Today’s Irish Times editorial on women bishops prompted thoughts about the absurdity of the institutional church, particularly the Church of Ireland.
A friend who belongs to the Masonic Order once complained that attendance at his Lodge meeting had been so thin that he had played a number of roles to allow the evening’s proceedings to take place, at one point this meant answering his own question. I laughed at the thought of it. He is someone who is always on the edge of a joke or a story and a sense of the absurd cannot have been lost on him.
The Masons are a public lot these days, details of the lodges are readily available , and typing ‘masonic rituals’ into Google will produce any number of possible links. However absurd the whole thing may seem to me, I would never mock those involved; partly because I have friends who find the camaraderie of the organization to be something important, partly because when I look at those who line up to oppose them, I know whose company I would prefer. Vehement opponents have included Hitler, Stalin, the Papacy, anti-Semitic groups, conspiracy theorists (look how many times ‘Jews and Freemasons’ are used in the same sentence), neo-Nazi groups, fundamentalist Protestants, and just about every other extremist group one can imagine.
Perhaps there is something in the absurd that keeps us humble, that stops us becoming arrogant about ourselves. I wonder what Robbie Burns and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have been like at their respective lodge meetings? Is it possible that Mozart would not have roared with laughter at a lodge officer having to answer his own questions? Or that Rabbie the poet would not have pondered how the best laid plans ‘gang aft agley’? Absurdity helps us retain a sense of perspective.
Without a sense of the absurd, there would be times that the Church of Ireland would be impossible. The Church of Ireland Directory has a Monty Python quality about it at times. Most bishops have more than one diocese – there is one diocese that has no cathedral and just one church; there is another that has no cathedral, but two parishes and two clergy, one of whom is Archdeacon; there is another diocese that has one parish, but this includes a cathedral, so the rector is also dean. One diocese with nine parishes has a bishop, two archdeacons, two deans, a provost and a few canons; most clergy are members of at least one cathedral chapter. Yet I would not mock it, because there is, in the absurdity of it all, a great egalitarian feeling. When everyone is someone, it is very hard for anyone to get above themselves. We would never become deferential towards bishops in the way that sometimes happens with our English brothers and sisters. I would also be mindful that through the years when Ireland was dominated by the Catholic Church, the tiny Church of Ireland community remained a voice for dissent and freedom of conscience.
I have no intention of ever being in anyone’s lodge, and I do think that there might be space for some rationalization of the Church of Ireland in the interests of good stewardship, but preserving a sense of the absurd is important. It is when people start taking themselves too seriously that the way is open for dictators and totalitarianism (and for popes who think they can recover their medieval status).