GUEST COMMENTARY: When religion and spirituality collide

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(RNS) Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, recently announced that he would step down by year's end. A few days later, the Church of England rejected a Williams-backed unity plan for global Anglicanism, a church fractured by issues of gender and sexual identity. The timing of the resignation and the defeat are probably not coincidental. These events signal Anglicans' institutional failure.

But why should anyone, other than Anglicans and their Episcopal cousins in the U.S., care? The Anglican fight over gay clergy is usually framed as a left and right conflict, part of the larger saga of political division. But this narrative obscures a more significant tension in Western societies: the increasing gap between spirituality and religion, and the failure of traditional religious institutions to learn from the divide.

Rowan Williams was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, but struggled to maintain the Anglican Communion amidst growing conservative anger over homosexuality.

Rowan Williams was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, but struggled to maintain the Anglican Communion amidst growing conservative anger over homosexuality.

Until recently, the archbishop of Canterbury was chief pastor for a global church bound by a common liturgy and Anglican religious identity. Expectations for religious leaders were clear: Run the church with courage and vision. Bishops directed the laity, inspiring obedience, sacrifice and heroism; they ordered faith from the top.

Today's world, however, is different.

All institutions are being torn apart by tension between two groups: those who want to reassert familiar and tested leadership patterns — including top-down control, uniformity and bureaucracy; and those who want to welcome untested but promising patterns of the emerging era — grass-roots empowerment, diversity and relational networks. It is not a divide between conservatives and liberals; rather, it is a divide between institution and spirit.

Top-down structures are declining. In the Anglicans' case, spiritual and institutional leadership have been severed. The emerging vision maintains that spiritual leadership must be learned, earned and experienced distinct from, and often in tension with, the ascribed role of bishop.

Williams' career is a public illustration of the conflict. Early on, Williams was recognized as a teacher and pastor of deep spirituality, a person who practiced what he preached. He had the sort of character and imagination that the Anglican Communion most needed to move toward a new future.

And that is where the trouble started — and where the story turns tragic. Williams was caught in an impossible situation. As Anglicans around the globe quarreled over the role of gays and lesbians in the church, the archbishop's authority was called into question. Williams struggled to be both a spiritual leader who embraces the emerging vision and the leader of an institution committed to guarding the old order.

The archbishop might be called “spiritual head” of Anglicanism, but he also acts as CEO of the Anglican religious corporation who must manage company policy, ensure profitability, maintain properties, open new markets and negotiate politics. It is a bureaucracy, often more a religion business than a vibrant spiritual community.

For centuries, faith was top-down: Spiritual power flowed from pope to the faithful, archbishop to Anglicans, priest to the pious, pastor to congregation. This has changed as regular people confidently assert that spirituality is a grass-roots adventure of seeking God, a journey of insight and inspiration involving authenticity and purpose that might or might not happen in a church, synagogue or mosque. Spirituality is an expression of bottom-up faith and does not always fit into accepted patterns of theology or practice.

Fearing this change, however, many religious bodies, such as the Anglican Communion, increasingly fixate on order and control, leading them to reassert hierarchical authority and be less responsive to the longings of those they supposedly serve. And that will push religion further into its spiral of irrelevance and decline.

Williams demonstrated how wide the breach has become between spirituality and religion. His tenure proved that religious institutions — as they currently exist — fail when they refuse to engage the new pattern of faith.

The gap between spirit and institution is not only problematic for religious organizations. The gap exists in business, where work and craft have been replaced by venture capital and profitability; in politics, where the common good and democracy are crushed by partisanship and corporate money; in education, where critical thought and the humanities are sacrificed to test scores.

The Anglican crisis is not about Rowan Williams or even religion. It is about the drive for meaningful connection and community and a better, more just, and more peaceful world as institutions of church, state and economy seem increasingly unresponsive to these desires. It is about the gap between a new spirit and institutions that have lost their way. Only leaders who can bridge this gap and transform their institutions will succeed in this emerging cultural economy.

The archbishop will return to teaching — a good choice. In our times, spiritual renewal is taking place among friends, in conversation, with trust and through mutual learning. A new thing is happening on the streets, in coffeehouses, in local faith communities, and in movements of justice and social change. Far from demands of institutional religion, Rowan Williams will find a new kind of faith is being born.

Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass

(Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books, most recently Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. A version of this commentary originally appeared in USA Today.)



About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.


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  • I respectfully disagree w/ Mrs. Bass on the reasoning behind the problem in the Anglican church. Can truth change w/ popular opinion? Not the last time I heard. If 2 + 2 = 4, just because the pop culture says it =6 doesn’t mean it is. This is at the core of the Anglican church problem. You cant change long held beliefs base on cultural opinion and still maintain that you hold or teach Truth. That’s no rock upon which to build your church. Truth is unchanging regardless of the waxing and waning of public opinion. I am in agreement w/ her in respect to the the grass roots problem of everyone becoming their own pope. People today, in the USA and England are more non-committal that ever (just look at divorce rates and co-habitation rates), they are self centered and narcissistic. They think they know better than institutions that have been around for thousands of years and have been scrutinizing the scriptures and traditions of the church for centuries in order to more faithfully follow the teaching of Christ and lead the flocks left in their charge. Its as insane as my 5 year old telling me she knows better than I do. No humility whatsoever. People think they can sit at home and take what they like from some religions, discard what they don’t like and make some sort of mish mash relgiosity that works for them. Its no wonder we live in times of declining belief in God. If everyone can believe what they want, how is anyone to find Truth? People need guidance and rules in order to have faith but they don’t want to develope the self-discipline it takes to follow that. Jesus gave us specific rules and laid out in no uncertain terms things that are right and wrong but those are being challenged by our pop culture. I personally know who I am going to believe and it isn’t the ever changing tide of public opinion. I am proud of my church, flaws and all, for standing firm on the teachings of Christ and not veering form the clear path he set forth. Its what has reinforced my belief that I chose the right church. Even in the face of ridicule it has stood firm but we were told long ago by Christ to expect it.

  • St Augustine said it best centuries ago; “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” True religion & true spirituality are inseparable. Don’t see how a person can say with certitude you can have one without the other.

  • The worst part of this sort of fact-free pseudo-philosophical puff-paste is that people will probably quote it in sermons as wisdom. But seriously, “For centuries, faith was top-down: Spiritual power flowed from pope to the faithful, archbishop to Anglicans, priest to the pious, pastor to congregation.” For instance? Did power flow down to Francis of Assisi from whoever was pope at the time? Does anyone remember who was archbishop of Canterbury when George Herbert was vicar of a tiny country parish? Who was Bishop of Norwich when Julian was drawing people from all over England to her cell?
    Does anyone really think that the “Anglican Communion, increasingly fixate(s) on order and control”? So why did the Church of England reject the proposed Covenant? There are those who fixated in control, but they seem not to be winning the day. I wonder whether they ever did?

  • I believe that the fundamental issue is one of outlook, i.e. the acceptance or rejection of modernity. By this I primarily mean modern biblical scholarship (as exemplified by the Jesus Seminar), involving a historical/text critical approach to scripture.

    The “progressive wing” of Christianity interprets scripture and traditions metaphorically and culturally rather than literally, encouraging more flexibility to change traditional attitudes toward women’s roles and homosexuality. On the other hand, Christians in the Global South tend to be literalistic and traditional. Of course, some Christians in North America and Europe also have a literal, conservative biblical view, resulting in their leaving liberal churches such as the Episcopal Church. Conservatives include many Protestants and the Roman and Orthodox Church hierarchies.

    Related to this difference is one’s conception of God. For example, progressives are more open to reject theism for panentheism and allow incisiveness toward other religious traditions. To conservatives, this is heresy.

    I believe that we are headed for a division in Christianity into three basic orientations: A progressive coalition, a fundamentalist Protestant orientation, and a movement including the Roman and Orthodox communions that hold to traditional views. This will mean a reorientation among Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others toward the first two orientations. For example, as an Episcopalian, I expect that the Anglican Communion will split, probably due to the conservatives withdrawing from affiliation with Canterbury with the rationale that the progressives have abandoned Christianity.

    I would ask: Is this a bad thing in regard to worship? Perhaps people with different needs require different forms of Christianity (or something else). However, it is in the controversies involving traditional restrictions upon women and homosexuals were compromise is allusive. As a progressive Christian, I do not object to other’s literal interpretation of scripture unless it leads to restrictions on women and homosexuals. In those cases, I must say “No,” “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

  • I was amused that you wodeernd what on earth to say to the Pope. I understand that he is unused to discussing anything; it is not the style of a pope. I gather that you just listen to pontifications and dogma, but maybe I am being uncharitable for Benedict came across as a warm and human man, unlike his portrayal by the RC Church and the Vatican. I asked a well-known RC friend why he just accepted all the dogma. He replied that he was a busy man and it suited him to just accept the RC religion as a package, without having to question it or debate it. Other RC friends of mine in Glasgow I find, do want to listen to other viewpoints but are loathe to debate even say the Liturgy.

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