In praise of Woodhead & Brown

Let me start by being up front. I don’t know Andrew Brown, but I do know Linda Woodhead, not well, but well enough to like and admire her.

Like her I am broadly progressive on matters relating to sexuality and, gender (disability and mental health are also biggies for me.) So, it’s a fair cop, I am bound, to some extent, to be supportive of the stance that Linda and Andrew take in ‘That Was The Church That Was.’ In the same way many who criticize Linda and Andrew are perhaps, to some extent, bound to do so.

Having said that I do worry that some of the character analysis that they offer will cloud the serious issues they raise and, the critique they offer. At times I do think it could have been toned down.

Linda is, of course, a sociologist and Andrew a journalist, so what you get in the book is an accessible, racy yet thoughtful page turner. My worry is that the thoughtful gets lost in the accessible and racy. My own academic background, (and practice – I have held ‘real jobs,’) prior to ordination, was in the management sciences.

As a management scientist, I agree with much of Linda’s sociological analysis. Like Linda I too think that the C of E has caught a bad case of popular managerialism, or Voodoo as our esteemed authors term it. The Church of England’s approach to management, and the modern-day obsession with leadership, seems to me, to be informed by the sort of books purchased by desperate executives looking for an edge in airport book shops just prior to take off. It is no coincidence that such outlets sell leadership and management books, as well as semi academic periodicals such as the Harvard Business Review, by the shed load. These books make you feel better for a time, and they prop up the anxious executive ego, but over the longer-term tend to be exposed for what they are; shallow.

Linda and Andrew provide a thirty year socio-historical survey of the Church of England. What their illustration shows, from a management science perspective, is an organisation / institution or body that could be regarded as existing in a state of ‘federated unity’, or ‘affiliated unity’ making (or trying to make) the transmission to an institution which prizes above all else centralized modes of planning and control in the search for what we might think of as ‘consolidated unity.’ Senior leaders have sought to extend this principle beyond the boundaries of the C of E into the global span of the Anglican Communion. The problem may be, despite our week-by-week allegiance, to the proposition that ‘we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ that consolidated unity is not, and never has been, part of the C of E’s DNA.

Ironically, I think that ++Justin knows this. Think back to his public uttering before the (in) famous Primate’s Conference, where he suggested that the Communion might need to re configure itself as a group of churches who all individually relate to Canterbury but, not necessarily to each other. (I still think that this is the only real future for the Anglican Communion).

The appointment of a an Adviser for Reconciliation is, perhaps, also indicative that he doesn’t believe, deep down, that ‘consolidated unity,’ is a real long-term possibility. The C of E and the Anglican Communion have historically arranged themselves as ‘affiliated entities,’ it is only over fairly recent history that they have sought any greater degree of alignment between the disparate parts, hence the need for reconfiguration, and return to the socio-historic norm.

However, ++Justin also comes from a background where centralized planning, leadership and management are highly prized. He is an interesting mix. It will be fascinating to see, under his leadership, where we end up. At present it appears that the desire for consolidated unity is winning out and that, federated and affiliated models of unity are regarded as second best. But, maybe in time they will come to be regarded as the real winning strategies, the best strategies given the  history of both the C of E and the Anglican Communion? Would such strategies render the Church any less episcopal? I don’t think so.

I would also suggest that if the likes of the Harvard Business Review, and thinkers who are unequivocally disciples of Michael Porter, doyen and very much the public face of both Harvard and the generic and planning school of management theory, have provided the stimulus for engaging with the management sciences then the current obsession with the highly planned and generic approaches to management, combined with a preference for decisive looking and authoritative leaders is, inevitable.

In the same way as the University of Chicago provided late twentieth century capitalism with its academic stimulus and subsequent endorsement the Harvard Business School has provided the academic credentials for those who believe that centralized planning, economies of scale and, generic off the shelf (global) strategies offer the best route into efficiency and, beyond into success. My fear is that the Church of England has bought these strategies hook, line and sinker. Their thumb print is all over reports such as Green and R&R.

Top down, generic strategies only really work, or stand a chance of working, in organizations where decision-making really is consolidated in the hands of senior management (or leadership) and where authority is virtually unquestioned. To work well it needs a tightly defined corporate culture which is maintained through the use of rewards and sanctions; carrots and sticks. Of course it is, theoretically, possible to seek to design (or redesign) an organization to support the chosen management style, but this most often ends up going badly wrong. Is this what the C of E is seeking to do, maybe?

Linda and Andrew make the following point in their final chapter:

‘The evangelicals achieved power and then showed they had no idea what to do with it.’

I only half agree; they did know what they wanted to do and the fruit of their doing is reports such as Green and R&R. I believe that these the reports, if implemented, will do untold damage to the C of E. Justin Welby, as quoted by Andrew and Linda, told his Bishops Council, whilst Bishop of Durham, that church decline appeared to him to be inevitable, without some radical changes, and that it could in the short-term be:

‘Camouflaged in pastoral reorganizing at diocesan level.’

Nevertheless he predicted that within seven to ten years the level of decline would have plummeted to such a level that recovery just wouldn’t be possible, without a range of radical, restorative, strategies.

The Church has chosen it strategies and my very great fear is that they are entirely the wrong ones. They look radical, tough, and uncompromising but are they in reality mere ‘camouflage?’ Are they the equivalent of taking a few aspirin when what’s need is open heart surgery? Is the Church of England’s response equal in its timidness to that provided by our political and economic leaders to the financial crisis of 2007-8?

Of course strong and decisive leaders will never admit to being timid.

My own view is that any attempts to refashion the Church into an entity that supports a chosen school of leadership and management theory has disaster writ large all over it. It will be disastrous both financially and institutionally. It will also cause real human damage. And, it won’t work. It won’t work because the C of E is at heart a federated and affiliated beast. And, it won’t work because centralized, generic and, planned strategies only work where power and authority is vested solely in the hands of a very few senior leaders. Conservatives might want power and authority to be vested in the few, but in the C of E it isn’t (for a start its synodical) and, nor should it be.

Linda and Andrew’s sociological analysis tells the story of the importance of women in the life of the church. From the grass-roots up is it women who have led the local church ‘in mission.’ Their analysis shows, in management terms, that the C of E has ,in  many ways, been led from the bottom up (by women).I would argue that across the piste this continues to be the case. Far more still needs to be done to support, recognise and enable women’s ministry. Our very life might just depend on it.

There are of course large ‘successful’ evangelical churches, frequently in university cities, where this is not the case. The trouble is that these forms of church are often depicted as ‘the model of success,’ to be mimicked and copied by all ‘struggling’ churches. Large, successful and ‘individually branded’ churches can, somewhat obviously, adopt a Harvardeseque approach to management and leadership, and to a large extent should do so. But, the folly is in assuming that what is right for an evangelical church in, say, London or Oxford is right for rural ministry in Cumbria, suburban ministry in the midlands conurbation or, market town ministry in Dorset.

One final consideration. The C of E in its desire to enhance and support local ministry and, in the recognition that congregations grow where there is focused leadership, has decided to increase the number of stipendiary clergy significantly over the next few years. Could this be a grave mistake and one with huge financial implications? Yes, the C of E needs to invest in focused leadership, but what does this mean? Does or should, it mean more clergy, all of whom are (theoretically) nationally deployable? Or could it, as Brown and Woodhead, suggest mean investing in local leadership (lay and ordained), in the sort of people who already have strong local knowledge and connections, who have the authority to speak for and to the community because they are already intimately connected with the community, because they are already known to care about and, yes love; their local community? This thought deserves a lot more thought. The C of E might, in fact, be able to make a substantial investment in mission at a vastly reduced cost.

My hope is that whatever anyone thinks about the way that Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead have critiqued the various characters involved in the leadership of the C of E over the last thirty years their analysis will be taken very seriously indeed. The long-term future of the C of E is at stake and, they may provide, uncomfortable as it might feel, the insights that allow the Church to make some good and brave decisions, before it really is too late.

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4 thoughts on “In praise of Woodhead & Brown

  1. The penultimate paragraph seems especially wise (I have not yet read the Brown-Woodhead book, although I have seen some somewhat unsympathetic reviews). We may well need more clergy (though that is arguable), but what we definitely do not need are more stipendiary clergy. If we are to have more stipendiary clergy then the clergy pension scheme must be made a defined contribution scheme to all new ordinands with, say, a matching 2-5% contribution from the Commissioners (and not the dioceses). Needless to say, given that a current pot of approximately £100k offers, at best £2-3k p/a at current rates (and probably less in the near future), that means DC clergy would have lamentably poor pensions.

    Yet what is the alternative? The current PAYG defined benefit scheme, however modest, is cripplingly unaffordable in current (and projected) conditions, especially if the funding basis for the scheme is likely to disappear in the very near future as the great majority of congregations either become extinct or shrivel to the point where they simply lack the critical mass to offer credible support for the purpose of maintaining stipendiary clergy. The Church ought not to be guiding candidates into a career where they might well end up in serious poverty because their pension scheme collapses under an increasing burden of claims relative to the money available to support those claims.

    If the authorities proceed with their remarkable [insane?] plan to ramp up the number of stipendiaries (assuming enough candidates of sufficient quality are there to be had), we face the prospect that many [ancient] churches might have to close so that the clergy who have served them in the past [however well, badly or indifferently] might live – assuming that a fire-sale of assets becomes necessary in order to meet past promises. Most surviving attendees would [far] rather retain their churches than stipendiary clergy.

    Moreover, if having significant numbers of clergy is the trick that will stem the remorseless decline, why did it not work in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when the profession was overwhelmingly stipendiary and there were relatively more clergy? The massive shrinkage in attendees is attributable to many factors, of which declining clergy numbers is arguably amongst the least important. The policy also suggests that the authorities are still looking at church life very largely through a clerical prism, which itself is perhaps one of the factors in the decline of the Church as a whole.

    Even the most obtuse and deluded bishops/archdeacons/diocesan secretaries/DBF secretaries must realise that almost all the dioceses are in deep straits after 18 years of accruals. Do they seriously believe that having more stipendiary clergy will help? If they do not, somebody really ought to be telling them to consider their positions. Here, I should add that it is time that the Commissioners resume a good deal of the responsibility for future accruals and recognise that the decision made by Synod in 1997 was a mistake.

    By all means have more clergy, but have SSMs. Yes, their demographic profile might often be sub-optimal, but in an epoch where almost all options are bad a problematic demographic should be the least of our worries. Moreover, it has been my experience (of many parishes) that SSMs and other categories of non-stipendiary clergy, readers and pastoral assistants provide just as much (and often more) value added than their stipendiary colleagues, and for a fraction of the cost. Indeed, I have come across several rather sad cases – less often more recently – where SSMs might well be able to contribute still more were they not ignored/emasculated/dictated to by their stipendiary superiors and made to feel like part of a secondary/reserve army of labour.

  2. Thanks for the post Andrew. On lay leadership I agree with you that a lot more thought is required. From my perspective there appear to be two issues of principle to tackle:

    1) Like other Diocese, (I suspect), Chelmsford says somebody needs to be licensed in some way to lead a non-Eucharistic service or to preach. But the reality down on the ground is that many people do both week in and out without being licensed and with the knowledge of the local priest. Without this approach services (and indeed fresh expressions of church) in many multi-parish groupings would be even less frequent;

    2) What are the theological, scriptural, traditional and “good order” arguments that still mean that only ordained priests can lead/offer Eucharist? (the situation suggested – I think – from the Chelmsford centre even if other Diocese choose to interpret the “rules” slightly differently.)

    Without at least debating these two issues of principle it seems to me that we are taking an approach that gives illusory control over both issues whilst often the reality is that the rules are “observed in the passing” by local priests.

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