Problems with Diversity – a Psychodynamic Perspective

by Michael Jacobs, a practising psychologist

The night before writing a paper that I was due to deliver to a group of clergy, I had a dream about taking three people to dine in an Oxford college. With me was a male companion who was similarly taking in guests. I realised as we approached the dining hall that I had not signed in my guests, which had to be done beforehand; and I debated with myself, but also with the other person taking in guests whether I should honestly admit my omission to the hall steward, thus risking his wrath; or whether I should just try to slip them into dinner, which would be doubly dishonest because I would also then not be charged for them.

I cannot recall my companion’s argument, although I think it was on the side of honesty; but the matter was obviously not settled either between us, or for me as the dreamer, because in the next scene I continued to talk with this man. It was now clear to me that he was a theological college principal.

The college principal asked me about saying evening prayer each day: did I include the 'Our Father' at the beginning and the end of the office? I did not know how to reply: I thought at first that I might spin him a tale about not using the 1662 Prayer Book, but using other forms of the office. While I spoke to him and argued within myself, he seemed to grow taller; or perhaps it was me, like Alice in Wonderland, growing shorter: either way he towered above me. I decided in the end that I would be honest and I began to explain that actually I did not say any kind of office. As I spoke his eyes began to water. I thought that he was weeping for me, because I was so beyond redemption; but as we spoke we both seemed to return to equal size, and it became clear that the reason he was crying was with relief that I had expressed something of what he might also have felt.

There are many levels at which I might understand these dream images. I had the evening before been replying to a university invitation which was addressed to me by name plus 'a guest', when a few years ago the assumption would have been that a ‘Mrs’ would have been included – recognition of the different close relationships that now exist. I had also been writing a delicate letter to someone explaining that a retreat he had asked to come on was not a conventionally religious retreat, and I did not want to offend him by making any assumptions about him. ‘Fathers’ were around for me for a variety of reasons, but ‘father’ of course also carries the image of authority. So the dream spelled out amongst other things my anxieties about writing a paper which also forms the basis for this article. I was not sure either how honest I could be in that paper about my own convictions, which probably differed from many of my audience, or indeed whether I was beyond redemption. Perhaps I would have to smuggle in my ideas, suitably disguised, so that I could not be charged with them? The clerical audience I had to address seemed as awesome to me in my unconscious as my one-time college principal. On the other hand there was also that element of their possible relief, that I might be addressing the very issues they also struggled with, and the youth of the dream principal suggested an openness not always associated with older fathers-n-God. So would my audience be ‘with me’ or ‘against me’?

That dilemma is typical of many other situations, within the church and outside it; indeed, the anxiety about speaking honestly about doubt and difference is, as I shall argue, almost endemic to any institution, particularly one which has formal rules and regulations, and which represents a profession, whether that profession be a profession of faith, or of an academic discipline, or a profession in the sense of a group of professionals. How can ‘I’ relate to ‘them’, whether it is a society, a discipline, or a faith, in such a way as not to lose my individuality when what I think or profess appears to question accepted ways of thinking? And specifically in relation to the church, how do ‘I’ in the sense of my more inward sense of being, relate to the ‘me’ who is represented in the persona, the role, the mask which is a necessary part of being a professional person, and a representative of an institution? And how do I do this without feeling abandoned, isolated, scape-goated, smothered or destroyed?

No doubt the reader, as well as I, could provide examples of the tension between person and persona, between the individual and the institution. I hesitate to recount the following examples, because some of them arose in essentially private conversations, although my hesitation and the need to keep them private is itself a telling illustration. I was in one situation talking over lunch with a chaplain in sector ministry. He asked me whether I had a church, and on hearing that I did not, wondered what I did on Sundays. As in my dream, I thought hard before answering, but I had to be honest and say that I rarely did went to church on Sundays: it was all right, I said, if you take the service yourself, because you could express through it and in it what you wanted, but going to those led by other people meant I spent most of the time either wincing at the way they did it, or at what they were saying, or at what the service itself was saying. I thought I might have said more than I should have done, but the young priest immediately expressed profound thanks, and later reinforced them in writing to me, saying that I had expressed just what he felt, but had never been able to say to anyone. ‘You do not know how relieved you have made me feel,’ he said, ‘I was feeling so guilty’.

My second example is set in the kitchen of a bishop's house over a late night drink, and setting the world to right, as one can still do, even later in life! ‘What would you do if you were a bishop?’, he asked me. Since I shall never be one, there was nothing to lose and I cannot remember precisely what I said. But I was honest, if perhaps idealistic. He replied with his own ideas, some of which I guess he could have said in a more public arena. What I remember is what relief we both felt, at not having to hide what we really thought from each other.

The third illustration has a similar ambience, although it was a different, somewhat more open setting. I was teaching a mixed group of male clergy and lay women, and in one exercise placed them in pairs, mostly of one lay woman and one clergyman. I asked them in the privacy of their pairs to share with each other what they would cut out from the Apostles' Creed, as not being essential to their own faith. The exercise started with great embarrassment, and very sultry talk; but as in each pair one or other took the initiative in being more honest, the noise level rose, until the room was full of animated conversation and excitement. When I asked for reactions, what was most noticeable was not that there was feedback on theology, but that there had been great emotional relief, on the part of the laity that the clergy had not been disappointed in them, and on the part of the clergy that the lay people had not been shocked by them, when they had shared the beliefs that they did not personally find important.

In such situations I find myself asking what is going on within an institution people cannot be honest with each other. It is as if there is one large conspiracy of silence. My own examples, and I believe Sea of Faith could replicate them many times over, show how many people cannot be themselves over matters of faith and practice, and yet stay within the institution. Yet these experiences are not confined to membership of the church, because what they illustrate is a more universal phenomenon, that it is the nature of relationships in large groups and institutions to incorporate individuals in such a way as to make it difficult for them, at least publicly to be individuals. The problem of ‘the one and the many’ (which I recall as a significant phrase used in Old Testament theology) is that in the larger group I can easily feel either isolated as ‘me’, or incorporated into ‘them’ in a way that makes me experience the loss of ‘me’. This position, as my examples illustrate, is not confined to the relatively less powerful or significant in the order of things: isolated or threatened ‘me’ may be the individual minister trying to relate to ‘them’ in a diocesan office or the bishop’s staff: but isolated ‘me’ might be the same minister trying to relate to ‘them’ as the laity, or to fellow clergy; and might equally be the diocesan secretary, or the bishop or the archdeacon, trying to relate to ‘them’, the clergy out there; or the lay person trying to relate to a clerical church, or even to the rest of the congregation.

Yet there is some hope in such experience being endemic in large groups and institutions, since it does not single out the church. A French analyst, for example, examines the difficulty which psychoanalysis has had in its organisational life. She describes the problem of combining a concern for the emergence of democracy, and respect for the ideas of individuals, with acknowledgement of the power of the unconscious. In attempting to organise in such a way as to give people freedom from powers outside themselves and freedom for the exercise of their own democratic power, there is a constant danger of ‘liquidating the doctrine’ that the organisation is trying to defend. In the case of psychoanalysis, this doctrine is the power of the unconscious. The paradox is that while analysts try to promote freedom from power of the unconscious, the more successful they are the greater the danger that the power of the unconscious will be forgotten

Against a guarantee for the ego, one then ends up with a cult of the master, or with the ardour of the mystic, which amounts to replacing the illusory freedom of individual speech with a religious adherence to the imaginary person of a leader or a cause. To date no psychoanalytic society has managed to resolve that insoluble contradiction. (Roudinesco 1990: 224).

If psychoanalysis has not done it, then let us not be too condemnatory of the church! But psychoanalysis has made the attempt to study these issues, if not always being so good at putting its own house in order. De Board, for example, in The Psychoanalysis of Organizations, lists four basic assumptions that can be made about groups:

1. that that are inevitable and ubiquitous;

2. that they mobilise powerful forces which affect individuals;

3. that they may produce good and bad consequences;

4. that desirable consequences can be enhanced by a correct understanding of the dynamics of groups. (1978: 14)

The fourth assumption suggests that unless we are aware of the nature of these issues, we shall not get very far in promoting a good relationship between the corporate and the individual ministry. How far change is actually possible I am less sure, without a radical re-positioning of the place of credal formulae, but at the same time I do not forget that institutions are made up of individual people, that individuals can change and that individuals can promote change: but the chicken and egg conundrum is not one which I have a better chance of solving than anyone else; I have to accept it as one of the constraints with which we have to live. Yet it may be that greater collective understanding of the difficulty of the relationship between the individual and the large group is part of the way forward in the dilemma of how to be an individual in a corporate organisation, as well as how to exercise responsibility as a member of the whole.

A way of promoting that understanding is to take a sample of ideas about the threat to the personal that is posed by a large group or an institution: here I draw upon Freud, the group analyst Pierre Turquet and the sociologist Erving Goffman. All three concur about the threat to personal identity through membership of the group, which in turn reflects upon the question of containing diversity within the group that demands conformity.

The problem of being an individual and also being a member of wider society is raised in by Freud’s major late study of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). It is a sombre book, in itself a warning about the difficulty resolving these issues. The advent of civilization, Freud suggests, has required the suppression of instinctual needs; or we might say now, living in society or as part of an institution requires the suppression of some individual needs. Of course, to be a member of an institution also has advantages, otherwise we would not seek membership: it protects and provides. In the case of the church being a fully paid up member may mean the provision of a role, a house and a livelihood. But belonging is at a cost, which inevitably also produces discontents. Freud argues that in the case of civilisation this cost is the inhibition of sexuality and aggression. We might similarly ask what cost there is in being a fully paid up member of the church: it is often at the cost of inhibition of much more than sexuality and aggression: it is also at the cost of these emotions as well as feelings of ambition, rivalry and even tenderness: but even more it is often at the cost of major inhibition on the freedom to think.

Freud indeed uses the church as one of his examples in an earlier book, which touches on the same subject, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). In this not wholly successful attempt to make use of psychology of the crowd and the herd to understand large groups such as the church and the army, Freud suggests that what binds people together in a large group is their introjection of the leader, in the church that is of Christ, and their identification with each other. There are two speculations which are particularly relevant: the first is that in belonging individual members also give up some of their own ego to the ego ideal of Christ. The second is that the church is held together by love for Christ, and the belief that Christ loves all the members of the church equally; but, Freud asks, what happens to the hostility which has been suppressed in order to maintain this loving institution?

One way in which it can be expressed is to people outside religion: he suggests that even if the church is held together by bonds of love, it may be hostile and cruel to people outside. Christianity, that ‘even if it calls itself the religion of love, [it] must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it’. Freud believes this to be true of other faiths. Every religion is ‘a religion of love for all those whom it embraces; while cruelty and intolerance towards those who do not belong to it are natural to every religion’ (1921: 30).

Freud is right to raise the question of where hostility goes: he is wrong to suggest that it is only directed towards those who do not belong. It is more obviously directed today to those within who threaten the corporate illusion of being an ideal community united by the love of Christ. Freud presumes that the bonds of love, and what he was later to call the illusion of faith only just succeed in holding back hostility and aggression. When the ego ideal is challenged it can lead to the disintegration of the group. He cites the story line of a novel that was popular in the early twentieth century, in which the holy sepulchre is supposedly discovered, and inside a note which indicates that Christ’s body was actually stolen. The sepulchre and the note is a forgery, although this is not known at the time, and as a result belief in the resurrection is shattered. There follows ‘a convulsion in European civilization and an extraordinary increase in all crimes and acts of violence, which only ceases when the forgers’ plot has been revealed’ (1921: 30). If this is unlikely to happen now to Western civilization, it is less difficult to contemplate the damage such an event would do within the church. Threats to the ideals of the church, whether they are moral or theological, are sometimes defended with the argument that any lessening of conviction will inevitably lead to the moral disintegration of the family or society. Freud suggests that it is only the weakening of religious feeling and the libidinal ties attached to such feelings which has lessened the violence and cruelty of Christianity.

Freud writes that it is only an external ego ideal (Christ – though we might also add an idealised picture of the church) that holds a large group of individual egos together. When people step out of line, the forces of love can turn quickly to aggression, making it a terrifying prospect to many people who attempt to find and express a more personal point of view.

His description of the church's reaction to dissent reminds me of an organism under attack, and the ferocity in which it too may fight for life. Large groups, like individuals and families may not only fight against perceived attack from outside, but also against perceived attack from within. Indeed the large group's fight for life is sometimes at the cost of plucking out its own eyes and cutting off its own hands, as if in corporate obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. The group analyst Patrick de Maré uses this image of 'a large vulnerable animal' as a simile for the large group, describing it sympathetically as subjected to all sorts of violations, and reminding us that we forget, when we attack the large group, that it is also 'a highly sensitive instrument whose enormous potentials we can at present only very dimly envisage' (Kreeger 1975: 153). Tempting though it is when attacked by the institution to respond by turning it into some kind of mindless dinosaur, de Maré’s phrase acts as an important reminder that in looking for an answer to the problem of individuality it is just as unwise to find it at the expense of the large group as it at the expense of the individual. It is however this latter aspect upon which I obviously concentrate.

De Maré’s paper appears in The Large Group, as does one aptly titled 'Threats to identity in the large group' (Kreeger, 1975: 87f). Its author Pierre Turquet wonders what happens to single people joining large groups, and he identifies a number of states or behaviours which can also be seen in those who belong to institutions like the church. The ideal is for the single person to be able to relate with other single persons, and yet also relate to the large group as a whole. Such a person he calls an 'individual member'. Turquet, like Freud and others, identifies the threat of annihilation in the large group. In a different phrase he says that everything 'seems to conspire against even the possibility of an idiosyncratic group-related role while still being a fully paid-up member. The large collectivity in itself hampers the discovery of a discrete role, thereby encouraging fusion processes' (Kreeger 1975: 100).

But many more members of the group become ‘membership individuals’, 'where group membership predominates over individual self-definition and needs' (Kreeger 1975: 95), destroying their state of being individual members. Others remain as ‘singletons’, positioning themselves psychologically, or even literally, on the edge of the group, with half an ear turned to the group, but occupied more within themselves. The latter may well describe those who remain discontented within an institution, not knowing which way to jump.

Others join sub-groups, identifying themselves with a cause or object where they can have something in common with others, finding an identity within the whole but not embracing the whole: this is clearly a feature in some of the political groupings in the churches, whether traditional or radical, charismatics, gays, movements for the ordination of women, the Church Union, the Evangelical Alliance, the Sea of Faith, and so on. Becoming one of 'us' protects ‘me’ against losing out to 'them'. I do not see this defence as an adequate solution to the problem of individuality within the whole, although it clearly acts as a buffer against the very large institution, although the sub-group itself may demand its own loyalty and some abrogation of identity.

My third source is the sociologist Erving Goffman. His study of total institutions shows that behind the speculative thinking of Freud and beyond the evidence of large group study events reported by Turquet, institutions can be just as they describe. Goffman's research into total institutions may at first seem far removed from the church - after all, mental hospitals, prisons, merchant ships and the armed services appear to be nothing like the church; although we are alerted to the possibility of some parallels when we note that Goffman includes monasteries and convents in his study as further examples of total institutions.

The study, found in his book Asylums (1968) is extensive, and Goffman indicates that total institutions themselves differ in the way in which they demonstrate aspects of his analysis. Common to them all is an entry process which he calls 'mortification' which involves loss of self to the institution. While he acknowledges that this process can give rise to acute psychological stress for the individual, it also 'for an individual sick with his world or guilt-ridden in it . . . may bring psychological relief' (1968: 50-1). This confirms what my previous sources have suggested, that joining institutions involves some loss of self, but also extends the hope of benefits.

Having taken parts of the individual away, the total institution gives it back via a system of rewards and privileges bestowed for keeping the house rules. The individual is then grateful for the institution's generosity. The privilege system provides a framework for personal re-organisation. There are also punishments for not obeying the house rules. So for instance, people may be moved around or left to stay put in accordance with this system of rewards and punishment.

Within the mortifying process and privilege system the members of the institution employ different ‘tacks’, which have some similarity to behaviours in experimental large groups. There is what Goffman calls the tack of 'situational withdrawal' (1968: 61), withdrawing attention from everything except what is immediate and close. There is the tack of 'intransigence' (1968|:62), flagrantly refusing to co-operate, which can lead to an increase in the individual's morale, while others, even those most frustrated by the intransigence, can admire the individual's stand. There is more worrying tack of 'colonization' (1968: 62-3), whereby the state of the world outside is reckoned to be so bad that it becomes preferable to team up the total institution. Finally, there the tack of 'conversion', where the inmate takes over the staff view of him- or herself, and acts out of the role of the perfect inmate, and presents him or herself 'as someone who institutional enthusiasm is always at the disposal of the staff' (1968: 63).

None of these attempts to cope with the total institution achieve find that balance between being an individual and a corporate member which may be most desirable. Yet there is some hope: Goffman points out that there is also in total institutions a fraternalisation process

'through which socially distant persons find themselves developing mutual support and common counter-mores in opposition to a system that has forced them into intimacy and into a single, equalitarian community of fate. The new recruit frequently starts out with something like the staff's misconceptions of the character of the inmates; he comes to find that, most of his fellows have all the properties of ordinary, occasionally decent human beings worthy of sympathy and support. (.1968: 57).

This has some similarities to Turquet’s sub-groups, although it is not, I suggest, the formation of a sub-group against the total institution, but the personal recognition by one person, which needs the affirmation of being shared by and with others who have arrived at a similar position, that people or even the ways things are do not have to be as the institution says they are. It is similar to my own examples earlier of finding someone else who has arrived similarly circuitously at the same place, and sharing the relief and the pleasure at not being alone.

It is of course legitimate to question whether the ‘secular’ ministry is as much a part of a total institution as being in a religious community, and indeed whether either show the characteristics of total institutions which Goffman describes. Secular clergy are not, for example, resident in an institution, although in other respects they often depend upon the institution more than any other profession, because it is the institution which houses them, and provides them with the only work they can then afford to do. The nature of this relationship is that and makes it difficult for them to do much else. It is an institution which also seems at times to own the partner too, expecting them to be an unpaid assistant, and expecting much more of them too, in ways which are quite distinct from being the partner of a doctor or a teacher. You have only to ask the partner of a clergyman (as it usually is) to get the same feeling of being owned or even trapped by the church, making it feel similar to other total institutions.

The particular aspect which I find myself reacting to in the church is the way it acts like a total institution in inhibiting personal development, especially when it comes to the spiritual, intellectual and emotional quest. Why else is it that people find it difficult to share deeply personal things with each other? Perhaps it is because there are definite house rules, and if someone steps over them in public, the fear is that the total institution will either bring all its forces upon that person to make them conform, or will seek to isolate them as rapidly as possible. There are lines which a member of the church almost dares not step over, both intellectual and moral.

‘Almost’, I write, because some do, and find they survive, although others, such as the present author, find it more comfortable to challenge traditional lines from a position outside the church. I have no easy answers as to how to promote change in institutions, because by nature they are conservative. But what I do propose is viewing both faith and intellectual development as embracing a variety of ways of being and thinking. I summarize here ideas I have expressed at length in Living Illusions (SPCK 1983), now out of print, and in its revised edition Illusion (Whurr 2000). Since the church, as one presumes most institutions do, wishes to encourage its members to mature in their belief, it has to be prepared, as Winnicott says of parents wishing their children to grow, 'to deal with startling results' (1974: 168). One of those results may be to challenge tradition and to forge new ideas. Those ideas are not themselves the end of thinking, but other ways of describing experience and ideas, ‘illusions’ which serve for the time being, until they are replaced with new illusions, with ultimate truth being not only indescribable (requiring therefore metaphor and symbol) but to all intents and purposes unknowable.

What a joy it would be to have in the church a facilitating environment that encouraged exploration, seeing it as mapping different paths, rather than as leading to dissent. Instead of honestly sharing opinions, and finding a way to learn through diversity, the typical public response of the church suggests that deeply held views about theology, church order and politics are right or wrong not just intellectually but in a moral sense. Even when the church justifies the validity of doubt, it seems to be afraid of allowing it to be voiced.

The church also needs to spend less energy protecting itself, and those whom it believes will be offended, and more on encouraging individuals to look at the implications of their developing individuality for the institution in which they work. In other words, instead of saying: 'You must not do that, believe that, or be that', it could encourage them to pursue the consequences of their belief and action: 'I hear what you are saying. If it is important for you, it is potentially important for others as well. I invite you to relate what you are discovering in or about yourself, to your congregation, to the community in which you live, to the wider church and society as a whole. How can you develop your thinking and you action for the good of others as well, and in such a way as you can be heard?' In proposing such a response I do not envisage quick answers, or necessarily an easy dialogue. But what is important is that the encouragement is there to care for the growth of the wider community and institution as well.

To encourage such development is to encourage a closer co-operative relationship between individual and the corporate. It also supposes that type of relationship with others in the same position which Goffman describes as 'fraternalization' and which feminists describe as 'sisterhood'. Such an experience also seems to be described in the way in which Turquet's individual members, recognising other individual members in the large group can relate closely together despite the engulfing forces of the void, without becoming a sub-group set up against the total institution. Perhaps this is what Sea of Faith similarly aims to be.


De Board, R. (1978) The Psychoanalysis of Organizations. London: Tavistock.

Freud, S. (1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Penguin Freud Library, Volume 12.

Freud, 5. (1930) Civilization and Its Discontents. Penguin Freud Library, Volume 12.

Goffman, E. (1968) Asylums. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jacobs, M. (1983) Living Illusions: a Psychology of Belief. London: SPCK.

Jacobs, M. (2000) Illusion: a Psychodynamic Interpretation of Thinking and Belief. London: Whurr Publishers..

Kreeger, L. (ed) (1975) The Large Group: Dynamics and Therapy. London: Constable.

Roudinesco, E. (1990) Jacques Lacan and Co. London: Free Association Books.

Winnicott, D. W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock/Routledge.

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