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The Relative Value of Church Institutions

by Gilles Castelnau

It’s God who counts

What has value, to my mind, is not the fact that we belong to a certain church institution, to a particular Church that is thought to guarantee truth. What’s important is God, our vital, inner Dynamic, creative, peace-giving, a source of strength and courage, confidence and a fraternal spirit, in order that we may participate in a positive way, with our neighbors, in the life of the universe. The words and acts of Jesus Christ are those that most effectively render us conscious of that happy presence, to the extent that we agree to open up to it. It redirects us, provides our minds with an impulse towards victory through our failures and death itself. Divine breath that makes us human, like other men and women of good will.
Therefore I don’t care for rigidifying God in ready-made terms or for vitrifying Jesus Christ in immutable doctrine. And if some say they turn away from organized religion, that doesn’t seem so important, for God doesn’t ask that we proclaim official statements of faith or that we flatter him by repeating that he is the greatest and beg him to have mercy. Jesus obviously was not a maharajah basking in glory and power, demanding genuflections and prayers. What has value is non-submission to institutions, opening to the creative flow and to the spirit of brotherhood that God constantly renews within us.

A church institution ? Certainly.

Of course, we organize ourselves into church institutions among colleagues, parishes, regions, on the national level too, to collaborate in reflection, to be an orderly Church, to think together about the direction toward which we believe God leads us, as we walk together. For that, we have councils of elders for parish life, regional and national synods, so that ideas can rise up from bottom to top. We decided a long time ago, for example, to have women pastors; we have just agreed that we can, if we wish, celebrate same-sex marriages. We also share our finances fraternally. We always feel upheld and encouraged, never dominated or forced.
A very energetic and likeable pastor said once at a meeting, ˝What I’ve just said is probably heretical, don’t announce it in public or I’ll be excluded from the Church ! ˝ But the president of the national Council, who was there, replied : ˝ No, dear colleague ! On the contrary, it’s very fine ! The Gospel has often been proclaimed in extreme terms such as yours. The Church lives only on enthusiasm and creative ideas such as those you suggest !˝ Jesus doesn’t propose an official and conformist teaching but a spirit of renewal, inner resurrection, joy and freedom of thought.

A church institution, but…

In a schoolyard, a student, worried about the following day’s geography test, said she called on Vishnu. One of her classmates told her that if she didn’t ˝confess the divinity of Christ and lay her sins at the foot of the Cross,˝ her eternal salvation would be called into question. We would never have said such a thing and we don’t think she was wrong to invoke Vishnu. Some say we have to ˝believe˝ in the infallibility of the Pope, the automatic efficacy of the sacraments, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin. We also hear that we must disapprove of divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, abortion and medically assisted procreation. All these rules may be respectable, but we don’t want to force ourselves through the bottleneck of such decisions. Spiritual guides may certainly help us, but they can’t claim absolute innate wisdom; theology professors are interesting, but they have no monopoly on truth. We mustn’t let ourselves be treated as children by tradition or authoritarian decisions. Each of us is reponsible for his own positions before himself, others, and God, and that is appropriate.

Finally, it’s God who counts

Yet, we do not say just anything; we don’t let our feelings and emotions carry us every which way. We think that the promises of God, his will for our lives and for the life of the world, are summed up in the words and acts of Jesus Christ, which synthesize what the prophets of Israel said and did, and later the apostles of the New Testament. ˝I am the way, the truth and the life,˝ he said.
That does not mean that the insitutions founded in his name are the only true ones.
Jesus’ way was not hallmarked by doctrines and rites but was a movement inspired by God, directed by Jesus’ creativity and his conviction of benevolent ˝grace,˝ granted to all people without distinction.
Jesus’ truth was the openness of the ˝kingdom˝ of God, not obedience to the strict rules of the Pharisees (respect for the Sabbath, rites of purification, forgiveneness practiced onYom Kippur only) nor adhesion to the dogma promulgated by fourteenth century papal councils.
The life Jesus reveals is that of inner energy which makes us ˝arise and walk,˝ heal spiritually, live and think in a spirit of inner resurrection.
As liberal Protestants, we will let no institution erect a church wall up to heaven that would separate us from others. We will establish with all, as far as possible, a happy and friendly dialogue about the living depths we feel within us and that we experience in prayer, faithfulness, love for our neighbor, inner peace and the universality of God. We will share together, if others agree, the serious problems of war, violence, poverty, the protection of nature, injustice and violations of human rights. When we come together in this way, we all develop our spirituality and, without especially aiming for it, our own religious tradition. We will avoid the exclusive attitude which consists in saying : our path is the only one that leads to the summit, from which we contemplate the vast universe. We will be suspicious of the inclusive, takeover mindset that says that other paths lead to the same summit as ours. We will practice the same pluralism which envisions diverse paths leading to different summits, from which we contemplate the same universe. We will of course wonder if it is the same universe !
We will love the universal God that Jesus Christ spoke about, and out of care for the truth and faithfulness to the Gospel, refusing all authoritarian systems, we will recognize the relative value of church institutions.


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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