A couple of months ago I happened to listen to two papers which addressed somewhat similar themes, if from rather different perspectives. The first was a podcast of Abbot Jonah Paffhausen’s address to the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius. (Text here). The second was a talk by Father Tjeu Timmermans O.Carm., the chairperson of the Conference of Dutch Religious (text in Dutch here). The first was entitled “Episcopacy, Primacy and the Mother Churches: A Monastic Perspective” and the second “Religious life in a secularised world”. Although they had somewhat different foci and audiences, both addressed the phenomenon of secularisation and it was the differences in their underlying approaches that struck me and motivated me to eventually look up the texts and reflect further on them. And this ties in, as perceptive readers will no doubt notice, with themes that I have been thinking about recently.

Father Timmermans is primarily concerned with secularisation as the recent historical phenomenon in which the overarching function of religion that was previously taken for granted has disappeared. Contemporary men and women have become a homeless seekers who no longer take religion or God for granted. Influenced by modernity’s utilitarian emphasis, they also come to realise its limits and remain open to “the Mystery”. They have rejected the institutional Church, but the religious desire that remains is the nucleus of true prayer. It is a longing that stretches itself out to “the Mystery”. In this context, Timmermans argues, religious are called to create spaces where such people can enter into relationship with the mystery of God.

While there is much that is true in this, there are two things that strike me about Timmerman’s paper. The first is the way in which he appears to view the Church almost exclusively in institutional terms as something that people have rejected and which appears as rather irrelevant. And the second is that his language of people seeking “the Mystery” does not appear to have much theological content. (Which of course made me think of the analysis that Father Louth provides of western perceptions of “mysticism” – see my series of six posts in Completed series).

Now, there is nothing new in this and such  perspectives are common, at least in this part of the world. I just find it rather sad that the Christian tradition does not seem able to offer anything more than a playing off of ecclesial institutions against a new seeking religiosity.

In this context, then, I was rather interested in the juxtaposition of this analysis with that of Abbot Jonah’s paper that I encountered at almost the same time. He too addresses secularisation, but in a rather different context. For him, the roots of secularisation are found in early Church history in which the personal relationship of spiritual fatherhood on which episcopal primacy was based was secularised and cast in terms of civil office.

This led to the separation of charismatic and institutional authority within the Church. What followed was the bureaucratisation of church leadership: the reduction of the episcopacy to institutional administration, and the virtual elimination of its pastoral role. (12)

The corrupting fruit of secularisation is fear and lack of trust, hence isolation, autonomy, self-will and the breakdown of the real authority of the episcopacy. It destroys souls and the institution of the Church. Secularization reduces the Body of Christ to a religious organization; it is the form of religion, deprived of its power. (13)

Abbot Jonah is writing in an Orthodox context, but his emphasis on the split between charismatic and institutional authority seems to me to be just as relevant, if not more relevant, in the West. The historical roots of how we got to this position are no doubt complex. But to simply accept such a split means acceding to a vision of the Church as simply a utilitarian institution which we can discard and recreate at will. In contrast to this, Abbot Jonah pleads for a rediscovery of spiritual obedience as a structure of accountability in which the bishop recapitulates the Church in himself, keeping the whole body in synergy, calling us to repentance and fostering spiritual formation.

His paper is well worth reading, especially the last section on “The episcopacy: a monastic perspective”.