Posted On July 19, 2023
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has a podcast in which he interviews various figures and has deep conversations about life and faith. In June he interviewed John Cleese, the comedian. In the interview Cleese asked Welby the following question – “Why do religions start with the mystics and end up with bureaucrats?” (You can listen to the entire interview here. The question and Welby’s answer start soon after the 20 minute mark).
I would encourage you to listen to Welby’s answer. But I would also encourage you to think about the question yourself. It’s an important question.
My answer to the question is that this path that Cleese identified is not unique to religion. It’s a human thing – a common path in all human-populated organizations. If we could sum up what mystics are focused on and what their main concern is, I would argue that their core concern is about encountering and experiencing God. They encounter God in very real ways. Often mystics use language in which God becomes unified with people and their life experience.
Aren’t all founders, regardless of the organization we are talking about (religion, business, sports, etc.) like this in some way? A founder of something does what they do for the love of that thing, what they feel being engaged in it – how it touches their lives, transforms them into something better, and gives them fulfillment.
As organizations grow and develop, the organization discovers though that there is more complexity to be dealt with, more questions that need answered. Often they are questions that the founder never even had to consider. And this is when institutionalization starts to happen. Institutions exist to create structure and order because there is no way to deal with the endless possibilities otherwise. An organization that pursued all avenues with abandon would burn itself out and stretch itself too thin. Institutions create boundaries of how the resources it has will be used and what it will pursue in relation to the organizations purpose and mission.
All movements that get past the first stage turn to institutionalism. It’s natural. The challenge is this when it comes to religion: Is the church primarily an institution that has a movement, or is it a movement that has an institution? These are two very different things. Another way of asking this question, closer to Cleese’s actual question is this: Is the church primarily a bureaucratic organization with some mystics, or is it mystical with some bureaucrats in it? The answer is both. I think what we are seeing now in the church, especially over the last few decades is a readjustment of sorts. The church has been an institution with some mystics and that worked very well for the church in the mid-20th century, post-WWII. But then it didn’t. But the institution wouldn’t let go of its grip on the organization. Now it is being forced to with the rapid decline of membership in the West. The pendulum is swinging in the direction of the mystics again.
You see mystics and bureaucrats can actually work together to carry out the purpose of the church – I believe that. Each offer something unique and add value to the church. This is no different that an organization needed left brain and right brain people to be whole. The mystics provide us a path to encounter God in real ways. And the bureaucrats offer the church structure and sense of order so that we don’t go off in a million directions but end up no where or following just the latest fad.
Movement and institution, mystics and bureaucrats – they both add value and both offer something.