A new mood has taken hold of Lambeth Palace. Officials call it urgency; critics say it is panic. The Church of England, the thinking goes, is about to shrink rapidly, even vanish in some areas, unless urgent action is taken. This action, laid out in a flurry of high-level reports, amounts to the biggest institutional shake-up since the 1990s. Red tape is to be cut, processes streamlined, resources optimised. Targets have been set. The Church is ill — and business management is going to cure it.
Reformers say they are only removing obstacles that hinder the Church from growing. Opponents, appalled by the business-speak of some of the reports, object to what they see as a ruthless focus on filling pews.
Two reforms in particular have generated headlines. One is the plan to swipe £100 million from the Church’s investments to pay for more priests (target: a 50 per cent increase in trainee clergy by 2020). The other is to give business-school training to bishops and deans and, more controversially, to identify a ‘talent pool’ of future leaders — in the official language, people ‘with exceptional strategic leadership potential for Gospel, Kingdom and Church impact’.
Provoking more anxiety, though, is the emphasis on growth in numbers. Half of the central fund distributed to help poorer dioceses is to be diverted to support thriving projects. The previous system was thought to ‘subsidise decline’. The new approach, to be brought in over ten years, is meant to ‘incentivise… Church growth and innovation and flexibility’.
To many in the Church this feels like new ground. The C of E, they say, should be focused on God, not growth. The Revd Canon Professor Martyn Percy, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, says he has received hundreds of emails and letters from people worried by all the talk about ‘efficiency, success, targets and data’. Jesus, he says, ‘didn’t spend a lot of time going about success’.
Such unease is only likely to be heightened by the involvement of high-flying City execs. One report was written by Lord Green, ex-chairman of HSBC; another by John Spence, former chief executive of LloydsTSB Scotland. A third refers to a working session, requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, with executives at Lloyds Bank. (Success, Church officials were told, ‘requires focus, determination, organisation and adequate resourcing’.)
While bankers are among the key architects of the reforms, the fiercest critics have been academics. The idea of a ‘talent pool’ has come under particularly withering attack. The priesthood, says one theologian, is meant to be about service, not self-promotion. The idea of such a pool ‘doesn’t have a theology’.
Welby has tried to calm the backlash. The talent pool, he has argued, is about preparing people for senior posts, rather than dumping responsibility on them at the last minute. And beneath all the horrible jargon, the proposals on leadership mostly look practical. The MBA-type training for bishops and deans is sensible when you consider they run institutions with dozens of staff and turnovers of several million pounds.
John Spence, the ex-Lloyds chief who now chairs the finance committee of the Archbishops’ Council, is central to the reforms. He is regarded as formidably competent — he rose to the top at Lloyds despite going blind in his thirties. Reforming an institution, he says, requires the same kind of thinking whether it’s a charity, a university or a church. ‘Every successful organisation thinks about things in a strategic and disciplined way,’ he says. You decide on your goal, and you organise your resources to achieve it. You might think your organisation is different, he says, but ‘actually, we are all the same — we are all striving for our desired outcome’.
Spence argues that the reforms are not top-down, but merely a response to what dioceses want. ‘The dioceses have all told us they want to grow,’ he says.
For some critics, though, that goal is the heart of the problem. Linda Woodhead, sociology professor at Lancaster University, says an obsession with thriving congregations represents a narrowing of the Church of England’s vision. The vision, she says, is that of Holy Trinity Brompton, the super-successful church in west London. ‘What’s happening is the Alpha-isation of the Church,’ she says. No attention is being paid to those Anglicans who don’t go to church at all. Ignore these people, who still care about the institution and feel part of it, and ‘you can’t remain a national church’, she says.
The Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, the straight-talking Bishop of Willesden, gives short shrift to such views. The C of E can no longer rely on being ‘part of the furniture’, he says. ‘If we don’t do something the Church will evaporate from the landscape… The re-evangelisation of England is what we are about.’ David Cameron Anglicans, whose faith flickers like Magic FM in the Chilterns, are not enough.
The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, Welby’s biographer, says Church growth is the ‘golden thread’ that ties all the reforms together. Welby, he says, wants people to see that decline is ‘not inevitable’. In Africa and China churches are booming. ‘Globally, church growth is normal,’ he says. Welby, he suggests, is ‘very optimistic about turning the Church of England around’.
Yet Atherstone admits that Welby’s tendency to focus on numbers ‘makes some in the C of E nervous’. One Church observer says the reason clergy are panicky about the reforms is that they seem ‘very bottom line — if you can’t get more punters in then you’ve failed’.
Atherstone suggests Welby wants the Church to be more entrepreneurial. The change to dioceses’ funding is intended to encourage that. Instead of the old model of one vicar looking after his medieval parish, the idea is to fund projects that no one has yet tried. Welby, says Atherstone, thinks the Church is too ‘safety-conscious’, smothering start-ups in paperwork.
Critics, on the other hand, say the reforms are merely depressing the workforce. Talented young clergy are ‘in despair’, they say — head office doesn’t seem to grasp what their ministry is really about.
John Spence seems to acknowledge the problem. ‘We need to engage and consult and keep bringing people in,’ he says. But there is no doubt about the strategy. He says that, given the age profile of congregations, decline will continue. ‘We haven’t found a way to halt death,’ he says. He hopes that in a decade more younger people will be going to church and a greater number of congregations will be expanding. To achieve that, he says, ‘We need to light the fires now.’