Faith & reason: GodCo is not the answer to a pompous Synod

The Church of England understands its key problem. But it is about to propose the wrong solution, argues Andrew Brown
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The Independent Online
The Church of England understands its key problem. But it is about to propose the wrong solution, argues Andrew Brown

THE MOST shocking thing about the internal Synod memo leaked to yesterday's Guardian is how clearly it is written: "We are a hostage to fortune on so many issues; our agenda is terminally tedious; we have become a refuge for the pedant, the bureaucrat and the bore." Here at last is a message from the Church which a nation can unite behind. So naturally they kept it confidential.

The author of the memorandum is said to be Pete Broadbent, one of the two men passed over for the job of Bishop of Liverpool - Tony Blair apparently thought they were insufficiently impressive to the outside world. So he has personal reasons for seeing the inadequacies and limitations of the present system; but he does see deeply into them and has had a lot of experience of the Synod's inner workings. In fact there is hardly anyone who would disagree with his diagnosis. One of the most telling arguments that some of the Church of England's problems are structural rather than personal comes form the fact that many of the people who work for the General Synod are intelligent, experienced and effective at their jobs. There are exceptions, but fewer than there used to be. The parish clergy, too, are often people of great gifts, thoughtfully used. So how come all this energy and intelligence winds up in a swamp?

The answer, agreed by everyone, is that the pretensions of the Synod, and indeed of establishment generally, no longer fit the sort of jobs people find themselves doing. The Church of England feels like a beleaguered voluntary society, and not like an essential expression of the nation's spirituality.

The contrast between pretension and performance comes up constantly at the parish level, in all the innumerable decisions that must be made about who to marry, how to baptise, and how to conduct funerals for a largely unbelieving congregation. But nowhere is it more chronic than at the General Synod, which spends hours, possibly centuries, administering things it no longer believes in. Something has gone dreadfully wrong with an organisation which greets visitors to its web page with the message, "Every large active body of people needs a committee."

There have been two broad reactions to this paralysis. One is to withdraw from it. It is a commonplace that the bishops of the Church of England are by and large among its least impressive clergy; but one reason for this is that the ones who might be impressive simply don't want the jobs any more. The bishops who are doing a constructive job seem to have as little as possible to do with the Synod and run their dioceses on a fairly flexible ad hoc basis. Yet even if you don't like the models of decision- making that the Church has, the fact remains that some central decisions have to be made and the Synod is a device of unparalleled efficiency for obstructing the process. This did not matter in a more authoritarian society, when bishops told clergy what to do and by and large they did it, with the whole process funded by long-dead laity.

So this leads to the second reaction, to try to modernise the machinery. This has been a consistent concern of Dr Carey since he took office eight years ago and I don't think that even his most persistent critics would fault his identification of the problem. The difficulty comes with the proposed solution: it sometimes looks as if the Synod, an attempt to govern the Church of England on the model of a parliament, is to be replaced by GodCo, an attempt to govern the Church as if it were a lean, hungry, thrusting corporation with outstanding growth prospects.

I don't think there can be any sensible objection to learning from the efficiencies of the outside world. What's worrying is the assumption that modern businesses are efficient. But the business world can be a place of bewildering incompetence, stupidity and waste; and when models of efficiency drawn from business practice are applied to organisations which have an essentially idealistic purpose, the results can be absolutely disastrous. Look at the BBC. Look at the NHS.

The Church of England has actually made a very good job of sorting out its financial mess without great institutional change. It does have access to an enormous reservoir of lay competence and goodwill which the Synod should embody. It may need less reform than it believes. It certainly needs less public relations. The memorandum argues for "media-friendly bishops and appropriate spinning of stories" but this is ignorant and silly: press officers can't get away with behaving like Alistair Campbell and Charlie Whelan unless they have access to real power with which to frighten people. The answer to Synod's gap between power and pretension is not to professionalise its pretension. Rather it is to ensure that it can exercise properly the few powers it needs.

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