack’ needs amending…

    • Stephen, I am not sure how your comment really connects with the original post. By and large, I have never found readers of this blog guilty of the kind of smugness or partisan viewpoints you seem to be accusing them (us) of. You are by no means the only person with a Ph.D. or professional background in history/theology who writes or comments here, but your rather exclusively British perspective is one I myself must admit to finding a bit alien. I have always thought of the Church as an international body, which influences how I address such questions as the one in this post; and I have already stated that the question was, ‘What is the degree of responsibility individuals have, as members of the Church, especially for events in the past?’ Not, please note, do Christians have any responsibility, but what degree. That is a different question from the one I think you have tried to answer.

      • Dear Sister

        I must apologise if you feel I was making ANY accusation again you or the readers of this blog. I most certainly was NOT! I would presume the readers of your blog are not necessary representative of the whole Christianity, past and present (tho’ of course you will have access to stats I do not…)! I was merely pointing out the difficulties of treading a path between the errors of history (which some Christians appear to distance themselves from – yet seem eager to grasp aspects of history that show Christianity in a positive light) and the present.

        S.

        • Thank you for clarifying. I was a little troubled because I’ve tried to make this blog a ‘safe space’ for people to engage openly and honestly and one of the things I am most severe about is any sort of personal accusation/attack because it so often leads to a bear garden. 🙂

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