Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Travelling lightly through institutions

I’m travelling to Vienna today for the summit of the International Society for Information Studies. Vienna always makes me think of the impermanence of institutions – the city that was the heart of a great empire for centuries, then gradually faded and is now left with its history and architecture (plus a residual scattering of international bodies). But the glory days of the empire of Mitteleuropa are well behind it, one with Nineveh and Tyre.

No institution is permanent. All fade away. Even the famously long-lived institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Chinese state, exist in a continual state of change – that is how they have lasted so long.

But human interactions with institutions also fade away. Coming out of Euston station in London, I went briefly into Friends House, the headquarters of Quakers in Britain, to visit the bookshop. I was a Quaker for more than fifteen years, and attended many meetings at Friends House, from small committees to the large annual gatherings over several days.

Britain Yearly Meeting, with its structures, history, norms and values played a big part in my life. My experiences as a Quaker continue to reverberate through my life in many important ways, spiritually, emotionally (I met my wife, Becky Calcraft, through Quaker committee service) and in terms of values and ideas. But as an institution, it’s not part of my present life.

I’m involved in other institutions today which I value and am proud to be part of – The Open University, the Iona Community, the United Reformed Church. Perhaps I will be connected with some or all of these for a long time to come, perhaps for a short time. I don’t know. But I do know that my involvement with these institutions will come to an end one day – and that the institutions themselves will come to an end one day. And of course we’ll all come to an end ourselves one day (I’m writing this on the day we learn of the death of Charles Kennedy, a politician of great principle and humanity who died too young).

As so often when thinking about matters of impermanence, the words of St Teresa of Avila, as set by Margaret Rizza, come to my mind:
Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you;
while all things fade away, God is unchanging.
Be patient, for with God in your heart,
nothing is lacking, God is enough.

We must learn to travel lightly through our institutions. Nothing is permanent. God is enough.