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I was recently invited to be part of a public conversation at Edinburgh’s Festival of Spirituality and Peace on the theme ‘Disorganised Religion’.  I was asked to offer comment on how I see understandings of ‘religion’ changing and to reflect on whether ‘disorganised religion’ is a helpful term to reflect on questions of religion.  The conversation was chaired by Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow, and Ian Milligan from Exploring Anabaptism in Scotland and the Bert community in Glasgow was the other discussant.  The event was sponsored by Ekklesia and the Iona Community.  This blog entry is a lightly-edited and slightly expanded version of my opening remarks, reflecting also some of the comments from the 60+ audience who came to the conversation; warm thanks to them for their insights.

If we’re thinking about ‘disorganised religion’, it presumes we know what we mean by ‘organised religion’, so I want to explore that a little bit before moving onto thinking about what ‘disorganised religion’ might be.

There is a long tradition in the West, at the latest from the 17th century onwards, of thinking of religion as being something distinct from other areas of life.  In the English-speaking world, this largely derives from Protestant thinking in the colonial context: Europeans went overseas and saw people engaging in what they thought were similar practices to ones they knew – so, for example, killing an animal in some apparently ritual form was seen as similar to an animal sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, or kneeling and being still was seen as a form of prayer as described in the New Testament.  These things may not have been recognisably Christian because these people – in South America, Africa, or wherever – had obviously not heard of Jesus and the Christian God, but the Westerners understood these practices to be ‘religious behaviour’, even though that may have been a meaningless concept to the local people.  Nonetheless, these actions were being compared to and measured against what the Europeans already knew, and more than that, they were made to be like things the Europeans already knew (Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar, famously called this ‘Orientalism’).

From that, we have the beginnings of the so-called separation of church and state: actions and thinking seen as ‘religious’ was to be kept distinct from everything else, and ‘everything else’ was called ‘the secular’ – of course, these terms depend upon each other and if examined closely, have no consistent meaning.  It was but a short step to institutionalisation of this religious-secular distinction – through constitutions, for example – and ‘the religious’ became ever further removed from ‘the secular’, and correspondingly, the organisation of religion was seen as something that was distinct from the concerns of wider society.

So here we have one example of the ways in which thinking about ‘religion’ has changed.  On a related front, this event is being sponsored by the Iona Community, of which I am a long-standing Member, and from its early days, the Community has sought to overcome the distinction that I’ve just elaborated on.  It wanted to find ways to connect the church – by which it initially meant the Church of Scotland – to wider society, to overcome the distinction that I’ve just mentioned.  In the language of the Community, this was about connecting what people do in church on a Sunday and what they do at work on a Monday; today the Community tends to talk more about the connection between work and worship, between prayer and politics, between sacred and secular.  Of course, when the Iona Community was founded in 1938, there was a presumption that most people who describe themselves as Christian would be members of churches, but that is clearly no longer the case.  So the Community has in recent years been seeking to identify news ways of engaging, and that is where terms like ‘disorganised religion’ perhaps help us think about some of these issues.

From different backgrounds then – the Critical Religion analysis of the origins and consequences of much of our thinking about the artificiality of distinctions between ‘secular’ and ‘religion’, and the Iona Community’s attempts to find practical and honest ways of overcoming these distinctions – we can point to very exciting ways of thinking of the future of what ‘religion’ might be.  Disorganised, certainly, if that means a move away from a distinction between ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ that distorts and hinders the integration of all aspects of our lives.

Of course, such attempts to move away from these distinctions have long existed – and the Anabaptist tradition that Ian is connected to is a perfect example of this – even if the larger churches that aligned themselves to a greater or lesser extent with the ruling powers have found it much harder to move away from the religious-secular distinction.  The Iona Community is another expression of this, and as it has grown, members from other Christian traditions have joined, and they have often been less fixated on institutionalised forms of religion.  Anti-institutional and non-hierarchical traditions in particular have enriched the approach the Community has taken on a number of issues: an example of this is the leading of worship, which has long been a task that non-ordained people have undertaken.

In a wider context: our world is globalising in new ways – the colonial traditions that resulted in religious-secular distinctions are gradually giving way to new kinds of seeing the global.  Globalised economics still privilege the rich, and especially the rich West, but forms of interaction are changing: in a Western Christian context, for example, we can observe the introduction of fresh ways of being church that clearly derive from the Global South, whether this be music and liturgy or sometimes even forms of decision-making and governance; the Iona Community’s John L. Bell has been instrumental in doing some of this for English-speaking communities.  Much of this kind of change relates to people seeking to engage more fully in worship and live their lives in a way that is more consonant with their understanding of priorities.  Emerging church movements and radical alternatives to church are all key to this process, as for some people that can happen in traditionally organised institutions, for others it needs to happen outwith them.

Either way, there is no doubt that ‘disorganised religion’ – in the sense of overcoming the religious-secular divide – is a useful way of thinking about what it is that many people are seeking to do.  Because they almost always perpetuate the religious-secular divide, ‘religious institutions’ are in fact perpetuating their own marginalisation.  This in turn encourages strong reactions from many so-called secularists when such institutions are seen as failing ‘to keep to religious matters’.  We can observe this in the same-sex marriage debate currently taking place in Scotland: there is a clear majority of the population in favour of the government’s moves towards equality, but many institutional religious figures oppose these moves, often arguing (incorrectly) that they will be discriminated against if same-sex marriage is legalised.  This failure to recognise that the granting of privileges that the majority have to everyone is not discrimination but equality, simply furthers the marginalisation of these institutions in wider society and deepens the religious-secular divide.

So if disorganised religion is about subverting the very idea that a religious-secular divide exists, then we need much more of it!  We often hear people say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’.  What is often meant is that people want to do justice to a desire or a need for some kind of spiritual or transcendental experience but they want nothing to do with the institutions that have grown up around what is seen as ‘religion’.  Perhaps such people are finding ways of overcoming the divide between ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ and discovering new ways of being whole human beings.  Certainly, for those on the margins seeking to live out an integrated ‘disorganised’ life, there may be mistakes made and wrong turns taken – but that element of the human condition is also what makes such disorganisation so appealing and so necessary.