Eureka moments come along sometimes, not noticing one has displaced the bath water, or whatever it was that the Greek man did, but moments when one realizes that one has been getting things completely the wrong way around.
Preparing a paper for a symposium next month, in which there is an attempt to apply an approach derived from systems theory to the church there is a realisation that the system is becoming dysfunctional for reasons that are the very opposite of the ones imagined.
If the church has values that are espoused, its “official” theology; and values that are hidden, the mood, the feeling, of the institution; and values that are deep, the things that might not even be articulated, that might only be discerned by observation, then the approach suggests that the system will continue to function as long as the values remain in alignment. However, if there is a misalignment, then it is like a machine where the parts are no longer in the right place, it seizes up.
The theory seems straightforward; the church works as long as the hidden and deep values continue to reflect what is espoused; but if what is espoused, what is official, is not reflected at the other levels, then the church becomes dysfunctional, it becomes like a machine that is malfunctioning, eventually it grinds to a halt.
A systems theory approach would suggest that the church’s problem is that it has not addressed the misalignment of values, that if the hidden and deep values were brought into alignment with the espoused values, then the church would recover its smooth functioning.
It is a tempting model, the idea that problems might be so readily soluble is attractive to those concerned with the malaise in contemporary church life. It is tempting, but the “Eureka!” moment says it is wrong, the Eureka moment says that the machine is being held upside down. The church did not run into problems of decline because the hidden and deep values departed from what the church espoused, no, it was the other way around, the problem of decline arose because the official theology departed from the hidden and deep theology of the people.
Look at both religious traditions in Ireland. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council sought to bring the life of the Roman Catholic church closer to what was found in the Bible and the early church, there was a major shift in the espoused values, the official theology, and people whose attachment was to the hidden and deep things of church life, to things that might have run contrary to the official theology, turned away from the church and have continued to do so in increasing numbers. It was not that the official theology was wrong, it was just that it was out of alignment with the other values.
Similarly, in the Church of Ireland, the attempts at liturgical change, at ecumenism, at reconciliation, at inclusivity, these things were not wrong, on the contrary, they were in accord with Scripture, but they were not in accord with the hidden and deep values that permeate the church.
The system is dysfunctional, but it is dysfunctional because the church left the people, not that the people left the church. A conclusion that poses the difficult question as to whether it is better to have a church that is faithful to its theology but is dying, or a church that continues to be strong, but that has abandoned its principles.