Speaking of culture; speaking of church

‘We need a change in culture.’ A phrase, sentiment, or some version thereof, oft expressed at last week’s General Synod.

Now, to a large extent, I happen to agree the church does need to undergo a cultural change, but the problem is that I don’t really know what this might mean in practice.

I am not sure that in a famously diverse church a single mono all surrounding culture, a culture that each and every church, up and down the land, is either capable of, or content to, inhabit and express, is feasible. I am not sure that some, perhaps many, churches and para church organisations would even find it desirable and acceptable, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty.

For that’s the thing about cultures: they only become meaningful when they inhabited and expressed.

The problem for the Church of England is that for centuries different types of church have belonged to it differently. Now you could argue that this difference is definitive of our culture, but what you would also need to acknowledge, if you take this stance, is that the Church of England has a ‘weak and affiliative culture,’ rather than a ‘strong and binding culture.’

So, when we talk of cultural change the first question that needs to be asked is what sort of culture is it possible for the Church of England, and her churches, to inhabit: a weak and affiliative culture or a strong and binding culture? This is an essentially managerial (and in the church ecclesial) question; the ‘first order’ question.

It is also important to remember when we talk of culture – especially corporate culture – that culture is a consequential expression of organisational design, beliefs, and assumptions. The greater the diversity of belief and practice built into and accommodated within the whole, the ‘weaker’ and ‘less binding,’ but more ‘open’ the culture. And the reverse is also true: the narrower the range of beliefs and practices accepted within the whole the stronger, more binding, but less open the culture. Culture, it is important to remember, is a consequence of design.

In straightforward terms all this means is that a cultural change must be built on and follow on from changes in assumption and belief. Culture is for sure expressed through language, rituals, symbols, artefacts, and procedures, but trying to change the ‘expression’ without first changing the systemic beliefs, assumptions, and practices, is to put the cart before the horse: credos must always, and necessarily, precede ethos.

So when we talk of cultural change could it just be that we really mean is doctrinal change? Or even organisational and structural change? Or, could it mean, or imply, that what we are really hoping for is a change in tone without doing the far harder work of challenging our assumptions, beliefs, and practices at every level as the precursor to cultural change?

I too want to see a change in culture. The problem is that in a famously diverse church, one which operates a a loose federation, and where in many cases different groups operate as franchisees, I am not sure that an all defining, centrally managed, culture is really possible, or desirable.

But the bigger problem is that changing the culture (as distinct from branding the product) will necessitate a change in beliefs, assumptions, structure, and language: doctrine, ecclesiology, and liturgy in other words.

Are we up for it? I really am not sure.

Can a change in culture take place separate in isolation to prior doctrinal, ecclesiological, and liturgical changes? No, not really.

Culture is the consequence of and not the catalyst for change.

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