It’s been a fascinating education learning about institutional Catholicism these past few weeks. I won’t reveal how and what I know, but I think I have a good picture of the culture inside the bishop’s inner circle and I’m pretty sure I understand his long-term agenda. The current lightening-fast closure of sixty-some churches is the first step of an ambitious plan; manufactured priest shortages and soon-to-be overcrowded churches will be used to justify even more radical changes. In about twenty years time, the 125 churches that exist today will have been sold off. What’s left of a half million faithful will be herded into a dozen or so mega-churches, with theology borrowed from generic liberalism, style from feel-good evangelicalism, and organization from consultant culture.
When diocesan officials come by to read this blog (and they do now), they will smile at that last sentence and nod their heads approvingly. The conspiracy is real.
But I don’t want to talk about Catholicism again. Let’s talk Quakers instead, why not? I should be in some meeting for worship right now anyway. Julie left Friends and returned to the faith of her upbringing after eleven years with us because she wanted a religious community that shared a basic faith and that wasn’t afraid to talk about that faith as a corporate “we.” It seems that Catholicism won’t be able to offer that in a few years. Will she run then run off to the Eastern Orthodox church? For that matter should I be running off to the Mennonites? See though, the problem is that the same issues will face us wherever we try to go. It’s modernism, baby. No focused and authentic faith seems to be safe from the Forces of the Bland. Lord help us.
We can blog the questions of course. Why would someone who dislikes Catholic culture and wants to dismantle its infrastructure become a priest and a career bureaucrat? For that matter why do so many people want to call themselves Quakers when they can’t stand basic Quaker theology? If I wanted lots of comments I could go on blah-blah-blah, but ultimately the question is futile and beyond my figuring.
Another piece to this issue came in some questions Wess Daniels sent around to me and a few others this past week in preparation for his upcoming presentation at Woodbrooke. He asked about how a particular Quaker institution did or did not represent or might or might not be able to contain the so-called “Convergent” Friends movement. I don’t want to bust on anyone so I won’t name the organization. Let’s just say that like pretty much all Quaker bureaucracies it’s inward-focused, shallow in its public statements, slow to take initiative and more or less irrelevant to any campaign to gather a great people. A more successful Quaker bureaucracy I could name seems to be doing well in fundraising but is doing less and less with more and more staff and seems more interested in donor-focused hype than long-term program implementation.
One enemy of the faith is bureaucracy. Real leadership has been replaced by consultants and fundraisers. Financial and staffing crises – real and created – are used to justify a watering down of the message. Programs are driven by donor money rather than clear need and when real work might require controversy, it’s tabled for the façade of feel-goodism. Quaker readers who think I’m talking about Quakers: no I’m talking about Catholics. Catholic readers who think I’m talking about Catholics: no, I’m talking about Quakers. My point is that these forces are tearing down religiosity all over. Some cheer this development on. I think it’s evil at work, the Tempter using our leader’s desires for position and respect and our the desires of our laity’s (for lack of a better word) to trust and think the best of its leaders.
So where does that leave us? I’m tired of thinking that maybe if I try one more Quaker meeting I’ll find the community where I can practice and deepen my faith as a Christian Friend. I’m stumped. That first batch of Friends knew this feeling: Fox and the Peningtons and all the rest talked about isolation and about religious professionals who were in it for the career. I know from the blogosphere and from countless one-on-one conversations that there are a lot of us – a lot – who either drift away or stay in meetings out of a sense of guilt.
So what would a spiritual community for these outsider Friends look like? If we had real vision rather than donor vision, what would our structures look like? If we let the generic churches go off to out-compete one other to see who can be the blandest, what would be left for the rest of us to do?
I guess this last paragraph is the new revised mission statement for the Quaker part of this blog. Okay kids, get a step stool, go to your meeting library, reach up high, clear away the dust and pull out volume one of “A portraiture of Quakerism: Taken from a view of the education and discipline, social manners, civil and political economy, religious principles and character, of the Society of Friends” by Thomas Clarkson. Yes the 1806 version, stop the grumbling. Get out the ribbed packing tape and put its cover back together – this isn’t the frigging Library of Congress and we’re actually going to read this thing. Don’t even waste your time checking it out in the meeting’s logbook: no one’s pulled it down off the shelf in fifty years and no one’s going to miss it now. Really stuck?, okay Google’s got it too. Class will start shortly.