The egg-shaped pod hummed briefly and then slid smoothly to a halt. We had no sooner started, it seemed, than we stopped again. The door slid open with its quiet hiss.
We were on the outskirts of Oxford. Opposite us was an ancient church which, like the church in my village, now appeared to be some form of residence. Either that or the congregation had decided to add a conservatory to the south aisle and dig a swimming pool in the graveyard.
“Oh yes,”said Helen.“That one went 15 years ago. Funnily enough its owned by the chairman of the company who were responsible for your... well... your unfortunate ‘accident ’.” “Yes,I ’ve been meaning to talk to you about that ...” I said.. “Haven ’t got time now,” said Helen, rather too hurriedly for my liking. “Anyway - I want to show you this.” She pointed past me to the opposite side of the road from the tiny ex-church. There stood a large red-brick building. Although some new buildings had sprung up around it, and although there were huge, misty-coloured glass windows and what looked like a massive, circular solar panel on the roof, I recognised it. “This is the diocesan church house, isn’t it?” I asked .. “Was,” replied Helen. “It was church house” “You mean they’ve moved?” “I mean, they’ve disappeared. I suppose technically there is still a diocese,” she said. “I mean no-one ’s ever disbanded it, but it ’s all a bit meaningless now. How can you have a diocese if there are no churches in it?”
I looked up at the big building. On the side, I could just make out a pattern of light-coloured bricks. They had once formed the shape of a cross, but now the shape was covered up by a great big sign saying ‘Panergistic Management Inc. Radical Organisational Solutions for Today’s World.’ “What about all the people who used to work here?” I asked. “Are they all gone? Has all the hierarchy disappeared? You know, what about all those bishops and archbishops? I can ’t believe they’ve all given up.” “No, not all of them,” Helen replied. “The Archbishop of Canterbury is still around.” “I thought so,” I said, smugly. “I ’ll bet he ’s still living in Lambeth Palace.” “Not exactly,”she said. She pointed across the road to a small, nondescript, semi-detached house. “In fact he lives over there. Shall we go and visit?”
A few moments later I was sitting in an armchair and the last Archbishop of Canterbury was handing me a biscuit. He was a small, middle-aged man, dressed in a tatty old pair of jeans and what looked like some kind of silver cardigan, which pulsated with light. Under the high-tech exterior, however, I could see the age old uniform of a dog collar and clerical shirt. “It ’s more of an honorary title nowadays, you know,” he said, while an automatic teapot dispensed three cups of tea. “A bit like the Sheriff of Nottingham or the Warden of the Cinque Ports. We share it about among ourselves. It ’s my turn this year. Next year I think it ’s going to be Doris’s go.”
“Doris?” I asked.. “The Bishop of Liverpool,” he replied. “Nice lady. Still runs a church.” “There are still churches about?” “Of course there are still some churches!” he exclaimed. “There were 27 at the last count.” He absent-mindedly stirred his tea with his pencil. “We are not, it has to be admitted, as big a denomination as we once were.” “You ’re hardly a denomination at all,” I said. “More like a very spread-out housegroup.” “Well, we still keep the structures going,” said the Archbishop, with a sigh, “albeit in a scaled-down size. We had a very successful General Synod last month. We held it in the back room of the ‘Rose and Crown’ in Tooting. And of course, worldwide the Anglican church is still going strong. Just here.”
He sipped his tea. “It ’s a bit like football, really. We invented it, but everyone else seems to do it better than us.” “But what happened?” I asked.
“Where did we go so wrong?” He looked at me, and for the first time there was real sadness in his eyes. “I think it was in the reign of Queen Victoria,” he said..
“You see,” he continued, “most of our church structures belong to a different age.They belong to an age of hierarchy and order, of distinction between classes. They were created in the middle ages and refined in the Victorian era and that was it. All the major denominations had a system which was built around the idea of bosses and workers. There were branch managers - the vicars and ministers; regional managers in the form of superintendents or bishops - and then of course the senior management, in the form of the archbishops, general secretaries, and all those kind of people. It was a system that served us well for centuries. And then something happened: society changed.
“There was a general distrust of authority and an increased demand for personal involvement in decision-making. People didn’t want vast, cumbersome, traditional structures. They wanted flexible, responsive organisations. A major impetus in society in the late 20th century was to push decision making downward, to give people more control over their lives at a local level. Businesses in the new millennium were quick to realise this.
They saw that,in order to stay in the game, they had to diversify and decentralize. They had to split into smaller units, which could offer more flexibility and quicker decision making. ‘Management ’was pushed more and more out to the edges, with management ’s real role being to provide the resources to let those at the cutting edge get on with the job. It was the main thrust of politics with devolved government and decentralisation in the education and health services. Even the monarchy was urged to be more modern and flexible.”
“But we had a problem. The structure of our denominations - be they Baptist, Anglican, Methodist or whatever - was a product of the Victorian age. Now the Victorians built structures to last.” He paused. “The problem was, they didn’t build structures to change.” “So what happened?” “Nothing. Nothing happened.”
He smiled, but it was not a smile of joy. “And what is more,it happened slowly. You see, you have to understand the way that most denominations worked. Denominations had become bureaucracies - and in a bureaucracy it is more important that everyone perform to the same level than that some excel. So people were appointed to senior posts because of their loyalty or their political skills or because they had spent their career playing by the rules. They were not people who could lead the church to growth. They didn’t, to be honest, know how to do anything new. Only how to keep things the same. “But that ’s the way with that kind of structure. Structures which rely on traditional structures are run by traditional people. Create committees and conferences and you will find them filled with the kind of people who like attending committees and conferences. And they, to put it bluntly, are the last people you want to be creating dynamic organisations. I used to go to General Synods or Denominational Conferences,” he said, “and look around me and wonder where the young people were. And then I realised that they all had better things to do.”
I sipped my tea. It tasted of plastic. In fact, I realised, everything I had tasted since I had been flung into the future, tasted of plastic. “But it wasn ’t only the meetings that put people off,” I said. “Surely it was the very idea of denominations themselves. I went to a Baptist church for most of my life and then became an Anglican without hardly noticing it. It simply wasn’t an issue for me.” He looked at me quizzically. “You don ’t look old enough,” he said.. “I ’m young for my age.”
He shrugged. “Well,of course,you are right. Fewer people bothered about whether they went to an Anglican or a Baptist church, only whether their church was alive or dead. But even so, we did nothing to diminish the sense that we were irrelevant. We still put out this air of being too much part of the establishment.” “So what could you have done differently?” “We should have marketed ourselves a lot better for a start,” he said, with sudden energy. “I mean, it ’s not as if we weren't doing good things. There were urban initiatives, training schemes, mission programmes. And say what you like about the parish system, but it at least kept churches in the inner cities. We kept churches there when all of the bigger, newer, trendier churches moved out to the suburbs.”
He paused. “But we weren’t any good at telling people about it, or challenging them to be involved. What the Anglican church, in particular, needed at the beginning of the new millennium was a complete shake-up, a total restructuring of the way the denomination worked.” He shrugged. “Didn ’t get it, of course. There were too many people in there who liked the whole archaic system with its chain of command and its career structure and the endless committees and debates.” He lifted his hands in exasperation as if the struggle was still going on in front of him.
“We should have learned from the businesses!” he exclaimed. “Decentralize. Give authority to those who can use it best. Above all, resource the churches. We should have concentrated on providing them with the right tools to do the job.” “You mean money?” “I mean people.”He looked at me steadily.“All organisational structures find their natural expression in people. Dynamic, exciting structures are populated by dynamic, exciting workers.
We provided churches with leaders who were too content to operate within the old structures. Indeed, who were products of the old structures. Leaders who could talk but not listen. Leaders who were trained to be everything to everybody and in the end became nothing very much to nobody in particular. Ministers and Pastors who were forced to keep the old, crumbling structures going and who, in the end, tended to disappear up their own committees. They had been trained in the classical model, where they were in charge of the church by virtue of the position they held, but what was needed were real leaders - people who could develop gifts, spot potential and build networks; leaders who could lead by example, rather than by appointment. Leaders who could create their own accountability structures at a local level. Because it was no good looking for management or accountability to rural deans or canons or bishops or area superintendents. Those days were gone.” He paused.
“I ’ll show you something,”he said. He reached across to a large box of some sort of lightweight plastic. He opened the box and took out, from layers of soft padding, a gorgeous, glowing bishop’s mitre. In the dark room, the gilded material seemed to glow with an inner light; so that it appeared to me not like a hat but as a kind of lamp, shining in the gloom. “There was a time,” he said, “when wearing this meant something. When the people listened to what the wearer had to say. But we took their attention for granted, and we thought more about the hat than the person who wore it.” He paused and smiled. “It would be nice to wear it again. But nowadays, I fear, it would be little more than fancy dress.” He cradled the mitre in his arms and, for the first time, he seemed what he was; a tired old man. And,as night fell, we sat there in silence, while he held a symbol that no-one understood any more, and I looked on a lamp where the light was slowly going out.
- Does my church have structures that help or hinder its mission? Do our church structures empower people?
- Are we building teams or just making committees?
- Do we appoint ‘safe’ people to posts? Does our appointment system reward good behaviour or give people the chance to shine?
- How are decisions taken in the church? Are they fast and efficient, or does everything take ages?
- What do we want out of our denomina-tion now? What resources could it be providing?