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Capitalist ecclesiology – is its victory complete in the West?

18 February 2012

The consumerist approach to religion seems to have stormed one of the last strongholds. For a while now the GetReligion website has been a kind of watchdog on media religion reporting, at least in the US. Their thesis is that the media generally don’t “get” religion, and that stories with a religious angle are likely to be distorted as a result. But when I saw this article, I realised that all is lost So what sort of Anglican are you? | GetReligion:

There is an on-going fight over the Anglican brand in the U.S. between the Episcopal Church and the ACNA. The Episcopal Church is the “official” Anglican franchise in the U.S., but the ACNA is recognized by a majority of the world’s Anglicans too as being a bona fide Anglican church.

It’s bad enough when journalists refer to sports teams as “brands” and “franchises” (they were still “teams” until about 2-3 years ago, the change is relatively recent). But when a website that is a self-styled watchdog on the media actually introduces such language, things have really gone too far.

Now maybe I’m just a crusty old curmudgeon, a retired English editor exemplifying prescriptivist old-fogeyism, demanding that people write “proper” English.

But I think it is more than that. I don’t think I’m just writing as an English editor, as a language purist.

I think I’m writing as a missiologist, as a theologian. Call me a crusty curmudgeonly old pedant if you like, but I’m concerned about this phenomenon at the theological rather than just the linguistic level.

As a missiologist I’m concerned with Christian mission, about how Christians proclaim and live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a broken and fallen world. How we are to preach the good news to the poor, heal the sick (without making false claims about it), cast out demons etc.

And one of the demons to be cast out is Mammon, and the spirit of Mammonism.

The missionaries, evangelists, prophets and proselytisers of Mammon have been going out into all the world from the West, making disciples of all nations and baptising them in the name of the Market, Profit, and the Spirit of Free Enterprise. One of the greatest prophets of the movement was Ayn Rand, whose ideas were first seen as marginal, but since the Reagan-Thatcher years have become increasingly mainstream in the West, and in other parts of the world through aggressive Western proselytism.

What is a “brand”?

Well, in the old days, it was a distinctive label for a commercial product, so that you could see who manufactured and sold it. KFC is both a brand and a franchise. A franchise, in the commercial sense, being a brand that is licensed to independent retailers with an agreement that they will sell products with that particular brand, and under certain special conditions.

Fast-food outlets are among the best-known franchises, but they are also found among car dealers and garages, which have a franchise to sell a particular make of vehicle or a particular brand of petrol. When I was young garages usually sold all brands, especially in the bigger towns. It was only one-pump country stores that sold only one brand of petrol. But now they are mostly franchises. If they are owned by the oil company, of course, they are not franchises, but wholly-owned subsidiaries.

When confined to such uses, terms like “brand” and “franchise” are meaningful and useful.

People talk about “separation between church and state”, but no one seems to talk about separation between business and state. Oh yes, in the heady days of the mid 1990s, when democracy was a novelty and we all got excited about it, there were idealistic laws saying that members of parliament should disclose their commercial interests, and gifts that they had received, but now many of them have come to resent it, and even the State President himself, sworn to uphold the constitution, resists it.

And so commercial language and values take over everything, from sports teams to ecclesiology. And when respected religious journalists and media watchdogs start talking about “the Anglican brand” and “the Anglican franchise” we can know that we have a fully-fledged capitalist ecclesiology. Our mental furniture has been rearranged according to a Mammonist model, and our language shows it. As an Afrikaans proverb puts it, “Wat die hart van vol is, loop die mond van oor” (“What fills the heart overflows from the mouth”).

And when that happens, perhaps we need to heed St Paul’s words:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).

One Comment leave one →
  1. Matt Stone permalink
    18 February 2012 1:09 pm

    Steve, loved your take on corporate baptism. It’s the new Christendom isn’t it. Not a wedding of church and state but church and market. Same solution for both though:radical commitment to Jesus as Lord.

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