Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, once wrote:
The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers.
Growing up in the British Welfare State in an age where national government progressively intervened more and more in people’s lives, Jung’s words would have seemed like something from a bygone age. As the power of the nation-state has been superseded by supra-national European institutions and trans-national corporations, to assert the role of the individual seems odd; what is there a single person can do in the face of such overwhelming power?
Strangely, the growth of state power has coincided with increasing institutional impotence; the massive amount of legislation on the statute books is powerless to prevent simple anti-social behaviour; the huge state bodies struggle to achieve even the most minor of changes. Whether the inability to effect change is rooted in bureaucratic inertia, legislation simply not being implemented, or in disregard for authority, people simply ignoring what the politicians tell them.
The collapse of institutional authority has been far greater in the church, where the response to statements, if there is a response at all, has increasingly been , “ so what?”
The Church of Ireland General Synod once merited national news coverage in Ireland, but in the space of a decade has disappeared from the scanner, barely gaining brief mention on the inside pages of a newspaper. The church as an institution persists in behaving as it did in the past, as though keeping things going as they were for decades will somehow usher in some new age; yet all the while there is a crumbling at the edges.
Having completed 14 days in a new incumbency, there is the realization that even deep in rural Ireland, in a parish midway between Dublin and Limerick, the old rules are losing their authority, that old ties and old understandings no longer hold sway. Relying on external events to shape the future of the parish will be a futile exercise; the great business of ecclesiastical life is profoundly unimportant in local communities. Godly individuals will shape the future of the parish, as godly individuals shaped the history of the church through the pages of the Acts of the Apostles. It is a prospect that is at once encouraging and frightening. The buck will stop not with any high office or institutional gathering, but with a handful of people unaware of the responsibility they bear.