by Lawrence Downing


“Spirituality, religion collide” (USA TODAY, April 16, 2012, p. 9A) is the title of an article by Diana Butler Bass published in USA TODAY’s weekly On Religion column. In her article, Bass references the recent announcement by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that he will step down by year’s end.  She informs the reader that the Church of England, a few days after William’s announcement, rejected his unity plan for the global Anglican church, a religious institution that has been fractured by gender and sexual identity issues.  She opines that the archbishop’s resignation and the rebuff of his unity plan are likely not coincidental, but they do signal Anglican’s institutional failure. “But why,” she asks,” should anyone, other than Anglicans and their American Episcopal cousins care?” Her answer: “…this narrative obscures a more significant tension in Western societies: the increasing gap between spirituality and religion, and the failure of traditional religious institutions to learn from the divide.”

Bound by a common liturgy and Anglican religious identity, adherents looked to the archbishop of Canterbury as their chief pastor.  The church leaders were expected to run the church with courage and vision.  The Bishops job was to direct the laity, inspire them to obedience, sacrifice and heroism.  Leadership was from the top. “But today’s world,” observes Bass, “is different.”

“All institutions are being torn apart by tension between two groups: those who want to reassert familiar and tested leadership patterns—including top-down control, uniformity and bureaucracy; and those who want to welcome untested but promising patterns of the emerging era—grassroots empowerment, diversity and relational networks. It is not a divide between conservatives and liberals; rather, it is a divide between institution and spirit. “Top-down structures are declining,” Bass observes. “In the Anglicans’ case, spiritual and institutional leadership have been severed.”

In the Anglican situation, Bass explains, the trouble started and soon turned tragic when Williams became embroiled in an impossible situation.  As the Anglicans quarreled over the role of gay and lesbian persons in the church, people began to question the archbishop and his authority.  Williams struggled to be both a spiritual leader who embraced the emerging vision while at the same time seeking to be the guardian of the old order. The two roles, spiritual leader and CEO of a religious corporation that is responsible for property, personnel, marketing, political matters and other matters that of themselves created a systemic conflict. This conflict worked to disrupt what had for centuries guided church structure. 

Since its first beginnings, church authority was top-down.  Spirituality flowed from the pope to the faithful, priest to the pious, pastor to the congregants. People today, according to Bass, no longer accept this authoritative model.  Spirituality is understood to be a “grassroots adventure of seeking God, a journey of insight and inspiration involving authenticity and purpose that might or might not happen in a church, synagogue or mosque. Spirituality is an expression of bottom-up faith and does not always fit into accepted patterns of theology or practice.  Fearing this change, however, many religious bodies, such as the Anglican Communion, increasingly fixate on order and control, leading them to reassert hierarchical authority and be less responsive to the longings of those they supposedly serve. And that will push religion further into its spiral of irrelevance and decline.

“Williams demonstrated how wide the breach has become between spirituality and religion. His tenure proved that religious institutions—as they currently exist-fail when they refuse to engage the new pattern of faith.”

The Anglican crisis, concludes Bass, is not about Williams or religion. “It is about the drive for meaningful connection and community and a better, more just, and more peaceful world as institutions of church, state and economy seem increasingly unresponsive to these desires.  It is about the gap between a new spirit and institutions that have lost their way.  Only leaders who can bridge this gap and transform their institutions will succeed in this emerging cultural economy.”