Martyn Percy

At last weekend’s conference about John Robinson’s Honest to God, Martyn Percy gave a lecture on ‘Being honest about the Church’. It was a powerful challenge to church authorities, all the more impressive coming from the principal of a leading theological college.

Martyn is in close touch with the priorities and concerns of the Church of England’s leadership. He argued that church leaders spend too much time talking about evangelism and organisation and not enough about God. 35 of the 42 dioceses in the Church of England have straplines. The most common word in these straplines is ‘transform’. ‘Jesus’ and ‘love’ do not occur at all!

Martyn introduced us to the theoretical difference between institutions and organisations. Organisations are free to adapt: for example, Nokia started off selling rubber products. All that matters is profit. Institutions on the other hand have responsibilities irrespective of popularity. They are a product of social needs. When the going is tough organisations can decide to do something completely different; institutions have to keep plodding on.

On this account the Church, he argued, is more institution than organisation. Inevitably there are lean times when the need is to keep faithful despite the signs of decline. However the trend in leadership thinking is away from institutional leadership and towards organisational management. The emphasis is on measurable growth: for example the Turnbull Report thought parishes were suffering from inefficient clergy and looked for ways to increase their efficiency.  Management becomes the servant of growth. What, though, can measurable growth mean about spirituality? Treating churches as organisations crushes people’s sense of vocation.

In any case, Martyn argued, it is counter-productive. The Economist has complained that the Church often defends the welfare state, but gets ignored because what people hear is the usual defences of it: the Church needs to offer a more distinctive message, rooted in its Christian faith.

This made me think of Rowan Williams’ term of office as Archbishop of Canterbury. Widely perceived as a leftie inclined to defend the welfare state anyway, whenever he made a statement of this type he was quoted, praised and rubbished by the usual suspects. What he didn’t do – or at least, wasn’t reported to have done – was to explain, in terms the mass media could understand, the connection between his concern for the welfare state and his Christian faith. Maybe the connection didn’t seem so important before the 2008 crash. Today it’s clear that we need alternative big pictures, accounts of reality which transcend economicspeke and judge the current situation from the perspective of a wider theory of what life is about. This is something that both Christianity and Islam can offer.

Martyn presented a strong plea for less talk about organisation and management, more talk about God. Amen to that. Here are a couple of nuggets I liked:

‘Theology should be rooted in the hospitality of God. The biggest problem in theology is coping with the abundance of God.’
‘We don’t own the truth. The truth owns us.’