The Absurdity of De-Institutionalised Religion: Peter Rollins’ Wake Festival

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking about my research at philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins’ annual festival in Belfast. The theme this year is ‘Wake’ and most talks feature theological exploration, ranging from Rollins’ own work to that of other ‘radical’ theologians. Other events include art, music, magic, comedy, whisky tasting, and tours.

A sociologist of religion like me doesn’t often have much to offer by way of magic, let alone theology. But what I hoped to do was explain where I see Rollins’ work, and that of others, fitting within broader changes in the Western religious landscape. I’ve copied the introduction and concluding reflections of my talk below – with special thanks to Chris Fry for allowing me to reproduce his song, ‘Easter Chill.’

The Absurdity of De-Institutionalised Religion

I have recently written a chapter on ‘Secularisation and De-Institutionalised Religion’ for a forthcoming volume on Foundations and Futures in the Sociology of Religion, edited by Luke Doggett and Alp Arat. The chapter focuses on two Christian communities that no longer exist: the Belfast-based ikon collective, and Slí Éile, a Jesuit ministry for young adults in the Republic of Ireland. In the chapter, I make the rather absurd argument that the demise of ikon and Slí Éile actually demonstrates a type of religious vitality.

Perhaps you have come to this festival as someone who participates in something a sociologist of religion like me would classify as de-institutionalised religion. Perhaps your spiritual or religious journey is individualised – maybe you no longer associate with a community or a group that could be identified as religious. Or maybe you are still involved – with gritted teeth – with what sociologists of religion would describe as traditional religious institutions.

My purpose today is to help you think about where your own current spiritual or religious practices (or lack thereof!) fit within broader religious trends in the West. I think that people who participate in deinstitutionalised expressions of religion are changing the religious landscape in the West, but it remains an open question to what extent they may help produce expressions of religion that help people cope with human limitations without resorting to a God who rescues us from our struggles.

The book has not yet been published, so I am not entirely sure whether other sociologists of religion will dismiss my argument as absurd. It could be so absurd that it will not survive the peer review process required for academic publishing! But I’m curious about what you will think of it – so I promise to leave time for feedback.

I’ll begin by explaining my use of the overarching term ‘de-institutionalised religion’ to describe a variety of contemporary expressions of religion, including the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) (Marti and Ganiel, 2014; Packard, 2012; Bielo, 2011) and ‘extra-institutional religion’ (Ganiel, 2016). I’ll then compare two expressions of de-institutionalised religion on the island of Ireland:

1) Emerging Christianity, in the example of the Northern Irish radical theologian Peter Rollins and ikon; and

2) extra-institutional religion, as practiced by young Catholics in the Republic who were involved with Slí Éile.

Throughout, I will be building that absurd argument, which can be summarised like this:

Secularisation has provided the people who were involved in de-institutionalised religion with opportunities to break free from what they have experienced as the restrictions or inadequacies of religious institutions. By participating in these de-institutionalised expressions of Christianity, they have been equipped to nourish their inner lives. They have been equipped to create new – perhaps equally short-lived – Christian communities, or to reform existing Christian institutions. And they feel they have been better equipped to live out their faith by working for social justice. In short, they have become the active curators of their own individual spiritual quests, constructing selves and communities that are preserving the vitality of religion – if not religious institutions – in Western societies.

Concluding Reflections

I attend Fitzroy Presbyterian church in south Belfast. Several weeks ago Chris Fry, who I spoke about earlier [as a participant in ikon], performed a song he wrote called ‘Easter Chill’ during a service at Fitzroy. After the service, I said to my husband that ‘Steve (Stockman, the minister) let Chris sing a song that described the church as “the saddest story ever told”.’

I don’t know if that’s one of the messages Chris intended with the song – or if that’s the messages others in the service took away from it. I interpreted the song as a lament about what contemporary Christianity has become – to paraphrase lyrics from the song, Christians are: ‘making coats of comfort from your grave clothes’ and ‘barricading heaven with convention.’

By now I am sure you are curious to hear the lyrics. I will spare you my singing voice, but share them with you:

Easter Chill

This morning’s coldness burning

My fingers fumbling for remission

These splinters caught between the surface

Buried deep within my skin

This Easter chill removes the safety

Disregards the context that I build

The past a loaded gun that empties

Shots of vision to my mind

 

I am the jailor of your memory

I live my life in locks and keys

I am a prisoner of my conscience

A post-modern Sadducee

 

We rifled Christmas for some spare change

Shook and scattered lights and bells

Remade your image with a price-tag

Sold the Gold, swam in the Myrrh

Made coats of comfort from your grave clothes

To guard against this winter cold

Barricade heaven with convention

We are the saddest story ever told

 

I am the jailor of your memory

I live my life in locks and keys

I am a prisoner of my conscience

A post-modern Sadducee

 

I cannot hide from this conclusion

It stalks me like a hungry beast

I am water fighting effervescent

This coldness dissolving inside me

It bursts the bonds of sweet repression

Invades my peaceful lands with war

I stare out my window watch this morning

Draw its folds around of me

 

I am the jailor of your memory

I live my life in locks and keys

I am a prisoner of my conscience

A post-modern Sadducee

Words and Music – Chris Fry (1998)

 What makes a song a work of art is that people can draw different meanings from it and there is no obligation for the song to explain itself. But I think it’s significant that those words were sung in Presbyterian church – albeit one that is known in Belfast for being somewhat unconventional. Institutionalised Christianity hasn’t been very good at featuring lament and self-critique in its services, so I thought it was refreshing that Chris’ words were allowed to hang in the air that Sunday morning.

The first time I interviewed Pete Rollins, in 2004, he said that he thought ikon did not even need to exist. He asserted that the idea of ikon was enough, in and of itself, to provide a critique of existing religious institutions and to point towards something different. In 2013, Rollins set-up a temporary collective in New York City. ‘Ikonnyc’ was designed to meet for just one year. It could be described as a ‘pop-up church’ that would serve a short-term purpose: equipping people for a long-term personal, spiritual or religious journey; while simultaneously impressing on them their need for community. John Delap felt that Slí Éile served a similar purpose for those who participated in it.

Although ikon and Slí Éile have ceased to exist, the testimonies of those who participated in them hint that the impact of these communities could be far-reaching. The absurdity of de-institutionalised religion is that it helps us to better understand how religious vitality can be present not only in the life – but also in the freely-chosen death – of institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

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