Efficiency and resilience in the Church of England

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.

7 thoughts on “Efficiency and resilience in the Church of England

  1. Sam, regarding your last point about sitting lightly to the possibility of the C of E being saved – surely this is the only attitude consistent with the NT. in NT terms, the C of E does not exist. The singular noun ‘church’ (ekklesia) is never used in the NT to describe a national entity. It is used either for a local congregation, or for the universal church. Our usage is purely our own invention. In this respect our Pentecostal friends here in Canada are more faithful to NT usage than we are. Their denomination is called ‘The Pentecostal Assemblies (note plural) of Canada’. Since ‘assembly’ is the normal Pentecostal word for ‘ekklesai’, this is faithful speech; we would be following it if our own denomination was called ‘The Anglican Churches of Canada’.

  2. Well said, sir. Part of the reality of so many resources and possibilities is squelched regularly when we look only to immediately effecient and usable resources. In this season of Easter, as we read through the Acts of the Apostles, one wonders if there would even be a church if the faithful of that generation had sought only effeciency. Appreciative inquiry can help here, although I have seen it used only for effeciency even if it doesn’t actually fit that model well. God seems to be calling us to a horizon so grand and undefinable right now. And the Church will either step out in faith and die to be born again, or it will fitfully fade into the sunset.

  3. Thank you Sam. I’ve been thinking about organisational cultures whilst reflecting on the Covenant debates. I’m almost at the point of thinking that the defining issue at the moment is a lack of efficiency. Corporate business structures carry no moral scruple about being prepared to excise the unprofitable. The theology we’re missing is perhaps one of sacrifice. If God told me to give up my church and my belief in order to save it, could I?

  4. Some statistics:

    The C of E has lost 50% of its congregations and 80% of its baptisms in the last 40 years. The Anglicans and the Methodists are the fastest declining churches in England. Confirmations have fallen by 76% and paid clergy numbers by 27% in the last 30 years, while the number of open churches has fallen by only 5%. Over the last 30 to 40 years, as far as I am aware, there has been no reduction in the number of bishops. There may even be have been an increase. Based on where the resources go, the main interest of the Church of England appears to be the preservation of ancient buildings and the bosses’ jobs, together with their admin teams, palaces, chauffeurs and so on.

    These figures are typical of a top heavy, poorly managed, over centralised organisation, similar to the old nationalised British Airways or British Steel. Just as the breakup of the nationalised industries in the 80’s had the effect of revitalising British business (e.g. Ryanair and Easyjet brought flying within the range the masses), so the breakup of the C of E would contribute towards the much longed for revival.

    In Channel 4’s 2011 series, “Civilization – Is the West History?”, Niall Ferguson (admittedly an atheist) said: “Ask yourself what is the single biggest difference between religion in America and religion in Europe. I think the answer is that the Reformation in Europe ended up being nationalised, and the result was the creation of state monopoly churches, like the Church of England. But here in the United States, they maintained the separation of church and state, and the result was competition between multiple churches. And that may be the real reason for the strange death of religion in Europe. In religion, as in business, state monopolies are inefficient.”

    The Anglican church is evidently not efficient, even if the target were to be defined, Japanese style, as an increase in market share.

    Is it resilient? I doubt it. You say “a resilient system is one that is able to bounce back from a shock, drawing on previously unexploited resources”. Well, the only “unexploited resources” in a financial sense are investments and buildings – and, based on the information above, there seems to be no enthusiasm for selling or closing them to increase resources for more clergy.

    You say “a bad tree will bear bad fruit” – true, and a good tree will bear good fruit. Why not leave the churches to manage their own affairs, and allow the good trees to bear more good fruit and the bad trees to wither and die?

    In my view, the hierarchy of the Church of England are, perhaps unintentionally, the enemy of Christ’s Church in England, at least as far as numbers go. We need a grass roots movement of non-cooperation with them.

    Will it happen? Probably not. Regrettably, most neither care about nor understand the issues. It used to be said that the purpose of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, post war, was to manage the orderly decline of Britain’s influence in the world. Substitute F&C with “Bishops” and Britain with “Christianity”.

    Very, very, sad.

  5. David – that’s very interesting (where do you get the early figures from?) I am particularly taken by your comment “We need a grass roots movement of non-cooperation with them” – that is really resonating with me.

  6. Sam,
    I confess that I read the statistics in the first sentence of the first paragraph “somewhere on the net”. I cannot find the precise location again, but
    points to a reduction in attendances over 40 years from 1,542,000 to about 800,000, or 49%.

    The statistics in the second sentence of the first paragraph are from a website you yourself have quoted, David Keen’s “Opinionated Vicar”, 7 November 2011, with the percentages added together in what I hope was a mathematically correct way. All over the thirty year period 1980 to 2010:
    Baptisms -43 %
    Confirmations -76 %
    Stipendiary Clergy -27 %
    Churches open -5 %
    Church giving 112 %
    Adult attendance -30 %
    Child attendance -45 %
    Total attendance -32 %
    Total attendance per stipendiary -7 %
    Total attendance per open church -28 %

    It is worth noting that giving has probably fallen in real terms per person, as inflation over the 30 year period was over 250%. Furthermore, the rising population over the period means that the C of E’s position is even worse as a proportion of the English population.

    A source of free church statistics is http://www.whychurch.org.uk. I also need to look into the sources mentioned on David Keen’s blog on 14 January 2008.

    However, it looks like I was overly generous in my original comment about bishops not being cut in the third sentence of the first paragraph. Surfing the net for stats, I came across this, which covers a longer period than 30 to 40 years:

    “Considering how the Church has shrunk in active membership since World War II, the Church is overloaded with bishops (1900:31 diocesans, 26 suffragans, 24,000 clergy; 2007: 44 diocesans, 69 suffragans, 9,000 clergy), there being an urgent need to reduce the number of bishops and cull several dioceses.” (http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/print.php?storyid=14666).

    The rest of the article is interesting too, although I do not agree with all of it and his stats appear overly optimistic.

    There are some signs of some action in the merging of three Yorkshire dioceses, but astonishingly, there are to be no compulsory redundancies of diocesan staff or officers within two years of a new diocese coming into existence. So the good Anglicans of Yorkshire will pay for exceptional employment protection terms in their local dioceses, whilst many in the pews are losing their jobs under much tougher conditions. Ho hum.

    As for a grass roots movement of non-cooperation, it all depends on publicity. I truly believe that many Anglicans, irrespective of their churchmanship, would behave differently if they realised how inept their dioceses were. This isn’t, in this case, about evangelical / liberal / catholic disputes, women bishops, gay marriage, rock music or choral recitals, jeans or robes. It is about managerial competence and possibly democracy. Sorry Sam, but I believe in the importance of good management!

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