The new Green Report, on training bishops and deans in the Church of England, has generated widespread interest. Friday’s Church Times described it, along with a critical appraisal by Martyn Percy. Thinking Anglicans has already listed eight more responses, all critical though sympathetic to the basic idea of improving the system.
Here is another! This is a personal comment from a retired priest who was never considered for a bishopric - which shows that the present system does get some things right.
I have no wish to keep things the way they are. As well as being a parish priest I also spent some years working in universities and have often wished the Church of England, or its dioceses, could have equally professional and well resourced Human Resources departments, Estates departments and Counselling departments. I agree that we need change, but this is not the change I have been hoping for.
What it says
The Green Report is 34 pages long and entitled ‘Talent management for future leaders and leadership development for bishops and deans’.
The most significant proposal is that future leaders – bishops, deans, archdeacons and various others – will be required to attend a training course at a university or business school before appointment. For this to be possible they have to be earmarked in advance, so a ‘talent pool’ of up to 150 people will be identified for training.
Most of the Report’s recommendations are quite specific and it is beyond my competence to judge them. What I offer here is a personal comment on the general approach. In which direction does the Green Report propose to move the Church?
The section ‘Principles and ambitions’ describes the general approach. It is illustrated by lots of biblical quotations, which I omit. The main points seem to be these:
The intention is to develop clergy of exceptional leadership potential… The Church must be more intentional about drawing in those with high potential who do not appear to “fit in”…
This will be possible because the Church has set in place a demanding and radical enough pattern of development for senior ordained leaders and their teams that they are better equipped to take risks for the Gospel…
We intend to form clergy who integrate and demonstrate strategic and spiritual gifts.
We are advocating the embrace of credible risk as an integral part of our adventure in Christ. We are proposing a radical step change in our development of leaders who can shape and articulate a compelling vision and who are skilled and robust enough to create spaces of safe uncertainty in which the Kingdom grows.
The section ‘Leadership characteristics for bishops and deans’ lists three main areas: contributing to the common good, re-shaping ministry and leading growth. Each is broken down into subheadings.
The proposed new training programme for bishops and deans
should not be run primarily by internal trainers or theological colleges. The evaluation found that these providers failed to provide sufficient challenge for a senior Church cohort. The core provider will be changed to a major university or business school (e.g. Cambridge, INSEAD, London Business School, Cass/City University).
Why has the Report received so much criticism? To me, there are three pervasive weaknesses.
It centralises decision-making power. Granted that it is only about bishops and deans, so it focuses on the top of the hierarchy; but we shall have a new bureaucracy on top of them. As Martyn Percy points out , the ‘talent pool’ will be chosen by ‘a handful of executive managers’, who with this power will ‘have determined the vocation of the Church, its strategic priorities, its goals, and, to some extent, its identity’.
To centralise power in a small number of people means to disempower others. I presume that the disempowered will primarily be the House of Bishops and General Synod. Neither has functioned at all well lately, especially over women bishops; but before we make power changes we should reflect carefully on who should make decisions and how they should be accountable.
It goes further. The Report is clear that the point of having bishops and deans who are effective leaders is that they will be more hands-on at running things. There is a clear implication that parish clergy will not be left to get on with their ministry on their own.
I was ordained in 1976, but I spent my childhood in vicarages and I have seen the long process of de-skilling parish clergy over the decades. More and more, parish clergy are to do what diocesan committees and bishops want them to do. This reduces their ability to focus on the parish and its distinctive needs and opportunities. A different kind of person fits the role, a person who expects to be told what to do. Line management. This Report, when implemented, will take the trend further.
All this echoes changes in society. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, power as well as wealth accumulates at the top. The voice of the Report is the voice of people at the top. Like the Government, they associate with other top people and all they know about the bottom comes from the statistics they commission. The Church of England is about to buy into it just as the political opinion polls register a massive reaction against it.
I would have preferred to move in the opposite direction: to make the structure of the Church of England more egalitarian and let as many decisions as possible get made at local level. Top people do not like it because it takes away their control. Bottom people usually prefer not to be controlled.
The Report’s language combines the stuff of management courses with the Church’s anxieties about numbers. The most visible emphasis is on growth. Talented clergy are clergy who produce growth.
Again, this echoes changes in British society. As we have become a more top-down society everybody is subjected to targets. The targets are imposed from above. The person at the bottom of the pile, whether police officer, teacher, nurse or social worker, has to juggle doing the job with filling in endless forms to show whether they are meeting their targets.
Governments like to impose targets because they can use the statistics to claim success rates. This is based on the hopelessly unrealistic principle that everything that matters can be measured. The Church has even less justification for being sucked into this system. Some parishes are not going to grow, whoever is the vicar. Some grow because the laity do not like the vicar of the next parish along. Some decline for reasons nothing to do with the ministry: a factory closes, people move away. If parish clergy are to be judged by growth, their most important decision will be to choose their parish carefully.
The obsession with growth is counter-productive. My worst times as a parish priest were when I was worrying about declining numbers. It was then that I failed to provide the spiritual support my parishioners needed, and instead looked for them to give me a different kind of support. People may be attracted to churches with a message ‘We have spiritual resources which can help you.’ Nobody is attracted to a church whose main message is ‘Help! We need your support!’
This target culture becomes all the more worrying when one realises that the Report has been produced by a leading banker. According to Richard Murphy ,
Stephen Green is a CoE minister, former UK trade minister but more importantly, was the chair of HSBC at the time that it undertook acts relating to tax evasion in Switzerland (where he was chair of its private bank, so cannot avoid responsibility) for which it has been fined billions of pounds and now faces prosecution in a number of countries.
I have no other source for this information so I cannot vouch for it, but this is the territory we are in. The Report’s references to the need to take risks inevitably remind us of the 2008 financial crash, caused by bankers taking risks. The Government responded by borrowing money to give to the banks, and the current Austerity programme is the result. If Church leaders take risks that lead to disaster, there will be no taxpayer bailout.
The Church and the Kingdom
The first of the ‘leadership characteristics’ is ‘contributing to the common good’, under which the first subheading is ‘speaks the Gospel clearly and effectively into the public square’. This is the passage I like best:
Currently, the Church of England influences for good the lives of many thousands of children and young people through church schools and organized youth work, thus proclaiming visibly that every child matters to God. On the other hand, the experience of some bishops is that the cost of taking a stand on some subjects and the failure to take a sufficient stand on others has led to young people seeing the leadership of the Church, if not the Church itself, as toxic. This is a potential threat as well as a challenge.
Recent conversations with those who reflect on and participate in our political life suggest that there is emerging an opportunity for senior leaders in the Church to be innovative and to initiate new forms of social and political capital. This will involve being daring enough to open conversations which politicians fear to start on their own. The evidence for this is already present in the positive response to the language of Archbishops Justin and Sentamu and Pope Francis with respect to widening inequalities and the challenge to build more communitarian models of authority and transparency.
I was pleased to see this because it addresses a weak point. We have recently had a succession of disasters, with church leaders making themselves unnecessarily unpopular by combining to oppose a variety of popular changes, most notably gay marriages. To some extent they have redeemed themselves by speaking out on behalf of the poor and pointing to the church-run food banks.
However I think there is an institutional problem here which the Report does not address. Bishops are expected to care for their clergy, manage their dioceses and articulate Christianity in public.
Nobody is good at doing all these. The same person cannot offer pastoral support for a parish priest in a difficult parish while at the same time being the person who judges the priest unworthy of a different post. Bishops have found how difficult it is to express their views on women priests and gay marriages in the public sphere without losing support from those who disagree.
The more concern they express about increasing impoverishment, the greater is the danger of losing financial support from wealthy people who disagree. The keener they are on growth for its own sake, the more careful they must be to keep their opinions to themselves.
Realistically, there is a tension between incompatible role expectations. The Report, far from resolving the tension, emphasises the managerial role to the point where the other roles will disappear, despite the lip service paid to them. We will no longer have scholar bishops, evangelist bishops, pastor bishops, prophet bishops. All bishops will be managers.
What’s the alternative?
The biblical text which, to my mind, sums up the Report is one it failed to quote: 1 Samuel 8:11-18:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves.
My preference would be to decentralise rather than centralise: take away most of the top layers but make sure all clergy are well enough trained that they can be trusted to get on with the job. All target-setting should be done by groups of people who know each other and will be personally involved in achieving them; targets should never be imposed by people who do not know what it is like to work towards them. Growth should be judged not by national bureaucrats reading statistics, but by local communities who can judge for themselves what would constitute growth and whether they are achieving it.