In Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty”, there was a scene among some cab drivers about working on Sundays to take the rich folks to their favourite preachers located at far away parishes and chapels, and how their religiosity ironically forces cab drivers to break the Sabbath and deprive them of rest.

I will be going to America on a holiday over a weekend and was checking out some Anglican parishes in the area, and it suddenly struck me the absurdity of travelling to great distances for one’s “chosen” church. Even in Singapore, which is a tiny island, I already find it a mighty inconvenience to travel to the other side of the island just to attend a friend’s church, and yet in America, in order for me to attend a “good” Anglican parish, I would be compelled probably to travel dozens of miles and an even wider breath than the whole of Singapore just to attend a church of my choice.

It struck me at this point how much religiosity, and dare I say, orthodox religiosity, is so absurdly dependent upon socio-economic privileges and wealth. In order to be able to attend a “good” church, whether this “goodness” is defined in terms of faithfulness of liturgical performance or orthodoxy of preaching or communion with a cleric with a highly specific ecclesiastical or canonical definition, you need the resources and the means to travel, if you don’t have the means, then you can’t have your “good” religion, however you want to define it.

Some might want to spin this as a noble sacrifice for one’s religious convictions, and valiantly declare that if he has to wake up at four in the morning and walk dozens of miles just so that he can attend a “good” church of his choosing at eight o’clock, he would be willing to make that sacrifice. (For the record, I attend the eight am service at the Anglican cathedral, which is probably earlier than what most Christians are used to, but I am, alas! Not hardcore enough to attend the seven am BCP service.)

But this is simply humbug. I seriously doubt this is the sacrifice that Christ refers to when he talks about laying down your life and confessing him, etc. Does sacrifice in service of Christ involve spending (*cough*wasting*cough*) resources and time just so that you can conform to some organised structure or canonical polity? Eucharist only by approved clerics of a highly specific definition and that if you want to obey the command of Christ, you would either have to travel hundreds of miles to get to your cleric or organisation of a specific canonical definition or you will have to spend money to ship him in.

Is this truly what Christ means when he talks about sacrifice and suffering? To waste money for a specific religiosity? I honestly do not see what is the difference between spending hundreds of bucks to travel/ship in a cleric for a purely religious function and paying a priest to chant Masses for your dead relatives in medieval chantries. Does Christ intend for us to waste the goods which he has given to us to indulge in our religiosity?

There is something absurd and ridiculous about the correlation between the proliferation of religious options and goods and commercial wealth. Is religiosity now a commercial product and good, as much on sale for those with the wealth and means, as any other product on the market?

I understand that the time of the old Erastian churches are over, the time when everyone simply attended their neighbourhood parish, where whatever the private opinions or temperament of your local vicar, he subscribes to the same articles of religion, he is bound to perform the same liturgy as prescribed by the common canonical laws. Thus, by these Erastian measures, religions ceases to be an affair the commercial exchanges, etc.

I am of course also starting to think that ecclesiastically approved ministers in conformity to some canonical structure are simply overrated (thanks to the pernicious influence of the Proto-Protestant). As much as Protestants would like to proclaim loudly the “universal priesthood of the believers”, I don’t see much difference between their continued latent desire to be conformed to some organisationally approved pastor who has spend years and considerable resources to attend some seminary, and a Roman priest who needs a special “episcopal touch” to perform a valid mass. The “barriers to entry” to perform certain Biblical works, e.g. preach the Word and perform the sacraments, in both cases seems to me to be absurdly artificially high and utterly unnecessary.

Also, despite all the resources which goes into propping up these organisationally approved ministers, let’s be frank, they are still quite crappy preachers and ministers and theologians. Seriously, how much theology do you need to know to practice the Christian faith? If after so much theological education, you still end up being crappy preacher, then perhaps you simply aren’t meant to be a preacher.  Did Christ or even the Apostles truly intent for there to be an almost twenty thousand dollars barrier to entry to being a preacher? This would also touch upon the question of ministerial pay and the idea of the need for “specialised” ministers or pastors, etc. I addressed that question here.

Does the life of the Church consist of bureaucratic structures and conformity to canon laws, etc? I am not as extreme as the Proto-Protestant in thinking that such structures and laws to be absolutely forbidden, but I think as Protestants, we have forgotten what it means to believe in the universal priesthood of the believers, such structures are a means to an ends, they are not ends in themselves, to be submitted to as a pragmatic and prudential measure, and when they fail to perform those functions or when the costs of maintaining them are prohibitively high without the compensate return, we can and should abandon them. The communion of saints is not a commonality of canon law.

Rather, I guess I’m becoming a sort of radical Congregationalist. That is, each localised gathering of believers (no matter how locally small and tiny) are in immediate communion with the universal One, Holy and Catholic Church, unmediated by canon laws, organisational structures, constitutions, or by-laws or whatever. This communion is the immediate product of the Word in the heart of the believers through which the Holy Ghost creates faith and love and hope, and this one faith in the heart constitutes the communion of saints, etc.

But no church can be without order, therefore by common consent, the localised congregations each individually decides upon the order of their church. It could be as simple as a piece of paper kept in the pocket of a presbyter, or it can be a legal constitution recognised by the civic law. It doesn’t matter. These are simply matters of prudence and pragmatics, unessential to the substance of the faith.

Since this visible order is a matter of prudence and pragmatics, therefore bureaucratic structures which exceeds a certain size becomes too abstract, too unwieldy, cumbersome and divorced from the life of the church on the ground to be prudentially useful and therefore should be unnecessary. There is therefore no need for some “overarching” church recognition bureaucratic structure to examine ministers from all congregations, etc. Rather, like the practice of apostles of old as you can read in Corinthians, ministers in each congregation can simply write personal “letters of commendation” or recognition to accept or recognise the soundness and orthodoxy of the ministry of another congregation. Each congregation ordains its own ministers, and then ministers from other congregations simply recognise or “license” the ministry of these ministers after the fact. It is really that simple.

“Apostolic Succession” is not a matter of tactile apostolic touch, but rather, it is simply an “apostolic recognition” whereby one congregation simply recognises that of another congregation, just as St Paul went to the Apostles in Jerusalem to have his ministry confirmed, although adamantly maintaining the independence of his apostleship from the rest of the apostles. Out of charity and prudence, it is good for congregations in close proximity or which cooperate in common ventures to write such letters of commendation to each other to let their own congregation know about the soundness and health of these other congregations.

Thus, ultimately, the “visibility” of the Church does not consist in unified or uniform vast overarching bureaucratic structures or canon laws, etc. The empirical visibility of the Church is instantiated particularly in every localised context and each localised congregation interacts with other localised congregation in their own specific and particular way without the need for a vast overall bureaucratic system.

This is no doubt messy, ad hoc, and even postmodern. But as we confess in the Nicene Creed, the “oneness” of the Catholic Church is an object of faith, not of sight. This oneness is realised in the hearts of the Christians who shares in the same faith and in the same hope and the same baptism. This oneness is not “made visible” by an empirical unified organisational structure. Ultimately this oneness is an object of faith, discerned through the Spirit, and maintained and created immediately by Him alone through the Word alone. The oneness of the Church is not mediated through any visible structures or organisation.

One thought on “On the Absurdity of Organised Religions; The Communion of Saints is not the Commonality of Canon Law”
  1. This is good. I think some of this thinking, in some of the more thoughtful, comes out of not seeing history through the cross. We look for big gigantic structures, canon law, confession, liturgy etc etc etc, and place ourselves in that stream as if those are the choices. What I mean is that we want the visible legacy. That’s why Rome is so attractive for the natural theologian of glory in most of us (especially me!!).

    What about small faithful communities that never make it in the history books? About 5 families who met in the woods or a cave? Or the traveling preacher who converted 14 people to the gospel of Jesus Christ? The most that is written about the invisible are half washed away foot prints, little vestigial markers, that tell us they existed. In the Middle Ages they might have been ‘heretics’ (Waldenses Lollards etc) or apart of Rome (someone like Claude of Turin), but we get no exciting moving and shaking of history. Would we know anything about the deeds of the apostles if the Spirit did not conserve them in Scripture?

    The Lord looks not at the big structures, but through His cross, into the little and faithful.


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