Integrity and Religious Institutions: Wesley Carr (Part 1 of 3: An Institution’s Primary Task)



By Edward R. Shapiro, MD, Distinguished Faculty in the Erikson Institute for Education and Research

Edward R. Shapiro, MD, Distinguished Faculty in the Austen Riggs Center’s Erikson Institute, explores Wesley Carr and an institution’s primary task. The Austen Riggs Center held a day-long symposium this past July in honor of the late Very Rev’d Dr. Wesley Carr, the former Dean of Westminster Abbey. Wesley was a close friend of mine, working together with me in Tavistock group relations work. We wrote a series of papers and a book about systems psychodynamics while on shared vacations with our families and, ultimately, we consulted to each other’s institutions. In this brief communication, I would like to lay out some of Wesley’s thinking, focusing on three ideas: an institution’s primary task, the links between institutions and the needs of the larger society, and the psychological process of becoming a member. 

The primary task is what an institution must carry out in order to survive. It is inevitably carried out on behalf of the larger society. An institution’s primary task is not asserted; it is discovered through accepting and integrating its unique history, capacities, and traditions and linking those to the changing needs of the larger society. Though not always conscious, embedded in that discovery is inevitably a set of ideals that can begin to capture the commitments of the institution’s staff. 

Wesley suggested that the primary task of religious institutions is to help contain irrationality and dependency on behalf of the larger society (Shapiro and Carr, 1991). (1) He noted that a major function of religious organizations is to link people through their interdependence and organize them around their feelings about the transcendent. Religious organizations deliberately acknowledge dependency through their belief in God, pastoral activities, and acts of worship. Like art, religious bodies acknowledge the irrational aspects of daily life without presuming that such aspects are pathological. Religion both affirms dependency (which society can devalue as ‘immature’) and deals with profound emotions like fear, love, grief, guilt, and anxiety.

The social task of religious institutions is, then, to help individuals to face the connections between their interdependency and their feelings about the transcendent by providing a managed and contained context for both. 

Let me expand this idea for a moment. Religious institutions exist in the world and the rest of us are aware of them, even if we devalue them. Wesley noted that religious services are held even when no one attends. It is important, he believed, that members of the larger society know that the services are always available and that the connection to the transcendent continues to exist somewhere. Services are held “on behalf of.”

Wesley was particularly interested in the conscious and unconscious process of joining. He recognized that once we become members, we are inevitably linked to larger forces that are ordinarily out of our awareness. Like Erik Erikson, Wesley recognized that our identities are always ‘identities in context,’ considering how we are shaped within social institutions and among the chronic uncertainties and ambiguities of social interaction.

All the major monotheistic religions emphasize how the self is inextricably linked to the larger collective of humanity, resisting any excessive emphasis on the individual. With some link to this perspective, individuals can, even if only unconsciously, risk relaxing the boundary around themselves or around their exclusive subgroup to maximize their capacity to recognize that we are all equal members of the human community. In a globalized world with increasing numbers of refugees, this is a recognition that is increasingly in danger of being lost. As I will illustrate, the rituals and symbols of religion, brought forth at significant moments, can facilitate a shared regression in which conflicted feelings and experiences around dependency and the search for transcendent meaning can be dealt with in a constructive rather than chaotic manner. 

Regression is a problematic word. We use the term to refer to a relaxation of the boundaries that define us as individuals, leading to an identification with the larger society. Wesley suggested that both the activity of church members and the unconscious relatedness of those in the outside world to religious institutions can facilitate a general social regression away from isolation and toward interdependency in the service of society’s development and its survival. 

How is such societal influence transmitted in religious institutions? First, there are the ritualized affirmations of the transitions – or what Wesley called the “ultimate boundaries” -- of life, including the entry into the world and the exit from it. Rituals, he suggested, are linking phenomena that allow for the recognition of connections to the past, to cultural heritages, and to the significant developmental transitions (birth, adolescence, marriage and death). For believers and unbelievers alike, such rituals allow for constructive regression and joining, furthering the development of the participants. I wonder whether our increasing secularization of these rituals has contributed to moving too many of us away from this kind of integration.

Check back next Friday for Part 2: The Needs of the Larger Society.  


1. This elaboration of Wesley’s thinking about religious institutions is derived from our joint book, Lost in Familiar Places (Yale University Press 1991), from our many discussions and from my upcoming book: Shapiro, E.R., Finding a Place to Stand: A Systems Psychodynamic Approach to Citizenship. London: Phoenix, 2019 (in press).

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