Why does religion lag behind culture?
It’s probably not surprising in my current situation that I’ve been thinking a lot about why religion in general, and the CofE in particular, seems to be so slow to react to shifts in wider culture. Of course, there’s the obvious problem of how to reconcile modern ethics and ancient religious tradition, but there are plenty of individual liberals and progressives in even the most conservative groups, and possibly even a majority overall. So why do religions tend to rigidly enforce one interpretation and insist that everyone should fall in line?
A few months ago, the Church of England once again started the process of examining issues around human sexuality in time-honoured fashion, forming a committee to help in producing a new consultation document, which will then in all likelihood lead to further discussion, examination of the issues, horse trading and compromise deals, at the end of which it’s possible that the church might – eventually – change its policy. A bit.
The composition of the committee was promptly criticised by some groups, concerned that its members have little experience or knowledge of the subject, but include what appears to be a deliberate mix of attitudes, including a representative of each major grouping within the church. There has also been concern voiced that the group is entirely male, and almost entirely composed of bishops. In a strange way, I think this starts to answer the question.
Because religions aren’t democratic. They operate on a broadly hierarchical basis, in practice if not in theory, so the people at the top aren’t there because they reflect the views of adherents to their tradition, but because they reflected the views of the people making the appointment. And those people were making the appointment because they held senior positions in the hierarchy, which they got because they reflected the views of the people making that appointment, and so on, and so on.
Yes, this is a simplification. The appointment process is a bit more complicated than what I’ve described, clergy change their views as well, and religions believe that they receive guidance from God, rather than just choosing their personal favourites. But anyone hoping to be appointed to a senior position will be expected to adhere to official doctrine, and that official doctrine is ultimately determined by people in senior positions.
Of course, the process isn’t unique. It’s quite similar to the management of a multinational corporation (for example), but there are a couple of important differences. Most obviously, a business isn’t run along dogmatic lines that tell you how to live, but there’s also the question of tradition. Religions depend on a weight of tradition for their authority. It’s a little cynical to define a religion as a cult that’s been around for a while, but there’s an element of truth in it. Consider recent softening of popular opinion on Mormons, or how Scientology might be regarded in a couple of hundred years.
That dependence on tradition means religions have a strong presumption in favour of existing beliefs and practice. They need a very good reason to discard hundreds or even thousands of years of history, because that history’s vital to their position, so again, there’s a reason to prefer candidates who support the status quo. You need a certain amount of moral authority to have a chance of significantly changing doctrine, but the only people who have that authority (in the church’s eyes, at least) are those in senior positions in the church, so we’re back to square one.
So I think religions get stuck in a rut, and the longer they spend following their own tracks, the more weight they give to that tradition and the harder it is to break out and do things differently. When Martin Luther wanted to make some changes, he effectively had to create a new church. It’s often said these days that he’d be very happy within the modern Catholic church, but it’s taken the best part of 500 years to achieve that degree of change within the church.
I don’t have 500 years. I’d like to see some sign that the church as a whole is moving quickly in the right direction, but sadly, my hopes aren’t high.
Photo by Clearly Ambiguous, used under Attribution License