Cultivating a Monoculture?
(An abridged article was published in Open House, March 2015)
When travelling in Scotland one of the loudest and most discordant notes in the landscape is struck by some of our forest plantations. (the picture above is of the Pentlands, near Balerno.) The ranks of trees are very neat and very tidy; their boundary is sharply defined - there is no doubting where the inside becomes the outside. Yet inside the cost is seen: the trees are of a single type and a single age, so close to each other that little light is shared, and growth is distorted, each tree being tall and thin with canopy only at their tops. The plantation lacks resilience: the wind blows and those at the edge can fall, like a formation of Roman soldiers assailed by a greater force. It itself does violence, to its neighbourhood through acidic run-off. It is uninviting, often with no space to walk and explore. The song sung in the rainfall is uniform. It is a monoculture – from the outside it is unattractive; on the inside it is dark and lifeless.
The contrast is with mixed woodland. There is beauty in the variety of form and colour, and responses to the changing seasons. With a little more space and light the trees naturally grow balanced and full. They are more resilient to the storms of life. The supposed “dead wood” is host to life in countless species. The woodland is varied and a beautiful ecosystem. Life flourishes at every level from ground to canopy. There is space for birds to fly and make their homes; their songs join with those of the trees in a rainstorm... the drops make different sounds on the different leaves. It is a rich place, enticing and good to explore.
Such woodland calls me to delight in life, in being a part of something hugely more wonderful and varied than I could control or imagine. It highlights the oppression that can come from monoculture. In the case of a forest, the monoculture crop is chosen when power over the land and its stewardship are directed solely into profit and utility. That choice can be understood, even if it is disliked, but why do some seek to make a social organisation into a monoculture?
I'd like to propose two patterns without claiming all options are covered. These patterns can be seen in many different types of organisation. The first is that as people in the same role naturally group together, they lose contact with those in other roles, as in the Westminster bubble effect. Groups find themselves on islands of narrowing ideas and experience, drifting away from each other. Even though some fundamental concerns may be shared, those with roles that give power impose their perspectives, and monoculture is the consequence. However, if those in power grow in awareness, and are willing to build bridges, new encounters can lift the oppression and enliven everyone. That sort of dynamic has led to equality for women in some bastions of male dominance, for example.
Leaders on the second, more extreme, path to monoculture lack the reflective wisdom or humility to build the bridges to others. They are convinced their views are definitive. This monoculture desires neatness and uniformity and it makes boundaries between those in and out. It cannot tolerate diversity and the colour and untidiness that brings. It hides its own follies. It is controlling of the arts. It rewrites its own history. It confuses the scene by using the terminology of change-seekers to mask actions that deny change. With hidden hand it silently removes from the public eye those who demur. Fear is all pervading: many who desire alternatives are fearful of being honest; lacking hope that change is possible, they stay quiet. The subservient fear the challenge of change.
In both of these patterns the monoculture distorts the growth of good people who gain a perverted world-view, are held in immaturity and then propagate that monoculture. When authoritarian monoculture is coupled to religion it all too evidently gains new power and scariness. It imagines God conforming to its own image, quotes scripture to suit while lacking any real scholarship or overview, and says prayers to that God so making its prejudice more deep-rooted as in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk 19:9-14). Of course I contrast “saying prayers” with praying – which is opening myself to being changed by the mystery that is God. I hear Micah 6:8 “walk humbly with your God” as a warning not to make an idol either of a fixed idea of God or of my religion.
Confronting the authoritarian culture of the Pharisees and Sadducees cost Jesus his life. Jesus said, “you make God's word null and void for the sake of your tradition which you have handed down” (Mk 7: 13). The church was founded with a countersign as, at Pentecost all listeners heard the good news in their own tongues. So, obviously, authoritarian monoculture will be anathema to the church.... won't it?
Preaching at the ordination of Bishop Nolan recently, Archbishop Leo Cushley (Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh) spoke of a bishop being a “spiritual leader, but not in a way that is that of a political autocrat or a strongman, but that of a servant....The bishop is placed where he is in order to make sure that God’s forgiveness reaches his people, and that his people are transformed by God’s loving, healing touch.” Yet some events in Edinburgh are perplexing. Firstly, in the letter to the deaneries on 10 January 2015, Archbishop Cushley it seemed that clericalism and its associated centralisation of power was to dominate the reorganisation of our parishes. Secondly there is a curious dynamic: while some in the institutional church blame the laity for faithlessness that fails to deliver more priests to sustain the current modes of being church, some laity blame those exercising power for faithlessness in not trusting the Spirit by not viewing the shortage of priests as a call to new ways of being Church. Thirdly we have had the criticising and silencing of theologians invited to speak to the Newman Association with the Archbishop reacting to an unnamed voice from the Curia but neither engaging with the Association itself nor healing the damage unfairly done to the reputations of faithful speakers. Respectful conversation, as requested by the Association, would I think have defused this issue swiftly, yet it smoulders still, after many months. Perhaps the imminent Archdiocesan reorganisation will give impetus to building more reliable bridges between the current islands of laity and hierarchy.
Sadly there are attempts to impose monoculture from those who have been exercising authority over the whole Church. We could think of the many theologians who have been surreptitiously banned from publishing and teaching, but I think the most pervasive of these attempts is the current Mass text. As a friend once commented to me, so many changes were utterly trivial but have the effect of disrupting the flow, a reminder that we are saying their text now. More vitally, the text is also actively damaging, rather than something badly flawed but passive, because it will seep into our personal and collective consciousness.
Among many issues in the current text God is portrayed as more remote, needing us to be worthy before we approach Him! I wonder what Jesus would have made of that... The focus on the priest is increased yet further and as in the pre Vatican-II era, the culture is becoming one in which the ordained mediate grace from a distant God to the lower classes, the lowest being women. Excessively centralised control is exercised by Bishops who sadly have been under the spell of some in the Curia - otherwise we would have been using the 1998 text as previously signed off by the Bishops.
The attempts to control the practice of theology and the Mass text grow a monoculture that ignores so much in the Gospels, and so many of the riches found in the Catholic tradition, our lives, and our own times. In the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh it will be interesting to see how the hierarchy receives, and hopefully encourages, imaginative and novel responses from the reorganising parish clusters.
Perhaps Pope Francis can offer us some insight here. In “The Joy of the Gospel” he wrote,
“Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel”. (Paragraph 40)
The reason for struggling with all this is that the authoritarian imposition of flawed and limiting ideas of Christ, God and Church damages people - their growth and faith are being distorted - while others are shaking our dust from their feet and so the oft-quoted “smaller 'purer' church” is taking root, as a smaller monoculture.
It is very tempting to become comfortable, and to accept a role merely as consumers in the Eucharist, submissive to authority, and so add to the inertia in the Church. It is also very wrong to imagine Pope Francis standing with us on the hillside asking the institutionalised monoculturalists to come out from their plantation to play “our” game. Instead Pope Francis calls us all to change, to join in together becoming something that is more than any of us can ask or imagine. He calls for transformation in every corner of the Church, building on a renewed openness to letting Christ encounter us each day (See The Joy of the Gospel, especially its foundations in paragraphs 1-8.), and to community, “bearing witness to a constantly new way of living together in fidelity to the Gospel” (para. 92).
Were “The Joy of the Gospel” taken to heart, we could not but heal the divide between laity and those exercising authority, with all of us being willing to grow in faith and vision. Meanwhile, as baptised Christians we have more autonomy, more ability to act in community to shape our parts of the world and the church than do trees in a plantation. The Spirit is already given to us; the hillsides and verdant woodland await – and so does a struggling world.