This is a line of thought prompted by the conversation about the structure of the Church of England (see Andrew Brown’s article here). One of the key concepts in ecological thinking is the contrast between efficiency and resilience. An efficient system (or ecology) is one in which each resource is being utilised to the greatest possible extent. In contrast, a resilient system is one in which there are areas of under-utilised resource which stand the system in good stead when there is a particular crisis leading to a lack of availability of resources more generally. In other words, when a crisis comes, a resilient system is one that is able to bounce back from a shock, drawing on previously unexploited resources. An efficient system is more vulnerable to such shocks because it lacks those unexploited resources – it is like glass, robust in normal use but likely to shatter if those normal conditions depart.
The free market, of course, worships efficiency – that is, efficiency, obtaining the most value from a particular resource, is the structuring value around which economic activity orients itself. This can be seen quite explicitly in economic and business text books which use concepts like ‘return on investment’ to guide choices. If a company is able to become more efficient then that means it is able to generate a higher financial return for its shareholders (or more profit for the owners). Now there are questions here about different national cultures – for example, my understanding of the zaibatsu model in Japan (and the equivalents elsewhere) are that other values than simple efficiency can be employed by a company to guide their choices, eg long term growth of market share.
Be that as it may, the quest for efficiency is a hallmark of the particularly Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, and it is this which governs the business culture in our own country. It is also this which guides the culture of managerialism, which brings me to the point I want to make about the Church of England. I hope that it is clear that structuring our activities in order to make them more efficient is not necessarily of God. After all, one way of understanding efficiency is to see it as claiming that nothing must be gratuitous, all must ‘earn their way’ – and of course, that is in profound contrast to an understanding of the nature of God which sees God as overflowing in abundance and generosity towards the creation. Historically, the Church of England has been a very inefficient but very resilient system, reflecting the diverse historical origins of the different elements within it – parish churches, cathedrals, university foundations, and so on. One might say that the inheritance of the Church of England is one that has emphasised the importance of the local and the different, the queer and the inefficient. This, I feel, is part of the glory of the CofE – that it is capacious and tolerant; one might say, all manner of folk can find a fold of her skirts in which to hide and thrive.
It is this that was understood to be at stake with the Covenant process – a fruit of a search for efficiency if ever there was one. After all, one of the concomitant passions of the drive for efficiency is the drive for clarity (the distinguishing of the brand over and against other brands) and the drive for effective managerial control (in order that the activities are congruent with the values of the people in charge). I am delighted that the Covenant process has been checked, at least for now, but the underlying pursuit of efficiency is still present, and that entails that other bitter fruits will be forthcoming. (A small example is the fuss about fees – see Justin Lewis-Anthony’s article here; it cannot be separated from the George Herbert process either.) Digging down into the spirituality of this approach we have a desire to control the outcome, which is based upon a fear that all that seems to be going wrong will continue to go wrong, which is based in turn upon a loss of trust that God is the one in charge and able to redeem whatever we do in order that his purposes are accomplished. In other words, what we see in the Church’s pursuit of efficiency is evidence that we have forgotten what it means to believe in God, and so we grab at the latest glittering fix on offer from the world – at just the time when the world is changing in the opposite direction! After all, belief in God is something that is worked out in practice, not simply in the privacy of one’s own opinions and thoughts – a bad tree will bear bad fruit, and this is what we are seeing. None of this is to say that efficiency, on its own, is a bad thing – it is to insist that any efficiencies sought have to be placed into the context of the other values held by the organisation. We are to be more like the zaibatsu than Goldman Sachs.
The Church of England will only be saved by those who are not consumed with conviction about how to save it, and who sit lightly at the prospect of the Church of England not being saved – simply because they are utterly committed to the sovereignty of the living God, and they trust in His provision, rather than our own choices. Our future is going to be one that is local and catholic, not corporate and monotone. It is the desire that is wrong here, not any particular outcome, and we won’t get anywhere until we give that desire a proper theological interrogation. Whether the theological resources of the Church are actually up to that task is, sadly, an open question at this present time.