shepherds and office worker

On 16th December I put up a blog post about the Green Report on church leaders, and found I was one of many unhappy with it.

Having thought about it a bit longer what disturbs me most is the managementspeke: the appeal to a culture diametrically opposed to Luke’s story of Christmas.

As we celebrate, with all our carols and Christmas cards depicting the baby Jesus in the manger, it is easy to miss the message of the gospels. Neyrey’s The Social World of Luke-Acts tells us that at the time the countryside ‘approached a state of endemic warfare’:

Shepherds invariably kept flocks belonging to others; the enmity between them and settled villagers arose because mobile flocks were a grave danger to the sown fields and shepherds were careless of others’ fields (p. 172).

So shepherds were notorious troublemakers. Why, then, did Luke tell us that shepherds were the people to whom the angels sang ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all’?

Read the rest of Luke’s gospel and the answer becomes clear. This birth narrative functions as a trailer, a prelude that indicates the kind of life Jesus was to have. Jesus was the defender of not just the poor but the despised poor, the outcasts. These are the people who, after his death, created the movement we now know as Christianity.

The Green Report comes from the opposite direction. Its agenda is that of a chief executive officer who chooses the most ruthless, ‘talented’ people to drive through change from the top. They are to take risks and stand up to opposition in the name of growth.

Pete Wilcox has defended it against the Church Times description, which was especially influential as the Report itself was not at first publicly available. If he had written the Report it would probably have sounded more palatable. Nevertheless, the Report itself reveals a mindset.

It is not the first time senior clergy in the Church of England have been seen as the people at the top making all the big decisions. In the eighteenth century they represented the political establishment and the upper classes. They became a professional priesthood in the nineteenth century, especially under the influence of the Tractarians. I was brought up in an Anglo-Catholic vicarage where bishops were to be addressed ‘My Lord’ and their rings were to be kissed.

There were democratising moves, notably the creation of Parochial Church Councils in the 1920s and General Synod in the 1960s. Both gave elected lay people a say in decision-making.

We now seem to be moving back to a more authoritarian structure. Admittedly the Green Report does not say as much, but its language and concepts are only too familiar. Over the last 20 or 30 years management schools and departments of business studies have multiplied all over the UK. Many in paid employment – I suspect the overwhelming majority – have had responsibility taken away from them as the line management and box-ticking culture has become ubiquitous.

The underlying assumption is that organisations can be more effective if the people at the top are trained in efficient management techniques. In a large company the people making the big decisions need an overview of how well all the bits are doing. To get their overview, they must have reliable statistics. The people at the bottom must fill in lots of forms.

Inevitably, most of what goes on at the bottom does not appear in the statistics. The employees who do a bit extra for someone in need will not be valued by their managers unless there was a relevant box to tick.

Characteristically, wherever this model operates the people at the top overestimate how much they know. In possession of the statistics, they do not see all the additional acts of kindness and unkindness, all the improvisations, all the ways to meet the targets without performing the intended actions.

If the authority of those at the top is to be justified by either sacramental grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit or managerial training, I’m not sure I’d go for the managerial training, useful though it no doubt is. But I am not convinced by either.

If you want to know who will solve our problems, what kind of person might have the ‘talent’, how to unlock the strongest forces to set in motion change for the better, Luke got it right with his story of the shepherds at the manger.