The people of the United States seem to be markedly ambivalent about institutions.
A survey of the history of our nation reveals a perennial tension between a powerful impulse to build and protect public and private institutions and an equal and opposite urge to limit their scope and influence. On the one hand, we respect institutions as carriers of social, political, cultural, and economic stability. On the other, we suspect that institutions are self-perpetuating structures that tend to become ends in themselves and stymie too many attempts to do important things in new ways.
Even when those who take the first view accept some of the institutional critiques offered by those who take the second, they see institutions as a net positive. Likewise, those who take the second view, even if they perceive the value that institutions sometimes bring to common life, often find them to be more cumbersome and unnecessary than they are helpful. In our highly polarized social context, it is perhaps not surprising that the two sides of this tension are frequently held to be mutually exclusive rather than complementary. Only one of them is the right view to adopt. The other one is, to put it charitably, misguided.
Churches, of course, are not immune to this condition. In the Episcopal Church specifically, there are those who remain fiercely dedicated to the project of maintaining the health and vitality of the institutional church, just as there are those who consider institutional structures to be an unhelpful burden that weighs down missional responsiveness to the needs of people as they emerge. The question is one of priority. That is, the question being asked, mostly indirectly and without much nuance, is whether the Episcopal Church is “an institution” or “a movement.”
Theologically, to put the matter this way is to present us with a false choice. The Episcopal Church is not either an institution or a movement, but both an institution and a movement. Or, more accurately, demonstrating their interrelationship, our church, like every church, is a movement that has an institution. Any movement, any dynamic reality that seeks to engage the world, must have the structures and supports in place to allow that engagement to happen. An idea, a vision, has to be embodied in order to be made real and effective, and in order to endure beyond a single generation.
At its best, an institution is the material embodiment of an intention. Church came into being when Jesus’ disciples experienced the resurrection and were charged with witnessing to the difference that event makes in humanity’s life with God and one another. That difference was not only proclaimed but lived out. The new type of relationality that this new movement instantiated led in short order to equally new networks between local communities following The Way. Along these channels there flowed people and resources for the building up of their common life and their mission in and to the world. This is institutional structure. Without it, the seedling church would have shriveled up and died.
The incarnation itself is something like this, too. The Word becomes flesh and, in doing so, loses neither its reality as Word nor as flesh, but instead becomes an enfleshed mode by which God speaks the Word that God is not only to us but as us. The movement by which God goes out of Godself to express the divine identity to finite creatures requires material mediation.
Of course, this analogy, like all analogies, can only be pressed just so far before it breaks down. In this case, it is important to remember that the joining of Godself to human flesh is ultimate and everlasting in a way that purely human embodiments of movements, such as churches, can never be. It is true that the church is not an ultimate, that it is not the church that God has promised to bring to eschatological perfection but the entire creation. Institutions are not, then, ends in themselves. They do not exist for their own sake. This criticism of them is quite right. At the same time, they are indispensable for doing the work we have been given to do as Christ’s disciples. After all, the so-called “institutional church” is the Body of Christ, not metaphorically or symbolically but theologically and, so, really.
The work of the General Convention, it seems to me, is to discern where the part of the movement of God’s Holy Spirit called the Episcopal Church is headed and to build up the institution in a manner that clears the way for it rather than standing in its way. While the institutional expression of this movement—its structures, policies, procedures, and practices—can and should always be critically assessed and reshaped, there is no reason to downplay or neglect its significance in order to emphasize mission. Rather, church can and should be a place where the false choice of institution or movement is replaced with a commitment to aligning institution and movement so that we can actually be the leaven in the dough of the world that, as church, we exist to be.