The word institution has at least two very different meanings.
It is something that we have established and which we may respect and value – a constitution, an organisation or even a habit – like forms of politeness. While such institutions may vary in their social purpose and moral impact they are essentially good. They are the means by which we connect, act together and sustain meaning within and between generations.
As Charles Williams puts it, “An Institution is the nurse of souls.”
Without institutions (in this positive sense) our community would be a desert. We would have to make everything anew and we would have no traditions or systems for handing on knowledge, experience and wisdom.
As these large institutions closed and people moved back in to ‘community’ there were many improvements – but often the institution remained. The institution seemed to follow people back into the community. People found that they were still not free, still could not connect, still could not contribute.
It turns out institutions can be large, but they can also be very small. Institutions can be far away, but they can also be next door. Institutions can be very obvious, but they can also be hidden. Community care – as it was called – was successful to the degree that it supported people to be citizens, to really participate in community. Sadly, for many, de-instutionalisation has only only meant closing down a crumbling hospital on the edge of town and transporting people into special units and day centres.