When religion and spirituality collide

By Diana Butler Bass
Posted Apr 18, 2012

[Religion News Service] 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.

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 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.

Comments (9)

  1. Marius Jan Hulswit says:

    Spot on , Dear Ms. Bass !!! Brava ! I’m certain Christ Himself would smile, and nod in agreement !

  2. Vicki Gray says:

    Amen! A new thing is, indeed, happening on the streets…where young people, poor people, homeless people, politically engaged people are showing us how to be church. If we listen and respond, we might yet recover an old faith…the powerful itinerant faith of Acts.

  3. Christopher L. Webber says:

    To say that “for centuries faith was top down: spiritual power flowed from pope to faithful” etc., reveals a breathtaking ignorance of history. Has she never heard`of Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther or John Wesley. It’s been more like the Peter Principle with faith flowing upward until it stultifies at the top. Who was Archbishop of Canterbury when George Herbert was a Vicar? How many bishops can you name for Julian of Norwich’s church?

    It’s not “the Anglican Communion” that is “fixate(d) on authority” but African bishops and a small minority of Episcopalians who are trying to use authority to frustrate change while the Episcopal Church generally and a great many other Anglicans who are very responsive to a world of rapid change.

  4. My experience specifically points within the Episcopal Church to the rise, institution and full expression and expansion of the Commission on Ministry model in regard to the demise of confident, capable, caring and in touch leadership and the subsequent growth of mediocrity over the last thirty plus years in the emergence of clergy (most especially those coming in as second career types) who mirror a church folk who want only tepid and highly feminized nurturing. I am not speaking about women clergy but clergy whose abilities are narrowly focused on maintaining declining demographically challenged hospice like cultures. As well, our governing and managing structures with bishops, staffs, PB and staff, House of Bishops and Executive Council look to managing scarcity rather than seeking a spiritual transformation found only in blunt self criticism. In five to ten more years, the combination of mediocre clergy and lay leadership, sightless episcopal governing, declining resources and emotional disinterest will limit our church foot print to the back our corporate heel. What is emerging is and will be new entities of people who are already finding their eternal refreshment in the incarnational and sacramental essence of the Book of Common Prayer tradition rehearsed in new forms and configurations whose view will be that of abundance, audacity and hope. They will not need COM’s or a House of Bishops.

  5. Sue Thompson says:

    I agree with Ms Bass and I think the emergent faith of which she speaks is also happening in some congregations. Not all, certainly, but some.

  6. Ethel Ware Carter says:

    Spiritual renewal has always taken place in the personal, the relational, the connectional. By its very definition we know that must be so. And, as soon as spirituality assumes praxis it is religion. This to say that the conflict is not between religion and spirituality (Lord, we have heard that enough.) It seems to me that the grievous failure of our institutions is self protection at great human cost. This would not be new, i.e. Caiaphas statement about the death of Jesus. As the sheepfold is challenged the shepherd with great urgency and stoney resolve makes the sheepfold impenetrable –some sheep are stiffled and some sheep cannot get in.

  7. Br. John-Anthony OSBCn, Canon Community of St. Aidan, Victoria, BC says:

    I believe we are witnessing the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. People are finally waking up and realizing that the hierarchical structure is just not working! At one time, becoming a priest was a vocation … it has now become a job! People are also realizing that the church in not a playground for popes and potentates. We are now moving in a positive direction by “taking back our church,” even if that means leaving the “institutional church.” The independent movement is on the rise and more and more people are meeting in homes and small rented spaces to focus more on the spiritual aspect of community than the business aspect. This, I believe, is getting back to our roots!

    1. I should state that the opinions expressed are my own and not those of the Community of St. Aidan or the Canon Communities of St. Benedict nor am I advocating that people leave the church!

  8. John, thank you, really helpful. As Henri Nouwen stated many years ago, fear may be the original sin. And fear atomized spreads like a volatile cloud disintegrating association, affection and community.

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