The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy
Dean of Christ Church, Oxford
This Coda (or story) is offered as a cautionary satirical tale of what the future might hold for a church that unintentionally embraces the gods of our age – growth and success, with its High Priests from corporations and business – and in so doing, evacuates itself of patience, charity, hope and faithfulness. It is a story of exile, and a Coda that celebrates the return home, the virtues of faithfulness, fortitude, resilience and patience. It was written and published some thirty years ago (in 1992), and published in MCU’s Signs of the Times. The story was written at the height of free-market ideology triumphing in Britain, and asked what might happen if the church were to adopt the same economic, political and ideological pulses that were also shaping the nation?
There are quirky details here that seem quaint now: the invention of the portable fax machine has not come to pass in quite the way one might have envisaged thirty years ago. Technology has developed even faster with mobile phones, tablets and handheld computers. But that is not the point. As church polity is increasingly shaped by market forces, and by targets, strategies and plans – representing a kind of rather inward-looking cluster of concerns that are clothed in apparently missional rhetoric – the story might serve as a timely, even prophetic caution.
Preface to the Story: The Real Present
“We’re in the last chance saloon,” said Pete Broadbent, bishop of Willesden and one of the architects of Reform and Renewal. “All the demographic evidence shows that, unless we do something in the next five or 10 years, we’re shot. There are those who say this [programme] is alien and who want to dig their heels in, but we’re facing a demographic time bomb.”
The evidence was “indisputable”, said John Spence, chair of the church’s finance committee and a former Lloyds Bank executive. “Twenty years ago the demographics matched the population as a whole. Now we’re 20 years older than the population. Unless we do something, the church will face a real crisis.” Among the changes is a redistribution of funding, largely away from struggling rural parishes to churches in deprived urban areas and those seen as innovative and energetic in adapting to social change.
“Some dioceses are being funded to do not very much,” said Broadbent. “And some dioceses are underfunded, but are doing an amazing job in trying circumstances. It’s about how we divvy up the money to go to places that can use it well and have the greatest need.”
Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian
The time is set some years in the future. The Story is in five parts:
The bright flash and camera lights of the nation’s press reporters filled the Hall at Church House. The Bishop of Southbury, Michael Talent, blinked. Flanked by Bishops, plus other officials from Church House and Sir Marcus Lloyd from the Church Commissioners, Bishop Michael began his speech
Ladies and Gentlemen. As you will know, today sees the launch of one of the most important documents the Church of England has produced this Century…even though we are less than a few decades into a new Millennium. The House of Bishops has felt for some time that the church is too unwieldy in its structure to meet the needs of the people. There has been too much bureaucracy and red tape, and not enough action. Congregations have declined in number: confidence in the Church has dwindled. Today we hope to put the Church of England back on the road to recovery, with the launch of The Churchgoer’s Charter. This will give power back to the people, and will make clergy and churches more accountable to the parishes they are supposed to be serving….
Bishop Michael held up the glossy volume; camera motors whirred, and journalists began punching in copy into their portable faxes. ‘This will look great in the papers,’ thought the Bishop to himself.’ He was right. The headlines and leader columns were fulsome in their praise. The Times wrote a lead article under the caption ‘Bishop Sees Red (Tape)’; ‘Bishop Prunes Vine’ reported The Telegraph; Weeding the Weedy Church’ trumpeted The Sun, lauding the Bishop in an article on page seven.
The Churchgoer’s Charter had all begun after the government had been re-elected in 2015. It was the Prime Minister’s idea. Britain’s drift towards becoming a Republic had been sealed with the suspension of the House of Lords, now replaced by a new Upper House of Senators. Key posts, such as ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’, had become Cabinet positions, the Archbishop now being the ‘Minister for Church Affairs’. It was inevitable, really, that the government and church now worked together more closely. Cathedrals had been identified as major tourist attractions and potential income earners as long as thirty years ago.
When the government had stepped in to help rebuild and refurbish some, and then the Church Commissioners had applied for Euro-loan, it had opened the way for church and state to co-operate at levels unknown since the days of the Reformation. One day, over coffee, the Prime Minister had chatted informally to the Archbishop about ‘opening up the church to the ordinary people…making ministers more accountable to their parishes…streamlining services, and capitalising on investments and ministries’. The fruit of their dialogue was a Republican commission, chaired by the Bishop of Southbury. And now, today, here was The Churchgoer’s Charter.
For the Revd. Maurice Green, The Churchgoer’s Charter had been a Godsend. His flourishing eclectic church in a prosperous university town had been one of the first to opt out of the diocese of Southbury. As a self-governing body, they were now free from many of the diocesan central structures that they felt had held them back from competing effectively with other churches. They had stopped paying their quota. They had always found it uncomfortable supporting a broad church; all those causes, churches and theological outlooks they had never liked could now fend for themselves. Besides this, they had ‘rationalised’ their giving to charities and outside bodies, in favour of concentrating their resources on the local situation.
The results had been spectacular. Three fizzy new curates had been hired: the duff old one the diocese provided had been made redundant. The new administrator, together with a new full-time accountant had identified the areas of ministry that were most profitable. Fees for Baptisms, weddings and funerals were set at market rates. A new building programme provided further opportunities for income-bearing outreach. The Church Flower Shop provided all tributes, displays and bouquets for weddings and funerals. The new Church Brasserie (The Cana Wine Bar) did the catering for all special events; it was already featured in the Les Routiers Guide. A local photographer was awarded the exclusive contract for all weddings at the church, after it had been put out to competitive tender. Certain hymns and prayers had attracted sponsorship from local companies. A local building firm was always mentioned when ‘The Church is One Foundation’ was sung; the local privatised electricity board sponsored the Collect for Evening Prayer, ‘Lighten Our Darkness’.
Alas, other parishes had not been nearly so innovative. Some had obviously just not used their talents as wisely. Of the fourteen churches in the town, six had already shut in two years, or been forced to merge. Of course, where possible, the stronger churches had attempted to cover areas that were now no longer served by a Parish Priest. But in some of the poorer estates on the fringe of town this had proved problematic. Providing a spiritual service at a realistic cost was difficult, especially when some of the people living in impoverished urban areas seemed ‘to want something for nothing’. The Revd. Maurice Green did feel some sadness about this. Yet he comforted himself with the proverb that ‘Sheep always go where the grass is’. People would come to church if it offered a good service: it wasn’t his fault if some clergy buried their talents.
Three Years Later
Bishop Michael of Southbury sat in his study. The rain poured down outside. ‘Ah, where on earth has it all gone wrong?’ he sighed. He had some answers, of course; but they were painful to face. For example, there was the share issue in the Church of England, launched in 2020. Called 20-20 Vision: Your Share In the Future, congregations had been encouraged to buy shares in the national church, which entitled them to discounts for weddings, funerals and baptisms, and a small dividend each year if the Church Commissioners property speculation had gone well. It had been difficult to get off the ground initially, but the message had soon got home. The Share Issue would allow the public a greater say in how the church was run, and in its future direction.
To Bishop Michael, it had seemed the natural follow-up to The Churchgoer’s Charter, which had already brought sweeping changes. Administrative posts had been cut by a half in his diocese. Education, Welfare and Social Responsibility officers had been pushed into ‘private practice’, so churches that needed them could purchase their services when they required them. The poorer parishes that had relied on them far too much in the past were now being encouraged to discover their own resources. Parishes had merged, inefficient clergy laid-off, and non-cost-effective areas of ministry identified and re-prioritised. As far as the Bishop was concerned, this was all excellent. However, it had got out of control. The agenda of The Churchgoer’s Charter seemed like an unstoppable train. Now it looked as though he, the Bishop (of all people), was in danger of losing his job.
The problem had begun six months ago when the more cost-effective parishes in his Diocese had got together with other like-minded churches from neighbouring Dioceses. They had taken a comprehensive look at synodical and ecclesiastical structures. A clergyman from his own Diocese, the Revd. Maurice Green, had argued that Bishops were too many and too expensive: ‘they confirm some people in your church once a year, ordain you a new Curate every four years and for that they get a hundred grand, a jolly nice house and a chauffeur-driven car! They’re simply not worth it.’
Changes soon followed. Quotas were again withheld by wealthy parishes until all Bishops signed up for the ‘ERM’ – the Episcopal Exchange Rate Mechanism. The idea was to let Bishops ‘float’, and open up competition. They would no longer get the exclusive contract for a diocese. Those that did good confirmation addresses or retreats would be paid for their services; those that didn’t would be gradually laid off. Some Bishops had already gone into ‘private practice’, specialising in confirmations, ordinations, dedications, after dinner speeches or radio broadcasts. However, for the Bishop of Southbury, the writing was on the wall: he knew he couldn’t compete with some of the younger, more dynamic Bishops. His letter of resignation was prepared, and sat on the table. He was going to go on a very long retreat.
Sitting in the Hall at Church House, Michael Talent, now the former Bishop of Southbury, must have thought he’d seen it all before. Masses of cameramen, journalists, photographers and soundmen lined up six or seven deep waiting for him to speak. He was not flanked by other Bishops this time. The only endorsement he had was a letter from his friend, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who’d retired early due to ill health.
He began to speak, this time holding aloft a copy of a new book written by him, called Faith in Society. Its message, he said, was simple. You cannot place a value on spiritual service. Everyone is entitled to ministry, whether they can afford it or not. The National Church Service must be there for all its people, not just a few. The richer churches must support the poorer ones, even if it cost them so much that it hurts them. An apparently weak and ‘broad’ church is probably better-placed to serve society than a handful of strong eclectic ones. True, the Church is accountable to people, but also to God, the maker and judge of us all.
One journalist asked him where all this fresh vision had come from. In reply, Michael Talent said it was actually quite an old vision. But it hadn’t been given a fair hearing. He referred to the Parable of the Talents, pointing out that most people thought that this was about wise financial investment. ‘But,’ he added, ‘It is really about people and truth as well: they need to be invested in too, not buried out of fear. And sometimes apparently attractive gains need to be sacrificed; after all, we are called to lose our lives, not win them.’ As he was speaking and replying to questions, journalists shuffled, looked irritated, and then began to leave.
‘I bet this won’t look very good in the newspapers tomorrow,’ he thought. And he was right. They didn’t print a word of it.
Postscript – Ten Years Later
Retirement rather agreed with Bishop Michael. It had given him the chance to reflect on the changes that had come about in recent years, especially as a number of them had been something of surprise. For example, he could not have predicted the fate of the Revd. Maurice Green. His church had witnessed enormous growth in the early years of new development. But the constant demands to make the buildings and projects financially viable had led to compromises, and also to divisive and fractious church meetings. The Victorian gallery in the church – a huge space – had been converted into a fitness centre, complete with a glass wall that allowed those attending the gym to watch services as they lifted weights, ran on the machines, and exercised on the benches.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Come to church and get fit; pay a subscription too, and witness some worship. And why not stay for a Fairtrade drink in the café after? (‘Sweat, Sacrament, Divine’, ran the advertisement). But some of the worshippers – even dyed-in-the-wool modernisers – had objected. They did not think that their church was a place for a gym. Some objected that worship was now confused: could people really give their all to God if at the same time they were also thinking about their weight, their fitness, and how they looked? The out-sourcing of the Cana Wine Bar and café to a new catering company who paid good money for the franchise, but sat light to the ethos of the church, had also caused complications.
The church was still making money, and still had many members. But something was missing. Some worshippers felt the soul had gone from the place. Then the economic recession, which hit everyone and everything in its path, bit swiftly and deeply. Suddenly, church meetings were consumed by talks of mergers, redundancies, out-sourcing and rationalisations. Added to which, some worshippers just started to drift off to a local church with far fewer members, and no apparent entrepreneurial outlook at all. But which apparently had something that Maurice’s church didn’t: a soul. And a sense of awe and wonder, with a priest you could see in the week without going through a plethora of PA’s and administrators. The church members were restless for change.
When Maurice’s post came up for renewal, everything was basically fine; the recession was weathered; the income streams back on track; the number of worshippers steadied, having stemmed the earlier haemorrhaging. But the Church Council did not renew Maurice’s contract. They thanked him for all he had done, but said that they felt God wanted to do something new with the church. To return it to being a place of sacredness and peace; a house of prayer, and an oasis of stillness. People wanted a change of direction; not what Maurice offered.
He left with a handsome pay-off, but somewhat bitter. And also curious. He remembered – from years ago at seminary – another pastor’s words. Was it Niemoller, from Germany? He wasn’t sure. But the gist of it was this. First the market forces came for the weaker parishes; but I didn’t say anything. Then they came for the clergy who were deemed not to be successful or useful; but I didn’t say anything. Then they came for the officers and administrators supporting the weaker parishes and clergy; and I didn’t say anything. Then they came for the people who had introduced the change-management – for they too were expendable; and I didn’t say anything. Then finally they came for me. But there was no-one left to speak for me.
Maurice Green’s church had hired a new pastor – a former monk, called Benedict – who had not much in the way of business acumen, and little in the way of charismatic or dynamic leadership. There was not much money about anymore, and little in the way of numerical or financial growth. But Benedict prayed for his people, visited faithfully, and was seen about the parish. The Cana Wine Bar was taken back in to ownership by the church, and the space used to feed to poor. The gym and fitness centre went out of business, and now housed bunk-beds for the homeless.
Had the entrepreneurial church failed? It was hard to say. But the congregation seemed happy enough. There was energy for mission, but no longer the ersatz of chimera-consumerist Christianity. Something earthy and authentic was now coming into existence. Benedict talked about the church in a different way. His church, he said, was a safe space to trespass; a place for finding divine peace; a symbol of diversity in unity; and a Pentecostal laboratory. He said it was a theatre of basic drama and a centre for creativity. It was a temple of dialogue and an academy of committed information; and a place international exchange. He called the church to be a clinic for public exorcism; a broadcasting station for the voice of the poor, and a tower of reconciliation. He suggested that the ministry of the church was to be a motel for pilgrims – and a house of vicarious feasts. It was to be a hut for the shepherd; a dwelling place for God. Just as Christ pitched his tent in the midst of humanity, so should the church live amongst all God’s people. The church was to be a sign of pro-existence; an expression of God’s utter, total love for all humanity.
So, gone were the aims, objectives, targets and measuring of outcomes. ‘Just how do you measure God’s activity?’ asked Benedict of his congregation, in a sermon one Sunday. ‘The church is not competing in a popularity contest, with Christianity hoping to win more customers and consumers in contemporary culture than other activities. Our faith is about sacrifice and service. Who knows, we might find we’re at our best when we’re faithful, not successful’, he argued. It made people think.
And Bishop Michael had watched this all unfold. It gave him just the smallest pang of pleasure to see the pendulum swing back, to a time long before the Churchgoer’s Charter was launched. But he knew it might swing again. Meanwhile, some lessons had been learnt.