Committees, World Without End

C. S. Lewis was a university professor, and knew about the wheels within wheels of committees, with their informal “rings” that use the official bodies and their meetings to get done what they want, but that accomplish very little of the real work of the university, which is intellectual and spiritual. So it is in That Hideous Strength, that the bluff scientist William Hingest, “one of the two scientists at Bracton with a reputation outside of England,” gets along very well with the elderly philologist Glossop, while neither of them have anything good to say about the bustlers in their college, the interminable committee men, the “insiders.” In that “fairy tale for grown-ups,” as Lewis described it, the evil analogue of the Church on earth is the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, the N.I.C.E., with its perfect labyrinth of departments and sub-departments, but notably lacking any honor for authority truly embodied in someone wise or good or of long experience and solid accomplishment.

Heaven has its ranks on ranks of angels, but Hell has its bureaucracy, as we see at a fine moment in The Screwtape Letters. The malignant Uncle, allowing himself to be carried away with rage and disgust at the thought of a virtuous and passionate young Christian woman, is suddenly transmogrified into “the form of a large centipede.” So he must dictate the end of his letter to his “secretary” Toadpipe, who appends his boss’s signature thus: “Signed Toadpipe, for his Abysmal Sublimity Under Secretary Screwtape, T. E., B. S., etc.”

I might be a bit glib here and note that Jesus never got his apostles together to consult with them about what he should do, and that John the Baptist did not survey the people to determine what approach might work best with them, and that Saint Paul never recommended to Saint Timothy that he allow himself to be played on a string by the people in his diocese. Sure, I understand that the Church is a body, and a body has members, and that implies subordination and obedience, and also, to be pragmatic about it, “departments,” offices, divisions of the army, platoons if you will. But when the skeleton and its articulation take precedence over the blood and the mind and the soul, you have what Robert Frost satirized by his imagined bureaucracy of ants, when the body of the dead forager Jerry McCormic has to be taken away:

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Presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician,
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else’s affair.
It couldn’t be called ungentle,
But how thoroughly departmental.

In my time most officially sponsored efforts at “renewal” in the Church have taken a form suggested to us by the bureaucracies and departmental divisions we otherwise live with, or are half smothered by. This is the case now in the diocese of Saint John’s, Newfoundland, which has come out with a final draft of—something, something with words like “renewal” in it, and “timeframe,” and “strategic planning,” and “renewal plan implementation committee,” and “leadership teams,” and “pastoral zones,” and “zone transition working group,” and so forth, world without end.

We live in Nova Scotia during the summer, and love the people of the Atlantic provinces; they are the salt of the sea. If you need help fixing your barn, you can call on your rural neighbors and they will come—I cannot say the same about city dwellers, whose reputation among the country people is not great. If you need to wait around for three weeks in Halifax in a queue for surgery, as happens often enough in the land of governmental medicine, your neighbors will get up a fund drive to help you with the costs of food and lodging. Yet these habits and virtues are the residue of a Christian faith that is withering away. Here as elsewhere in the United States and Canada children are born out of wedlock as often as not, the family is fraying and dissolving, porn is everywhere, the schools confer upon young people a stupidity and egotism far beyond those with which Nature has endowed them, mass entertainment is coarse and ephemeral, and of course churches are closing. The crisis in vocation is first of all that nobody is getting married. If young men do not aspire to be husbands, and young women do not aspire to be wives, are we really going to expect that a fair number of their peers will aspire to be priests or sisters in the religious life?

But the documents I have read know nothing of these things. It is as if the situation in Newfoundland were merely a matter of shuffling in a business concern. We see the tired old “strategy” of blurring the distinction between the laity and the clergy, and indeed we hear that some voices were raised against the term “lay minister,” not because it made the layman so denominated appear as if he or she were a priest or priestess, but because every Christian by baptism is a priest of God. It is a strange heterogeneity: suspicion of order and hierarchy, rendered institutional. The word “obedience” does not appear in the document.

Nor does the name of Jesus, or the word “repentance.” John the Baptist, if he were to take his stand on the lichen-crusted crags of that rugged island, wearing a sealskin jacket and trousers, and eating mackerel and cloudberries, would cry out that people should mend their ways. What difference can it possibly make, if you write up “strategic plans” and carve out “leadership teams” and clump fishing boats together in “piscatory zones,” when your nets are full of holes? What is going to be renewed, when your skippers are drunk and your men are lazy and filch half of the catch for their own sale on the side?

I do not mean to hurt the feelings of the people of the province. But let us speak the truth to one another.  We have not been faithful, and so the Spirit has abandoned us to our purposes.  We get the preachers we deserve. This is as true in Newfoundland as it is in New Hampshire, where I am going to live during the other seasons of the year. Committees are busy without minding the business, and the business at hand is repentance. How to get contemporary man even to consider that he has something to repent of, when his mind has been made as shallow as a puddle—when he abuses his body with as much forethought as he pushes a button on an electronic slot machine—when he has neither the health-making struggle with nature that his forefathers knew, nor the bracing wisdom that comes from old books, nor the encounter with mystery and beauty that people once demanded in the art and music of their churches—that is the question, and no committee can possibly address it.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.


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