Ivan Illich

At the moment the Labour Party is sounding very much like the Church of England. Failure, disappointment. What have we been doing wrong? How can we turn the tables and grow again? Leading figures say Miliband was too left wing or not left wing enough: in other words, he isn’t a clone of whoever is speaking.

The Church of England’s leadership has been saying this kind of thing pretty consistently for fifty years. In order to stop the decline in the numbers of churchgoers we need to accept the changing moral standards without being judgemental, or uphold Christian principles against this degenerate age. We need more of the old hymns, or more of the new ones. We need to stop all this change for change’s sake, or give up those boring old services.

A few months ago a string of reports proposed significant changes. The main decision was to spend some of the Church’s capital to increase the number of clergy. You can think of it as a decisive new initiative. Alternatively, since the overwhelming majority of the Church’s resources are already devoted to parish clergy, you can think it is flogging a dying horse.

In a recent article about the Labour Party Zoe Williams wrote:

Why couldn’t they make any joint progressive case with the SNP? Why couldn’t they cooperate with the Greens the tiniest amount? Because it was never about the vision, it was only about the party.

The classic commentator on this kind of development was Ivan Illich , a priest who wrote a string of short books in the 1970s. He wrote about education, technology, transport, energy, medicine and employment. In each case he told the same story. There was a need. People were employed to meet the need. To meet it as well as possible the employees developed a a profession and an institution to work in. Over time the institution changed. Meeting the original need became less important, while meeting the needs of the professionals became more important.

This is what Williams is saying about the Labour Party. So also with the Church of England: one cannot help suspecting that the vision is about maintaining the institution, rather than the institution being about maintaining the vision.

Here there is a contrast between the two institutions. There has already been much debate about what the Labour Party should stand for. But compared with the Church the options are comparatively limited. Kier Hardie died a century ago. Much is known about the formation and history of the party. Debate about what the party is about, and ought to be about, will be constrained by what it has been about.

In the case of the Church there are far more options. There are lots of conflicting theories about what the ministry of Jesus was about, and which version of the Church should provide a model for today. There are too many options! So we end up turning the Church as we have known it into the object of our efforts. The institution.

We could do worse than to take our lead from Ivan Illich. If the Church is declining, why do we want to keep it going? What is it for? What will we miss if it closes down altogether?

If we can find honest and convincing answers to these questions, it will help us see what kind of Church, if any, is worth maintaining. My guess is that it will be a very different kind of Church.