15 After breakfast Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered, ‘you know that I love you.’ ‘Then feed my lambs,’ he said.
John 21:15 – Revised English Bible
There are times when I think that if the leaders of the Church of England were talking to St Peter in the story I’ve quoted above from John 15, their answer would have been: ‘Then make sure you complete the Diocesan return on time; fill out our spreadsheet; make sure you are complying with all relevant legislation; confirm what you are doing to meet the latest Diocesan initiative…..’, instead of simply:
‘Feed my lambs’.
In my last blog, I presented some numbers to suggest that the Church of England may well be facing an existential threat, not from COVID alone, but with COVID acting as the ‘hair that breaks the camel’s back’. The roots of the current challenge go back many years, not just to March 2020, albeit I’m not alone in thinking that the Church’s response to COVID has been (and continues to be) disastrous.
I cannot look at the current challenge for the Church of England without thinking about my own commercial and industrial experience. For many years I gained the (unenviable) reputation of being a ‘Company Doctor’. I was trained to believe that when the situation was existential, there was no part of the organisation that should be ‘exempt’ from the pain that’s always involved in addressing such challenging situations. It’s essential that senior levels, where the painful decisions are made, step forward with enthusiasm to show that they’re in the same boat as everyone else. When I look at the Church of England, what I see is the exact reverse. As a current example, the Bishop in the area in which I live has recently announced that he will be retiring in April. At more or less the same time, it was announced that it was hoped that a replacement could be appointed quickly. If there was any consideration about merging our Diocese (one of the smallest in the Church) into neighbouring ones to save costs, then it has certainly not been visible. I was used to a ‘new recruitment moratorium’ being imposed, when serious threats were so clear. Instead, the individual parishes in my Diocese have been told to produce plans to reduce their costs by 20%, whereas it seems as if ‘Head Office’ will be carrying on as normal, or even adding new posts.
I’d also have been looking to see whether it was possible to reduce ‘layers’ of management. In one company that I ran, I removed a whole layer of management, and to everyone’s amazement, the change was scarcely felt six months later; if anything decision making became easier and communications quicker. Have a look at the hierarchy of the ordained positions only in the Church of England; it’s quite scary:
Archbishops, Diocesan Bishops, Suffragan Bishops, Cathedral Deans, Archdeacons, Area Deans, Canons, Rectors, Priests-in-Charge, Self-Supporting Ministers and Curates.
I know of no commercial organisation that has such an incredible plethora of managerial titles (I’m not suggesting that all the above are separate layers, but there are 7 at the very least, discounting Church Wardens and Lay Ministers).
Where to start with this? I’d be inclined to start by asking these questions:
- What qualities do you need to be a good priest?
- Why do some people still want to become priests?
The answers may seem obvious, but in my opinion the best answer lies around the old-fashioned phrase: ‘The cure of souls’; priests have to have a passion for this and the necessary aptitude for it. I’ve seen some hair-raising definitions of the ‘cure of souls’ over the years, but my own interpretation is that the person so charged takes responsibility for the spiritual, pastoral and sacramental care and well-being of people who live in the parish (not just the church-goers) as well as being able to encourage and inspire others in their faith.
We could all easily write a personality profile for those who would meet this requirement. We have also, all of us, met some priests in our lives who are ideally suited to this challenge. In my own experience, such people exude a kind of individual spirituality that makes them almost translucent. It’s not easy to describe, but it’s instantly recognisable. And it’s becoming increasingly rare.
If you can picture such people in your mind, now ask yourself how naturally good they would be at managing Health & Safety, Church Admin, IT, Church buildings issues, and the raft of other things that a modern priest is required to manage?
And yet, the Church seems intent on trying to recruit managerial types, which may be why we’re now in a situation when so few priests can see anything wrong with shutting their churches and offering ‘Zoom church’. The Church seems intent on becoming a poor, out-of-date reflection of what Corporations were 40 years ago. I’ve even heard people say: ‘If you’re not good at something, then it’s good for your soul to try to develop those abilities’. I spent my entire career doing the exact opposite – trying to find round pegs to fit round holes and square pegs to fit square holes. I genuinely believe that the Church is trying to find the impossible – deeply spiritual, pastoral people who are also good at management.
I’m also not a fan of ‘The Priesthood of all believers’. I’m nervous about anything that sets priests up on a pedestal (such as describing priests as ‘holy’ or ‘apostolic’), I’m far keener on the concept of ‘Sinful people ministering to other sinful people’. But Lay Ministers, as I was trained to be, should have their own totally distinct role, not be ‘alternative priests’, thus allowing priests to focus on their computers and admin, leaving parishioners often feeling unvisited and unloved. I’m not saying this is the norm, but it is becoming more common and it’s adding to the challenges faced by the Church. I wonder if the Church hierarchy ever get out to talk to the ‘people in the pews’? I fear they’re becoming ever more remote and disconnected from their congregations. It’s a real tragedy.
So, I think the right model for the future is to allow the priests to get on and focus on what they do best (or should be able to do best, else they should not be selected) and the managerial roles should not, repeat not be dealt with by priests, but by others who have the necessary skills. This might be achieved by dismantling the Diocesan boundaries and having effective teams made up of lay people only, who focus on the managerial tasks on a regional basis, as many companies do.
Anything else is trying to ram square pegs into round holes, and there’s ample evidence that this model has been tried for many decades, is not working and is certainly not sustainable in the face of falling congregations and now the additional threat of the legacy of COVID. How many parishes will be able to meet their ‘Parish Share’ (financial contribution to central coffers) when the dust settles on COVID?
Heavenly Father, we thank you for those who’ve dedicated their lives to serving others pastorally and spiritually; guide those who are responsible for them to free them to ‘feed your lambs’. Amen
Post Script: I continue to find the ‘Irreverendpodcast’ an inspiration and I commend it to you. This week, the phrase about lockdown that hit me between the eyes was this:
“To actively inflict certain damage upon human beings is much worse than allowing human beings to be endangered by potential damage”.