Angela Tilby: We need flourishing institutions

21 December 2018

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CONFUSION over Brexit brings the year to an end on a sour note. Not only are the main political parties internally divided, there is a genuine question whether our political institutions are robust enough to cope.

Doubts are fed by the bad press that all our institutions seem to get these days. I think of Groucho Marx’s remark that “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” There is a tendency to assume that society would be healthier if run by the direct fiat of the individual or the state.

There is, though, a different view, which is that flourishing institutions provide a massive enrichment to society, a defence against manipulation, whether by the rich or by the mob. The author Malise Ruthven sees their origin in the medieval craft guilds. He suggests that the guilds represented something new, just at the point when urbanisation was challenging loyalties based on family and land. Guilds protected the interests of their members. But they also dispensed funds to the needy and mediated with wider society.

Behind the emergence of guilds is the Christian concept of the Church as a body: a living organism of individuals who are united not by blood, nor by an oath to an overlord, but by a common bond based on a shared interest. This not only gave members a recognised identity: it also strength­ened society by requiring different interest groups to negotiate with one another.

It is not easy to say what a modern institution is or should be. Unlike an organisation, an institution is not defined by goals or targets, but seeks to sustain itself as a source of values among its members and beyond them. On that basis, the EU is an institution, as are Parliament, quite a number of government depart­ments, the BBC, the trade unions, the NHS, and other familiar bodies. We British have been rather good at evolving institutions, and creative in our interaction with them.

Of course, institutions can go wrong. They decay when they become inward-looking, corrupt, or riven with conflict. But the current general attack on institutions is both mindless and deeply damaging. It is not in the public interest when institutions such as schools and universities reduce their position to that of knowledge factories, nor when banks and most building societies put profits above service. Even the Church of England is at risk of losing itself when it downplays its institutional part.

Brexit has exposed fragilities that we were not expecting, and that we do not quite understand. Perhaps this New Year we should ponder what it means as churchpeople to be also institutional people — or, as the Prayer Book puts it, “very members incorporate in the Mystical Body of thy Son”.

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