August so far has seen holiday, the birth of my first grandson and not a lot of blogging. A slip of the tongue on the Chris Evans Show (BBC Radio 2) last Monday had me claiming ten ‘weeks’ holiday instead of ten ‘days’. Time to get working again, I guess.

I have been musing recently on the debates and discussions provoked by Anne Rice’s recent well-publicised rejection of Christianity. Rice is OK with Jesus, but not with Christians. Not surprisingly, she has drawn a lot of sympathy – from within the churches as well as from the usual suspects outside. Follow-up articles have been interesting for exposing some of the thinking behind rejection of an institution whilst trying to hold on to the essence of the faith the institution claims to represent. Some of the thinking is interesting; some is surprisingly weak. Can you keep Christ and give up being a Christian? asks  Must Christian life involve religion? ponders Shirley Lancaster. Staying in the fold is tough, confesses Rebecca Jenkins. We must escape the institutions, argues Theo Hobson.

The first thing to say is that the reaction of Anne Rice to horrible Christians is understandable – as is the sympathy of those who wrestle with their own relationship to and involvement in the institutions of the church. All of us have to take our own responsibility for our belonging (with all that comes with it), departing or rejection of the church in any of its forms. Anyone with a conscience will find living within the church a delicate business: there will always be stuff that we or I think is wrong, misguided, wicked or unChristlike. And, inevitably, for some people I will be the object of their anger or suspicion, the one who is wrong, misguided, wicked or unChristlike.

What is interesting about the responses to Anne Rice’s decision is the emphasis respondents place on what I will summarise in two specific words: individual and spirituality. The suggestion seems to be that we can take Jesus seriously as an individual with a personal (private?) faith while staying outside of any corporate engagement (institution). Shirley Lancaster states that we really are only interested these days in doing the deep and personal spiritual ‘interior journey’ and then begs a series of obvious questions. This is what she says:

Every age has to redefine what is the essence of Christianity. Asking the question, can you follow Christ and give up being a Christian, strikes a chord with those of us who do take Christ seriously but don’t want to be branded with other people’s ideas of how a ‘Christian’ is defined: we earn a ticket to heaven if we are nice to everyone and don’t enjoy ourselves too much – the dull and life-denying being a prerogative of good Christian faith.

Really? Every age might have to rediscover the essence of Christianity, but ‘re-define’ it? According to which (or whose) criteria? Christianity cannot be self-defining in the same way Marxism cannot be self-defining. If I shape my notion of Marxism in ways that essentially negate the essence of Marxism, I haven’t re-defined it at all – I have abandoned it. Lancaster’s ‘ticket to heaven’ statement is a parody of Christian faith.

I am reminded of the Muslim who pleaded with us thirty years ago to judge Islam by the best of Muslim examples and not by the worst – just as Marxists wish to be judged by their best examples and not the worst parodies or excesses. Why do we so easily judge Christianity by the worst examples of hypocrisy and failure rather than by the best examples? (Shirley Lancaster later acknowledges these.)

However, Lancaster goes on to say:

The question being asked by many of those stepping back from organised religion is perhaps more radical. Is Christian life essentially a religion at all? Jesus was critical of formal religion that was only for show. St Paul’s passionate teaching, following his conversion, is centred on a personal relationship with Christ – we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ not a dress code or rule book. For centuries the Christian mystical tradition has mapped the interior journey as a way to uncover the ‘inward eye’ that Jesus insisted we need in order to perceive his truth.

Again, I am sympathetic to the charge until I begin to think about the assumptions behind it. Jesus was an observant Jew who engaged fully with ‘formal religion’. Not all formal religion is ‘for show’. St Paul’s teaching involves the ‘personal relationship with Christ’ and then spills huge amounts of ink working away at how the ‘personal’ is to be related to the ‘common’ (or ‘corporate’) life of the committed community. He knows no possibility of a privatised faith set loose from relationships in, with and through a community called ‘church’. (And Paul, rather embarrassingly for the argument, says quite alot about dress codes and rules.)

I guess I can sympathise with the emotion behind Shirley Lancaster’s statements, but she cannot base them on such an obviously flimsy foundation. Theo Hobson, in an interesting reflection on the matter, repeats his oft-made assertion that the institution is awful and should be abandoned whilst hanging on to the essence at its heart. Yet the same individualism and notion of self-defining spirituality are there again:

… Christianity is so overwhelmingly dominated by institutionalism that it is difficult to lay claim to a non-institutional Christian identity. There is no recognized position of “non-institutional Christian”. But there ought to be one – and Rice is in a position to start the ball rolling.

My question to Theo Hobson is one I have posed before. Christianity knows no possibility of institution-free existence, so what would it mean to be a ‘non-institutional Christian’? You’d have to leave out the ‘Christian’ bit because, as I observed above, it is not possible to read Jesus (or Paul) and conclude that it is possible to be a ‘spiritual’ Christian isolated from any obligation to others both within and without the church. You can only hold this position if you leave Jesus out of the picture – or re-shape him into someone more convenient to our individualistic preferences, but divorced from the character in the Gospels and emptied of anything he said.

I agree with Hobson about needing a “corrective to the tired assumptions of the God debate”. he makes an interesting point when he goes on to say:

Our whole discourse about religion is far too dominated by philosophical framing. Maybe we should learn to see religion as a special sort of artistic tradition. And maybe this is the way in which a non-institutional Christian identity can gain traction. Though images are central to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, they actually have a powerful anarchic energy: they quietly imply that the essence of religion lies here, in the magic of representation, and not in rules and priestcraft.

Yes, jesus taught in pictures and stories which, once given are lost. That is to say that (for example) Jesus never offered a three-line definition of ‘the Kingdom of God’ and then demand that we all sign up to it; rather, he said repeatedly, ‘the Kingdom of God is like…’ and told a story or described an image. Then he left it to his hearers to work it out, using imagination as well as reason based on experience. A risky way to teach, maybe, because the image might be re-described in a distorted way or misinterpreted – or the story might be mis-remembered, half-told, twisted at important points, and so on. So, I get Theo Hobson’s point about ‘anarchic energy’ (even if I think his language overstates the case).

But, what would his desired ‘non-institutional’ Christianity look like? Where are these people – apparently motivated by Jesus – organising at huge personal and corporate cost service to a local community? Or feeding the hungry in inner-urban parishes? Or advocating for rural communities where the children can no longer afford to live near their parents? Take the ‘institutional church’ out of our communities and see what you are left with. ‘Individual’ or ‘personal’ does not seem a million miles away from ‘selfish’ and ‘self-referential’.

The problem with this is as old as humanity itself. Dismantle an institution and you are not left ‘institution-free’, but with a new form of relating or belonging… a new ‘institution’. The individuals, if they are to take Jesus seriously and make some impact on a beautiful-yet-mucky world, will have to converse somehow, relate somehow, organise somehow, set up organisations somehow, finance them, and so on. And within ten seconds of starting this we will already be involved in politics, power play, competing priorities, and all the other ‘institutional’ stuff we all want to reject.

I am open to learn, but I need that question to be addressed first.