Neil Ormerod and Systematic Ecclesiology

I am delighted to have encountered the work of Neil Ormerod on systematic ecclesiology. An Australian Roman Catholic systematician, he began his academic career in mathematics – which is closer to my own background in the physical sciences than I usually find. He has written on the appropriate relationship between theology and the social sciences, and is strongly influenced by Lonergan’s theological method.

His paper “The Structure Of A Systematic Ecclesiology” (Theological Studies 63:3-30, 2002) is targeted at ecclesiologists, entering an ongoing dialogue about the fundamental nature and methodology of ecclesiology. Drawing on the work of Komonchak, Doran, and Lonergan, Ormerod argues convincingly that ecclesiology should be “empirical, critical, normative, dialectic, and practical” as it engages with the key sociological themes of “structure, authority, identity, and change” grounded in the scriptural symbol “the [reign] of God” which indicates the missiological telos of the church.* He demonstrates this method in an analysis of the emergence of the threefold ministry in the early church based on the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and 1 Clement, and he critiques the highly popular communion ecclesiology as insufficiently realistic, overly idealistic, and (as is typical of a functionalist sociology) so valorizing harmony that it is liable to scapegoat and dismiss criticism.

The five characteristics he lists for a systematic ecclesiology are interrelated. Ecclesiology must be empirical and historical in order to be connected to the lived reality of the church; but it must critically engage with the empirical data in order to avoid perpetuating biases. It must be normative in order to provide the basis for criticism and evaluation. It must be dialectic in the relationships between theology and the social sciences, as well as between the lived reality of the church and the church in its eschatological fullness. All of this yields practical guidance for the church. The four key themes emerge directly from sociological analysis of the church as a human institution, though he carries them out dialectically with theological analysis.

The most interesting passage in his analysis of “the emergence of ministry as an institutional form in the early church” was an unusually positive view of the institutional church as a practical solution for allowing most of the group’s energies to be devoted to its goal, the furtherance of the reign of God. Critiquing the common view of institutionalization as a “necessary evil,” he writes:

Surely however more needs to be said. There are serious ontological objections to the notion of a “necessary evil” particularly in relation to human constructs such as institutions. And if institutions are so “evil” why are they so prevalent? What is it that pushes human communities to develop institutional forms, be it in soccer clubs, art societies, and even religious communities? The answer is simple. Institutional forms provide an efficient means to achieve certain recurrent needs within the community. These needs are generally internal, that is, they are needs for the community to reproduce itself, to maintain identity and to regulate the process of change. Such needs are generally distinct from the goals of the community which may be much broader. A soccer club exists to promote playing soccer, but its institutional form ensures that members are trained, that playing fields are maintained, that games are organized, and so on. Indeed the existence and efficiency of the institution frees the energy of the group to better achieve its goals. People join the soccer club to play soccer, not to run the club, but if no one runs the club, the game suffers. From this perspective institutionalization is good, for it promotes the common good of the community by allowing the community to focus its energies on its goals and not on its internal needs. Institutions are a product of practical intelligence, to meet the particular recurrent needs of a human community.

This is not to deny that institutions can become deformed. They may be used to promote group biases or to misuse and maintain power. These are the besetting sins of institutions, and, like the poor, they will always be with us. Those who view the process of institutionalization as a “necessary evil” tend to focus on these sins, while acknowledging the necessity of the process. Still we must clearly differentiate between the proper purpose and use of institutions, and their misuse. To view them as a “necessary evil” is to invite permanent suspicion of institutions per se, indeed to invite their abandonment as part of the problem, rather than view their reform, together with constant vigilance against their distortions, as part of the solution.

This analysis has two advantages over the more prevalent Weberian approach. The first is that it relativizes institutions without undermining them. Institutions are the product of practical intelligence. There are, as the saying goes, many ways to skin a cat. There are also many institutional forms that can be adopted to meet the recurrent needs of the community. Some will be more efficient, other less so. Some will be efficient but dehumanizing (such as dictatorships, or the committee of one), while others might be more humanizing but less efficient (such as full participatory democracy). Practical intelligence and the efficiencies it achieves are not the only communal values, but at the same time they cannot be neglected or the energies of the community will be dissipated.The second advantage is that one can develop a critique of institutions on the basis of a critique of practical intelligence, of the type found in the writings of Bernard Lonergan. The analysis can be dialectical and truly practical.

(emphasis mine) In my opinion, this provides a helpful context for the criticisms I sometimes hear that the Second Vatican Council has produced turmoil and power struggles that distract from the life of the church, rather than a reform that enlivens it. I don’t agree with such criticisms, but this reasoning helps me understand why those who make them feel so strongly about them.

Ormerod embraces Lonergan’s theological method particularly in his discussion of the two trajectories of change: one emerges as a practical solution to a recurrent need and subsequently influences the meaning and values of a culture; the other emerges as an insight into meaning and values, and subsequently influences the practical ways in which meaning and values are embodied in the culture. Clearly, the latter has priority, and is the trajectory through which revelation enters and transforms the world.

One weakness in this otherwise strong article was the comparatively little rationale given for adopting the reign of God as the foundational symbol of the church. The offered rationale links the mission of the church to its ultimate end, to the preaching of Christ, and to the procession of Word and Spirit in salvation history, all of which I found persuasive. But the choice of this symbol has such significant ramifications as a norm that it warranted more emphasis.

It is also worth noting that Ormerod chooses the Catholic church as the specific, concrete community for his analysis. This choice is perfectly defensible, and I tend to agree with his basic position that one must choose some concrete community in order to address the lived reality of the church; but the result was to effectively define away the important question of ecumenical fruitfulness by which any proposed ecclesiological model or method will be assessed by those devoted to church unity.

This paper provided exactly what I was looking for: a coherent schema by which to construct and assess a systematic ecclesiology. Its insistence on engaging both the lived reality of the church and the theological aspects of the una sancta, and its emphasis on the symbol of the reign of God, are thoroughly in line with my own inclinations. I will be following up with this paper and its sources, as well as keeping an eye out for further work by this theologian.

*Ormerod uses the phrase “the kingdom of God;” I prefer the term “the reign of God” for both grammatical and feminist reasons.

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