I wonder how many readers of this article have heard of Open Source software? This is software for which the underlying programming code is publicly available and open to general use. Linux is a good example – it is a computer operating system run on open source lines, and does the same job as Windows, the product made by Microsoft. Due to the advantages that open source has over Windows, Linux, and software derived from Linux, now makes the digital world go round – it powers 8 out of 10 servers, which are what enable the internet to function.
One of the key advantages of Linux is that it avoids what is called ‘bloatware’ which is when a program becomes bigger and bigger over time – and takes up more and more room on your hard drive – and then slows down your computer, which becomes more and more prone to crashing. Bloatware means that the processing power of your computer is expended on inessential tasks. Microsoft filled Windows with bloatware because they thought that more features made their products more attractive, and they wanted to make more money. The Microsoft way is of a managerialism seeking to control everything from the centre, whereas the open source way is all about letting go of a desire to control the outcomes. It is purely about the process. Simply put, in the great majority of contexts, open source software is better than closed source software – it fosters co-operation and creativity and it is more reliable and more secure.
My question is: might it be possible for the Church of England to learn something from this? Might we be able to establish an ‘open source Anglicanism’? If we take the equivalent to the software code as ‘the gospel as the Church of England has received it’ then it is the job of those in the line of apostolic succession to spread that code and nothing else. The apostolic task is to teach the truth of the gospel, and to guard it against error, against heresy. This guarding doesn’t have to be done by an inquisition, it can be done simply by guarding boundaries – and the mechanism for this is already in place, it’s called a Bishop’s license. Everything else is ultimately disposable.
That means letting go of the fears which drive the need to control the outcomes – it’s a spiritual undertaking that can only be carried forward when we let go of our fears and properly learn to love God and trust the Holy Spirit. Everything else runs in the direction of ecclesiastical bloatware, and the Church of England has been suffocating for decades beneath that bloat, giving rise to tragedy and fiasco in equal measure. It is why our numbers have collapsed; it is why if we don’t change what we are doing, we will cease to exist within the next generation or so.
Open source Anglicanism doesn’t do anything other than teach the gospel as the Church of England has received it; or, to be clear, open source Anglicanism allows a very great many things to be done under the umbrella of Anglicanism, but they are not done by central direction, management and control. They are simply what are done by enthusiastic and faithful Anglicans in their own place and time.
So there are no central initiatives. There is simply a central teaching resource, embodied in the Diocesan Bishop and continually renewed, so that the gospel is proclaimed afresh in each generation. How that is done is then left to those who have the license in their own context. There is a minimal central organisation. The Bishop has a small staff of administrative and legal support, but concentrates on teaching the faith and enabling those who share in the cure of souls to conduct that task – so pastor to the pastors.
As for the clergy, once they are ordained and licensed, they have independence within that framework. Incumbency drives out priesthood – so let’s not have any clergy incumbents, and give all the legal control over parishes to the laity. Why on earth is it the business of a priest to decide what wording goes on a gravestone? Let priests be required to minister word and sacrament – and let anything else that they do be up to them. Let the stipend return to truly being a stipend!
Open source Anglicanism – in which the role of the officers of the church is to share the gospel by word and sacrament, and almost nothing else – is really a return to how the church started. All the essential things about Anglicanism, the Lambeth quadrilateral, these remain untouched – but all that has accumulated around those essentials is let go of. So often I feel that as a Church we have forgotten our core purpose, and we spend all our energies scratching around for more or less suitable substitutes, which, funnily enough, regularly follow the fashions of the day. We have forgotten that we are supposed to focus on the gospel, so we end up focussing on myriad other things, and we do them very badly, and the outside world looks on us with bemusement and contempt. We wrestle with the inertia of our inherited habits, and we don’t give ourselves the time to dig deep and ask who or what our present practices are actually serving.
If the Church of England is to pull out of its terminal descent it will only do so if it remembers how to trust the Holy Spirit, and recognises that the gospel itself is inherently contagious. We need to overcome the inertia of our inherited institutional imperatives – the blockage of ecclesiastical bloat. This is where we’re going to end up anyway, so why not co-operate with what God is bringing about? I passionately believe in the Gospel as the Church of England has received it, so why not try Open Source Anglicanism? Let’s set the gospel free.
(A more fully worked out description of what I was originally mulling over here)