The Church isn’t, at present, covering itself in glory. What must God be thinking of the church?
The Church is fast running the risk of being regarded as something far worse than an irrelevance, an out of date, out of touch, legacy of a past long gone. The Church is rapidly, in many ordinary, sane, logical and caring people’s eyes coming to be seen as a thoroughly corrupt and immoral body. That is the stark reality; the view of many interested observers. I am not referring here to the evangelical atheists, the sort of people who might be happy to use every church scandal as an opportunity to say ‘I told you so,’ but rather the sympathetic and persuadable outsiders, the sort of people who in some ways long for a sane and healthy church. These types, many of who are connected with the Church (of England) through serving as school governors, helping at fetes and coffee mornings, bell ringing or flower arranging are questioning whether the Church of England is a healthy brand. This week an ‘ordinary’ member of my congregation took the time and effort to talk to me about how unbelievably angry she is with the church. I am pleased that she did. I am pleased that she didn’t do what countless others have done over recent years and quietly drift away. Another example: a school governor asked me whether it might be possible to remove the words ‘Church of England’ from a school’s name.
The Church of England, like all churches, exists to spread the good news, to incarnate the gospel, to speak truth to power, to shine into the darkness. But, the problem is that we are, in many people’s eyes, becoming part of that very darkness. And, let’s be honest they have a point, don’t they?
One of the Church of England’s preoccupations is Renewal and Reform. Renewal and Reform is short-hand for growth, bums on seats, conversions, ‘becoming a growing church for all people and all places.’ Now please don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about growth both in terms of numbers and holiness but surely ‘renewal’ should also be concerned with the health of the body and its aggregate stock of virtue?
As an ordinary parish priest in an ordinary parish I am privileged to witness the amazing amount of good that ordinary people of good will do each and every day. But, the problem is that every time another scandal is reported, another cover up exposed, another example of the ‘purple circle’ looking first and foremost to the institution’s interests is revealed, the power of the extraordinary ordinary is diminished. And, it is in’t good enough. We have to do better, if we are serious about the gospel and being agents of Him who is genuinely good news.
Our ‘leadership’ seems to be obsessed with growth, but what it isn’t doing (at least not in a way that is obvious to me) is tending to the foundations and doing the really hard work of real ethical leadership. It seems that the Church of England has fallen prey to group think, a bland uniformity where ‘strategic growth’ is all that really matters.
As a priest and parent of two daughters who are a bit different, a bit other, I feel, if I am totally honest, in some ways slightly relieved that they are no longer church goers in their university cities. It shames me to say this but why would I want my vulnerable and cherished ones to be influenced by a culture that continues to celebrate alpha males above all others, and where disability and sexuality are sometimes considered to be the bitter fruits of ‘sins in the family (see John 9, 1-5), or where ‘I will pray for you,’ is in reality a statement of assumed superiority, or where ‘you haven’t prayed hard enough’ is a critique of both human identity and the depth of faith?
On what grounds could such a church possibly be good news to ‘all people?’ If Renewal and Reform is really serious about ‘all people in all places,’ then our theology and ecclesiology need to match the stated aspiration. If we dehumanize others through weak leadership, poor governance, and poor theology then we can only ever masquerade as good news. For sure we might get away with this for some time, but in the long-run we won’t.
If the Church of England is serious about Renewal and Reform maybe it should be spending far more time, effort, and money on the real work of renewal? For me this means focusing on the hard and nitty-gritty work of ethical leadership. What does a healthy church look like, what ‘theologies’ are we prepared to accommodate (for there must be some that we aren’t), and how do we get there are the questions posed by a serious commitment to renewal. Only when we have answered these questions can we begin to understand what form (or Reform) the church should take.
Maybe its time to put away the flip charts, marker pens, and post it notes, to stop creating strap-lines and mission statements and obsessing about vision, and instead to start digging deep, making sure that our foundations are sound, and our vital organs are healthy? Maybe we need to completely rethink the art of leadership in light of our current reality? Maybe we need more theologians and governors and less ‘visionaries’ if we are to get out of the mire we are now in?
Yes, we need to grow. Yes, mission and evangelism are our mandate, but first of all we need to attend to the health of the body. This is our most important leadership task. But, is it one we are really up for? One more thought on health: in the Church of England we are always asking people to be more generous with their giving. Like all organizations we are after what the marketing people call ‘share of wallet.’ Share of wallet is directly correlated to that most important of intangible values: trust. If people don’t trust us, if our own insiders don’t really trust us, then on what basis can we really expect them to contribute a significant proportion of their discretionary income? It is of course this income that in the longer-term, after the Renewal and Reform money has been invested, that funds both mission and ministry. As an institution the Church of England needs to generate goodwill and it can only do so if it is trusted. Trust, money, ministry, mission are all close relatives. If you doubt this just ask OXFAM.
My big fear for the Church of England is that we will continue to achieve short-term growth, but at the cost of long-term decline. An out-and-out growth strategy can mask all manner of ills. The Church of England is perfectly capable of doing a R.B.S, or Northern Rock. A fixation with growth alone will deliver short (maybe even medium) term ‘success,’ but that’s all it will achieve. I would also dare to suggest that an out and out growth strategy combined with really weak governance is an absolute recipe for institutional disaster. Growth strategies are capable, in the short-term, of covering all manner of ills but in the longer-term if the ills are not addressed and dealt with corporate Armageddon surely follows.
The Church of England needs to be the healthiest of all institutions, or bodies, if it wants to achieve long-term and sustainable ‘success’ and, more importantly, if it is to deliver on its gospel mandate: to be good news. We can’t afford to be behind the curve, we must instead always be ahead of the curve, always modelling best practice, always holding its senior leaders (bishops) to account for their ongoing pattern of decisions, always making sure the processes and procedures are in place to mitigate the corporate governance evils of moral hazard and group think. In the interests of transparency I ought to be clear and upfront: I don’t think that our standards of governance and stock of ethical leadership can rise without a fundamental change in the legal status of the office of bishop. We have to find ways of making sure that bishops (individually and collectively) are responsible and accountable to their peers and those who they are ‘called’ to serve. If we don’t, if we leave bishops with unchecked monarchical powers, if we continue to rely solely on formal disciplinary processes as the only form of check and balance, then we better hope and pray,for the sake of the church and her mission, that our bishops are undisputed paragons of virtue. Recent history indicates that bishops may be just as likely as any other form of senior leader to fall victim to moral hazards and group think.
For now we need to be honest. The Church of England is in a moral, ecclesial, and theological mess. It is in desperate need of internally orientated Renewal and Reform.
In the words of Jeffrey John:
Lord, do something about your Church.
It is so awful, its hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it. Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned: Hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical, respectable, comfortable, moralizing, compromising, clinging to its privileges and worldly securities. And, when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.
Lord we need your whip of cords. Judge us and cleanse us, challenge and change us, break us and remake us. Help us to be what you called us to be. Help us to embody you on earth. Help us to make you real down here, and feed your people bread instead of stones. And start with me. (Jeffrey John).