The dying of a church is not a management problem

Prompted by the conversation over at David Keen’s blog, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Tiller Report’ – “A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry” by John Tiller, then Chief Secretary to ACCM, which was published in 1983. The Tiller report was, itself, building and moving on from a previous ‘Paul Report’ from 1967, which covered similar ground. It makes depressing reading. All the issues that are currently being discussed (eg how to cope with a reduction in clergy numbers) are identified in Tiller, and all the same solutions are advocated – empowering the laity, distributing responsibilities, making the Deaneries the focus of mission and so on. I have this dark vision of another report being written in 30 years time, describing our present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the CofE rolling on with only 4,500 clergy.

This is not to say that I disagree with what Tiller wrote – or with what is now being advocated, eg through Transforming Presence. It is simply to say that, if these managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. In my view, the fact that identifying these problems and outlining solutions has been done so competently suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. The root of our problems does not lie in technocratic incompetence – prevalent though that is – but deeper. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.

This can be seen most clearly in the present debacle concerning whether or not to have women bishops, and how that might be carried forward. Manifestly, at this point in time, there is no single understanding to which all give consent; therefore there is fragmentation and each party simply seeks to advance its own interests. The discussion is not being carried forward as between brothers and sisters in the faith, but in the manner of opposing and mutually despising political parties. There is, in short, a spiritual collapse which has this faction fighting as a consequence. The debates that are taking place in Synod, and more broadly, seem indistinguishable from the political struggles that we are familiar with in Parliament. How can we get sufficient numbers to drive through our agenda? How can we get sufficient numbers to prevent the enemy faction from succeeding?

The trouble is that we do not have a culture in which these events can be described honestly. The hierarchy simply colludes with a culture of concealment (despite the fact the the world outside is full of small children pointing out the nakedness of the emperors) – because lip service has to be paid to the Christian virtues, even when those virtues are not embodied. Let me explain what I mean.

When the initial vote to approve women priests was made in 1992, it was only enabled to happen through a political compromise. In essence, those who were opposed to the ordination of women were assured that this was to be a ‘trial’ – that there would be a ‘period of reception’ during which the Church would come to a view about whether it was in fact the right thing to do – and that in the meantime, those who were opposed to the measure would not be forced to act against their conscience, and their views would continue to be respected. Notoriously, the language was of their being ‘two integrities’ possible within the Church of England. This political fix enabled just enough people in the ‘middle’ to switch sides and pass the measure. Since that time, it would be fair to say that the opposition to the ordination of women has only hardened amongst those who were originally opposed – and, similarly, it has been affirmed and embraced enthusiastically by those who were originally in favour. In other words, the division that was present in 1992 has, through the adoption of crude political methods, become heavily entrenched. Such spiritual camaraderie as was present in 1992 has now mostly evaporated, and we are in an even more emaciated spiritual condition than before.

This is the context within which the women bishops debate is taking place. Those who were in favour of women’s ministry before can now point to twenty years of experience and say ‘see?’ Those who were against, however, can now say ‘you have not kept your promises, we have not been respected, we have instead been persecuted, scorned and scapegoated, why should we start to trust you now?’ In this context, to say ‘we have to rely on our common Christian grace to get by’ is radically inadequate and dishonest. It is a pretence built upon a failure to own up to sub-Christian behaviour. The continued repudiation and moral opprobrium heaped upon those opposed to women’s ministry does nobody any credit, most especially when proper theological reflection gets substituted out in favour of a shallow acceptance of the secular language of justice and rights.

If our church had any spiritual strength it would – before exploring the question about women bishops – close the conversation about the ‘period of reception’ with which this experiment with the ordination of women began. It would come to an honest decision, once and for all, as to whether the decision in 1992 is to be affirmed or rejected (or, perhaps, agree to defer that decision). It would have that discussion in full and honest and open acceptance of the consequences. That is – given that the church is not going to repudiate the ministry of getting on for half of its clergy – it will have to say ‘we are not going to have the ecclesiastical abomination of flying bishops any more’. It will have to say to those opposed ‘this is the decision that the church has reached, this is the integrity of the Church of England now’ – and it would then have to act as charitably as possible to care for those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result. There are creative ways to do that – but those creative and charitable possibilities cannot be explored in a situation of systematic abuse and bad faith.

Put simply, the church needs to live up to its words; not the high-flown language of spiritual aspiration and love, but the workmanlike words of the 1992 resolutions. The Church actually has to grow up and take what it has done seriously, not continue to indulge in a politically convenient forgetting that advances the agenda of one part at the expense of another. Until we have this honesty – and the patience to pursue the path of honesty wherever it might take us – we will never get anywhere.

Which brings me back to management. Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in?

I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this.

I write this as a supporter of the ordination of women, and the eventual opening up of the episcopacy to women. It’s just that the gulf between what the church thinks to be important – and the vituperative way in which this is proceeding – and what I believe to be important feels very wide. Christian progress does not proceed across the graves of our baptised brothers and sisters.

15 thoughts on “The dying of a church is not a management problem

  1. A very thoughtful and insightful piece, Sam. I do think that there is a spiritual malaise about the CofE and I have been disappointed that there is so much factionalism around. I sometimes wonder how so many are seemingly able to be so certain that their interpretation of the truth is the right one.

    “Since that time, it would be fair to say that the opposition to the ordination of women has only hardened amongst those who were originally opposed – and, similarly, it has been affirmed and embraced enthusiastically by those who were originally in favour.”

    I wonder just how many there have been who, like me, were originally dismayed at the 1992 Synod vote, yet have come to believe subsequently that it was the right thing. After all, we prayed for God’s will to be done. Approaching this from a (then conservative) evangelical perspective I now have a very different understanding of the New Testament texts from what I had then. So much so that when I went for my ordination training I became aware how different a male-only environment for that would have been and how odd I would have found it.

    I do understand that those coming from a Catholic perspective will have different issues. Yet we seem to have lost John’s description of Jesus the Word of God as “full of grace and truth.” The grace bit is as important as the truth and if we don’t have the former then our “truth” is simply a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. When we speak with and react to others it doesn’t go amiss to tell ourselves that, however right we might believe we are, “I could be wrong.”

  2. Thanks for this, it’s a good summary of where we are at. I particularly like the idea of going back to the 1992 agreement (which was way before my, and a lot of my colleagues, time) and affirm the the CofE now affirms women’s ordination, which necessarily includes the episcopate. Then we can have a conversation about what that means, instead of continuing to have the conversation that preceded 1992.

    Good luck with that, though.

  3. Amen. Amen. Amen. Will anyone listen? Your last post and this one chime with my experience. I am grateful to you for putting it so eloquently. I fear no one who needs to is actually listening.

  4. thought provoking as ever sam .. my thoughts for what they are worth

    1) london diocese alone seems to buck the declining trend – is it the HTB effect or the ethnic church growth fact?

    2)if the c of e membership keeps getting older as now then eventually we won’t be ….

    3) … and maybe the c of e’s time has passed

    4) and whilst all this decline in no’s (yes i know its not everything but ..) continues

    5) why is the no. of bishops steadily increasing?

  5. Thanks for this piece. For me it raises three key questions:

    1. What are the spiritual and cultural reasons that Tiller failed? I don’t think it is because management is not an issue–but that resistance to clarity is rooted in vested interests, and so is in itself a spiritual issue. I think I see the same in the way many respond to e.g. Bob Jackson’s more recent comments.

    2. I don’t think you are correct in saying that the ‘period of reception’ was about ‘seeing whether we get used to this experiment’. I think this is a widespread misconception. The C of E had decided as long ago as the 1970s that there was ‘no theological objection to women’s ministry’. The ‘period of reception’ was supposed to be a transitional period to get used to what was intended to be permanent change.

    3. Yes, this is a matter of truth. But how can this be decided with spending time with the texts of scripture on this matter? There is still a real deficit in understanding and discussion of key biblical texts, both on this question and on the question of same sex unions, and I think the blame for this in part lies in the dilution of theological education over the last 30 years.

  6. Thank you for this post. I think there are a couple more reasons for the church’s decline hinted at here, though.

    First, I don’t think we should be at all dismissive of the “secular language of justice and rights”. People often forget that with every right that is asserted, a duty is also created in others. Many Christians seem to think that the language of “rights” plumbs the depths of amorality; but in wider society, rights and duties express a basic morality which is in my view deeply in tune with gospel values. Basic social and political rights, for example, guarantee equality and fairness of treatment under the law and in the workplace. It is important to recognise that such laws simultaneously create duties in all others in society to treat others with equality and fairness. Particularly given how far off the church is from realising these values itself, we patronise the “secular language of justice and rights” at our peril.

    Second, I sympathise with “I might be wrong” as an expression of humility towards others in a debate. But too often we reify “I might be wrong” as if it were the heart of the gospel, and sacrifice true gospel values at the altar of moral relativism and self-doubt. Evading self-righteousness need not mean complete moral impoverishment, or indulging the injustices of others. I wonder whether we would ever have been rid of the slave trade, for example, if those campaigners (many of them Christians) told themselves too often that “I might be wrong”.

    As you rightly point out, there are moments of decision and discernment that every organisation and society must simply face up to every once in a while. The Church of England’s medicine of equivocation is at risk of killing the patient. In recent times I have often thought of 2 Cor 1:19: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.””


  7. Thanks for all the comments – this is something I threw up on Facebook in response to +Alan’s link: “Erika, my problem with the rhetoric is not that I think it is wrong to pursue justice, or that I think justice is not a gospel value, it is that it is being used (by many, not all) without any sense of the political reality. That is, the question has to always be asked ‘whose justice’? There are two aspects to this. The first is that the feeling of betrayal felt by those opposed to women’s ordination is not reducible to misogyny, and I believe that the over-ready resort to that epithet is part of the spiritual poverty that is the root problem. The second is that I believe we do have to exercise some sacred suspicion around questions of ‘justice’, ‘rights’ and ‘discrimination’ – because such language can be readily misused (do I have to reference examples?) It’s not that I think we can get to a non-political process, rather that I think we should be honest that this is what is going on – and hope that such an honest admission might allow for more charity and fellowship. It seems to me that both sides are seeking an outcome which disfellowships the other – that is what is at stake – and being clear about that might paradoxically allow for a more spirit-led solution.”

  8. @Sam: thanks for the reply. I guess I’d just say that I don’t think “justice”, “rights” and “discrimination” need any special suspicion; all language is open to abuse — theological language too.

    The test of language use is the reasoning behind it. We can only identify the misuse of words like “justice” and “rights” because we already have an idea of what the proper use of that term is (however contested that idea might be). I’d like to see the church being a bit more kerygmatic about its own vision of justice and rights rather than shunning the concepts because they are thought to be secular. We often come across as thinking ourselves above secular morality, while perpetrating injustices that, in the words of Alan Wilson, would no longer be acceptable in a branch of Marks and Spencer.

  9. “those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result”

    Surely that should be “those who have rendered themselves spiritually homeless as a result”?

    It’s a choice.

  10. Sam

    Thank you for yet another spot on most which I agree with entirely (well mostly, but the disagreement is on side issues)

    I think the moment at which I reached my deepest nadir of despair was when on television I saw a protest group (in this instance comprising women), outside a synod meeting, waving placards and shouting slogans. Firstly, it is a disgrace to the church for our laundry to be hung out in public this way. It hardly tells the world about the love of Christ. Secondly, it’s not the way to do theology. We need to read the scriptures and pray, not shout at each other. OK, occasionally we need to be jogged out of complacency – but not like that. And thirdly, because of my first two points, the people protesting and demanding access to ordination and episcopacy in my view exclude themselves – i.e. demosntrate their inadequacy for the task – from those roles by their own behaviour.

    Like you I support women’s ordination at all levels, but think that as a church we have gone about it the wrong way. Like you I believe that the opposing view is theological not mysogenistic.

    I suppose I’m not 100% on side with you that we should just say to them we’ve made a decision, so vote with your feet. I think Dave Paisley’s comment above is seriously wrong. I know how I would feel if I was one of them, I recognise their love of God and his of them, and I have no right to enforce my views on them, and I think flying bishops are the solution. And if there were less shouting and less demanding of ‘me and my rights’ and more love, women would find this acceptable.

  11. Dave Paisley says, “it’s a choice”.

    That’s a rather strange point of view. As Terry Eagleton points out in one of his books, we don’t generally experience ourselves as having ‘chosen’ our views; it feels more like they have chosen us. We’ve thought and prayed, and the right answer to the issue in question seems to have taken hold of us. Yes, yes with more thought and prayer and openness we can hopefully continue to revise our opinions, but it’s not just a simple choice.

  12. As ever Sam a good challenge but I’m not sure I agree with you on this:
    ‘I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission’

    I prefer St Paul’s words from 1 Cor 2:4 and 5
    ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.’

    Perhaps a little less ‘cleverness’ and more of God’s power is what is needed to reverse the decline

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