God, Church and the efficiency drive

Faith & Reason: What has the Church come to? It is not primarily a 'business' but a praying fellowship, argues the Rev Benedict Baker. The road to 'efficiency' will be found through prayer.
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The Independent Online
A friend of mine was astonished to hear a clerical colleague at a diocesan meeting remark: "After all, the people in the pews are our customers aren't they." Customers? Well, yes, perhaps - if you think of the Bench of Bishops as a Regional Board of Directors, with archdeacons and diocesan committees comprising middle management, rural deans as local retail branch managers, parish clergy as sales assistants, purveyors of spiritual goodies to a fickle and unreliable clientele, with of course the Archbishop of Canterbury or even the Pope looming ever-present as the ultimate all-powerful Murdoch-figure in the background.

Is this a useful model of the Church in our present day? Perhaps it is a necessary way of thinking if the Church's performance is to be made more efficient? There has, after all, been a marked falling off in "sales" over the last few decades. There seem to be more chapels which have been converted into houses or factories or shops than are still used as places of regular worship. Attendance at Anglican and Roman Catholic churches is tending to get thinner and thinner. What are things coming to? Why shouldn't the Church take a leaf out the book of the business world - rationalise the work force, carry out efficiency drives, install rigorous inspection programmes, publish national league tables, close small redundant branch offices?

Now no one would want to question that the Church should make as much use of modern methods as possible. St Paul in his day took the radically modern step of proclaiming the gospel on Mars Hill, a sort of Greek first- century Speakers' Corner, where it is doubtful that any Jew had ever spoken before. Jesus himself was apparently in favour of novelty - "Behold, I make all things new," he is represented as saying (Revelation xxi,5). But he also had a trenchant word to the effect that everyone who has been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings forth out of his treasure things both new and old (Matthew xiii,32). By all means let us welcome the things of this age but not at the expense of forgetting the things that are old.

New performance and efficiency drives do seem to be insinuating their presence into the Church. There are a number of dioceses in Britain where clergy are being invited to mark themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 against such questions as: "How satisfied are you with the amount of time a week you spend visiting?" or "How efficient do you rate your method of dealing with daily correspondence?" Which is all very well, but how do you quantify the depth of people's spiritual awareness, or the reality of their relationship with God? How do you measure the efficiency of all those countless unsung acts of Christian kindness, which spring daily, knowingly or unknowingly, from the inspiration of the Gospel? Is it true that if only we, the Christians, pull our socks up and put a tremendous effort into reorganising ourselves efficiently the Kingdom of Heaven will be manifestly inaugurated?

Surely the "old" thing which is here being overlooked is prayer. The Church is not primarily a business organisation. But if it were a more thoroughly deeply praying fellowship then perhaps its "business" would look after itself. Jesus was known to continue all night in prayer to God. The early abbas and ammas of the Egyptian desert would also forgo sleep in order to pray. There are the medieval English mystics, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. There are the Spanish Carmelites, St Teresa and St John of the Cross. The line continues to the present day. They all teach that prayer is at the centre, not prayer against anyone or anything, but prayer towards God. Like Moses holding up his hands in support of the Israelites it is those who pray who are at the centre of the Church. All the ecclesiastical buildings in the world could be destroyed and the hierarchy gathered together in one place and blown up and there would still be a church if there were enough people left who prayed.

One doesn't need to follow the early desert fathers literally into a desert to learn to pray. There is enough of a desert all around us in the world today without going out of our usual routine to seek one - a desert of this-worldliness, of self- seeking. In deserts like these there need to be oases, oases of quietness and prayer, where there are wells of living water from which all may quench their thirst.