Institutions matter. If there is no embodiment of what we believe in it becomes very easy to slide into a kind of emotional kneejerk reaction to events like 9-11, where the public demands and craves a solution that may involve human rights abuses we will regret years later. Institutions like courts, the Senate, the faith communities, universities, legislatures, stand as a kind of bulwark against the winds of chaos that may blow in dangerous directions. As believers in western democracy we want to see change come and we want our institutions to be supple enough to absorb and respond to the public’s desire and need for change. But there is also the need for institutions to mediate and reflect on that change so that what is decided is considerate and thoughtful and reflective of the values the state hold in common.
I personally like the function of reflection that institutions bring to the work of change. I enjoy the deliberative work of institutions, weighing pros and cons of change. I worry that the likes of Trump and other right wing populists like him will skirt institutional caution and make wholesale change that moves a country into an emotional nostalgia, all on the basis of a feeling of insecurity by working class whites who feel their notions of America slipping away. Here in this country that kind of sweeping populism is less likely, we are a more collective country than our southern neighbours. But if you listen to afternoon radio talk shows here there breaths a populism not unlike what happened in 2016 in the United States.
There are reasons for this anger and we middle class liberals who have benefitted from this managerial bureaucracy that has been constructed should be aware of what is going on. As our state has gotten more bureaucratic to counter challenges of access, human rights and best practices the public has grown tired of persons on the other end of the phone, directives, rules, that seem to be more about protecting the managerial class and their needs than serving the public at large. I remember well as a young person lining up to buy stamps and watching at noon, when most working people were able to get away to the Post Office, the staff there all going on lunch break. There were no customers all morning and yet staff were at the ready at customer service booths. But at noon there remained one staff person for the long line up of frustrated customers, all using their lunch break to buy stamps. The conclusion was easy to make, the Post Office was more about their staff than the needs of the public. Not long after that the service was contracted out to Pharmacies and other businesses. The workers tried to make an issue of this, suggesting customer service would suffer. The public, not surprisingly, was not overly concerned.
Churches are not immune from this institutional challenge. We created offices and staff to respond to a range of issues that previous generations of church were not sensitive to. That was a good and positive decision. But in the midst of that we often created a culture of Church that gave the impression to lay members (all volunteers) that staff seemed to have more concern for their own benefits and entitlements than the good of the Church community. There remains in all mainline Christian denominations a strong, but relatively compliant, dissent to this shift. It is not so much theological (my liberal friends tend to see this division in more ideological and theological terms) but rather a matter of feeling that the institutional Church has forgotten its purpose, which is to be a faith community that serves the mission of Jesus Christ. If the needs of the institution trump (pardon the pun) the needs of mission we have a problem.
It seems to me that Pope Francis, in his servant leadership, gets this and is a good model of the institutional Church. He knows that the baggage of the institution has made the laity very cynical about who the church is. Francis emphasizes the mission of the church and does what he can, forgetting the entitlements that go with his institutional office, in the interests of being involved in the mission. He gets his hands dirty, he rolls up his sleeves, he works alongside the laity, all to aid and serve mission. That is exactly the tonic all institutions need. The public is watching.