Another front has opened up in the internal conflicts of the Church of England in the last two or three years, bypassing the deep-set fissures over gender equality and human sexuality. With the quarrels over the ordination of women largely resolved – I don’t at all mean that there aren’t continuing disparities and concerns, nor that the Church has reached a contented equilibrium on this – the spotlight has fallen increasingly on human sexuality, and especially same-sex marriage and its recognition (or denial) amongst the clergy. I would have thought so much was obvious that it hardly needs to be stated. But from behind these more prominent issues has appeared a third matter, one of greater structural significance for the Church of England, a ghost of past controversies as well as a harbinger of likely forthcoming disputes and dissatisfactions. It is a strategic difference over the management of change, and particularly decline. One side appears to be convinced of the need for top-down, centrally-devised and imposed programmes of reform, all in the interest of driving growth. The other, in reaction, appears to be set on the dismemberment of much of the central apparatus, both at diocesan and national level, with initiative, responsibility and resources diverted back down to the parishes. At least, those are the positions you could infer from the rhetoric of some commentators on both sides when speaking about the other side.
There are various reasons why this division has come to the fore. The underlying cause is surely the long-term pressures of continuing numerical and financial decline in most regions of the Church of England. Whatever it may look like in a generation or two, the Church is almost certainly going to be substantially different ‘on the ground’ from what it is now. Medium-term factors are many. The review of the 2011 Mission and Pastoral Measure, currently before Synod, in an attempt to find more streamlined and yet creative ways of dealing with the need to use buildings more efficiently, has focused attention on the difficulties facing many parishes with small, declining or impoverished congregations. The older – though still working its way through implementation – proposals and implications of the ‘simplification’ process announced by the creation of a task force to that end in 2014 likewise has highlighted the apparent impediments to mission posed by the multiplicity of boards, bodies, processes and legislation overseeing the work of the Church of England centrally. The overarching framework of ‘Reform and Renewal’ has hitched church revival to institutional change. Impatience with the language of managerialism which seems to have accompanied many of these initiatives is growing. Impressionistic evidence in the form of conversations I’ve had over the years with clergy suggests that there is, amongst many clergy, confusion, some hurt and disillusionment over the implementation of the Green Report on senior leadership and ‘talent-spotting’.
But there was also a short-term ‘trigger’. John McGinley of New Wine’s clumsy use of the phrase ‘limiting factors’ (which appeared to include theological colleges, historic buildings and stipendiary clergy) when describing what he saw as some of the obstacles to the Church’s attempts to be more flexible in its operation and innovative in its forms of worship in July last year provoked immense shock and hurt. The ‘Save the Parish’ campaign, launched in the wake of that controversy, was an entirely natural reaction from those who feel that the central strategic direction of policy in the Church is increasingly detached from the real strengths – as well as weaknesses – of local churches. Last, but not least, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically intensified the pressures on local churches, cutting active congregation numbers, putting for a time vulnerable people beyond immediate pastoral reach, and reducing income. Despite the many innovative ways in which churches responded to this situation, the level of fear about what will be left when, finally, ‘normality’ returns is palpable in many village churches.
As ever, it’s much easier to identify the problem than it is to suggest viable solutions. One of the main reasons for that is that the Church of England, as a church aspiring to comprehensive national coverage, operates in many different contexts. So there is no one way of describing its difficulties, and therefore there is not going to be one way of combatting them. Closure of churches will remove part of the financial burden of heritage, but at the cost of losing even more people. Even greater reliance on non-stipendiary ordained and lay ministry will doubtless release new energy in some places – as it should – but the sheer variety of contexts in which the church finds itself, and the very nature of non-stipendiary ministry (mostly tying ministers to particular places of work and family settlement), will make the matching of human resources to need particularly complex. Yet in a Church with a dispersed model of authority, top-down, strategic programmes of reform and renewal lack traction at local level (incidentally, I think this is something not fully appreciated in the published IICSA material). No bishop can simply impose a diocese-wide programme. All dioceses face extraordinarily complex internal balancing acts just to keep their parishes going, and there are bewildering conundrums to be faced somehow – for example, prioritize the large, prosperous urban and suburban parishes which are most likely to be leaders of growth, or cream off resources from successful urban and suburban churches to prop up the shrinking churches in the countryside and in areas of urban deprivation? And of all this can be said without even taking into account the theological pluralism of the Church of England, which permits – even mandates – radically different approaches to ministry, pastoral provision, and authority.
But if I go back to the unhelpful polarity of centre versus locality into which the current controversy risks falling, it’s clear that the frustration many ordinary churchgoers as well as clergy feel with the Church’s leadership is playing itself out in a growing conviction that the whole direction of strategic, national church ‘management’ in the last several decades has taken a wrong turn. The difficulty with such a sweeping view is that it’s very easy to find – or rather, pick and mix – evidence to suit that argument. Almost all the nationwide initiatives aimed at revitalizing the Church, from Donald Coggan’s ‘Call to the nation’ (actually not much more than a broadcast) to the endorsement of Fresh Expressions and ‘Emerging Church’ have not really dented institutional contraction long-term, except perhaps in a few areas (and there patterns of migration have also played their part). Ambitious ecumenical projects can be written off as expensive luxuries. Often it seems that enormous time and effort is spent on proposals which ultimately make very little difference to the local life of the Church.
But is the answer simply forward to the past? I don’t think so. Though it’s tempting to criticize the costs of diocesan and national church offices, in practice these are mostly thinly-resourced positions at best, tasked with the role of co-ordination and developing consensus, rather than enforcing top-down change – the complexity of the Church of England’s structures simply precludes anything else. And what there has been of a tendency to co-ordinate and centralize policy in some areas over the last two hundred years has mostly been a necessary response to the legislative obstacles, entrenched interests and gross inequalities that hindered the Church’s ability to adapt to social and economic change. The slew of legislation effected through the newly-established Ecclesiastical Commissioners from the 1830s on lightened rather than increased the pressures bearing in on local churches. The creation of new parishes where necessary, better processes of recruitment, the equalization of stipends and the creation of professional standards, more effective training and education for clergy, formal inclusion of the laity in the newly-emergent synodical system, assistance with programmes for building much-needed new churches, these processes – which carried on well into the twentieth century, even until the 1950s – were achievements of national co-ordination, as well as episcopal reflection and action.
There’s undoubtedly scope for simplification and greater efficiency. Having seen successful examples of diocesan posts being tied to part-time parish positions, or to ‘house for duty’ arrangements, I don’t see why that shouldn’t become more widely adopted, if need be with some job-sharing too. It’s entirely understandable that people react badly to the invasion of managerial language in church circles, because it badly fits the authority systems and the ecclesiology of the Church of England. It’s also, often, remarkably tone deaf theologically and historically uninformed. So too with the promotion of one-word or one-phrase solutions to the Church’s ills. I’ve been in meetings in which the claim was made in all seriousness that Anglicans did nothing about ‘discipleship’ until recently – what do people think the Church was doing all those centuries, then, through catechizing, preaching, and educating? For myself, I’d love to see a ban from church discourse of a whole of litany of ghastly managerial linguistic corruptions, such as ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘going forward’, ‘strategize’, ‘monetize’ and so on. Increasingly, it seems, we lack confidence as a Church in our theology and in our own distinct values and culture.
Perhaps simplification could even extend to further democratization of church culture. I welcome the growing tendency of bishops to avoid the purple and wear clerical black. There’s an old, unresolved argument in historical ecclesiology about whether the episcopate is really an altogether separate order of ordained ministry, or rather a sort of sub-category, an intensification, of the priesthood. If we really believe that Christian ministry is fundamentally service, then the remaining accoutrements – I mean the cultural clothing – of the medieval hierarchy don’t have much justification. I don’t personally see strong justification for substantial stipend differentials – provided legitimate expenses are taken care of. We still haven’t worked out how to advance lay ministry consistently as a Church. Lay theological education shouldn’t be a very, very poor second to theological education for ordained ministry.
It is, however, another matter altogether to propose that the way forward for the Church of England lies in stripping away most national, central and diocesan offices functions, allowing initiative to remain at the local level. It’s a siren voice urging the Church to trust its parishes, but the problems of the past ought to make us more cautious. I can see real difficulties with this suggestion in at least six areas.
First, finance. Leaving aside – for a later instalment – the question of what to do about the burden of historic buildings, it’s surely obvious that to dismantle the mechanisms by which the national resources of the Church of England are made available for the whole Church, and disbursed (albeit often imperfectly) where need arises, will simply let the weak go to the wall. A great burden though the diocesan ‘quota’ or ‘fund’ system may be, it is the means by which the Church of England manages to hold on to a pan-national system of provision. This is not to defend all the decisions made by the Church Commissioners or by diocesan treasurers and board of finance. It’s simply, I think, to point out that there are massive disparities in wealth and privilege between the multiple contexts in which the Church operates, and a levelling-out mechanism is necessary for sheer survival.
A second area is safeguarding. Given my own recent experience, it may surprise some that I hold this up as an area where it would seem to me madness to dismantle what the Church, like other professions and public institutions, has put in place over the last twenty years. But I cannot imagine that it would be in any sense an advance to abandon the ambition of a national system of safeguarding, with national standards, professional safeguarding officers, and the independent safeguarding authority towards which we’re at last moving. The lesson of the recent past is surely precisely that on this matter it’s simply dangerous to countenance a return to a plethora of local authorities and approaches. Nor do I think the idea that this can all simply be left to the police holds up. There’s a close parallel here to the University world out of which I’ve come. Criminal matters are certainly the responsibility of the police alone, and must be referred to them. But there are many matters that either fall short of the criminal standard, or which cannot be proven to the criminal standard, which may nonetheless require disciplinary investigation.
Third, what about conservation? For most of the Church of England’s history this was hardly an issue. Churches were built, demolished, abandoned, extended, modified, updated, as clergy, patrons and rich benefactors wished. But the twentieth-century legislation has completely changed this, and introduced a level of complexity and constraint earlier generations could scarcely have imagined. It’s inconceivable that church buildings could simply be removed from this national legislative framework. And that means that parishes need professional advice and the mechanism for consideration and approval provided by the faculty process, as well as (sometimes) as due planning permission.
Another area – sometimes almost invisible, but hardly dispensable – is health and safety legislation. We might – frequently – moan about it, or satirize its seemingly absurd provisions (as in the arguments we had at King’s, Cambridge, about whether or not the BBC staff could use our ladders without fresh ladder training). But it’s a fact of life, and obviously churches throw up particular challenges which may well require diocesan or even national advice – the recent pandemic being a particularly good example – ensuring a consistency of approach, and providing parishes with relevant expertise that would in most cases not be available locally.
A fifth concern would be in the field of theological education, one of my pet causes. Without national expectations and standards, a system of inspection and validation, and the means to enable ordinands to fulfil their potential theologically by directing them as necessary to the appropriate course at the appropriate level, the Church of England would rapidly lose depth and flexibility in its ministry. I’m not sanguine about where we are even now (that’s something for another blog post some time). But it’s the combination of a network of semi-autonomous colleges and courses with national accountability (backed up by budget, officers, etc) that at least has helped to retain what we do still have as a church, with capable theologians as well as an attempt to maintain standards across the board.
Finally – at least for now – that leads on to a sixth area, ‘employment’. Alongside national financial systems providing set standards in housing, stipend and pension provision broadly across parishes and dioceses, we have diocesan offices and departments of mission and ministry considering how best to deploy the available clergy and lay ministers (given all the usual constraints), and advise on training and professional development. None of this is neat or tidy or perfectly efficient in operation. But it’s better than the alternative, which would seem to be falling back on something like a local ‘market’ for church employment. That would open up lots of space for older, familiar abuses to return – reliance on personal, informal influence, jobs for friends inequalities in employment prospects, and so on. I can’t see how any of that would be an improvement on the current situation. Removing the buffer of proper professional systems (again, I emphasize, not by any means perfect even at the moment) would also enable the inverse to flourish – the unexplained silences, the promises unfulfilled, the warm words lacking action, that all of us have probably encountered at some point in the Church of England. I dread the scope it would give for that characteristic Anglican habit of avoiding difficult or disappointing conversations by a combination of embarrassment, pity and fear.
Defending bureaucracy is never an easy or attractive task. But I don’t think I’m defending the indefensible here. National and diocesan church officers are an easy target, because they’re vulnerable to the obvious criticism that they don’t have to live with the consequences of their decisions and advice – not, at least, at the coalface, the implementation of policy in parishes. But thinking you can strip all this away, or massively slim it down, and somehow leave the Church of England in a healthier position to face its difficulties today is a fantasy, not unlike the fantasy that you can abolish all the managers in the NHS or in social services and divert the money saved to patient care.