Leading Article: Welcome to the world of Jesus plc

Click to follow
The Independent Online
How endearingly behind the times we can always rely on the Church of England to be. After almost a decade of turmoil in bodies such as the BBC and the NHS, in which efficiency became the new watchword, the Church of England has finally decided to get in on the act and launch its own Birtist revolution.

The Turnbull report into church governance, which the General Synod will discuss this week, addresses some real problems. There is no doubt of that. The Church Commissioners, under the hapless Sir Douglas Lovelock, lost pounds 800m - a third of church funds - in the late Eighties with their unseemly foray into property speculation. And the Synod, with its hundred or so sub-committees, has laid itself open to uncharitable caricature in recent years with its endless successions of worthy motions reminiscent of a students' union in the early Seventies.

So is the report of the group chaired by the Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull, the answer? What it proposes is a national council, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which would set budgets, oversee the flow of money within the church, develop a comprehensive pensions policy and decide how many priests are needed. The whole top layer of the Synod will disappear.

Its critics are clear what this would mean. Trying to squeeze the church into the mould of a managed, product-driven organisation would bring about the "McDonaldisation" of religion - seeking ever greater uniformity, predictability and control. They accuse the hierarchy of repeating mistakes by absorbing the values of its elite peer group and bringing in out-of-date management theories. Welcome to the wonderful world of Jesus plc.

The outside world tends to think of the Church of England as an organisation whereas, cynics might say, it is in reality a coalition of interests held together in an armed neutrality. More sympathetically, one might suggest that it is an organisation which needs to nurture its corporate spirituality as much as its managerial efficiency.

The problem with the Turnbull proposals is that they set out to address the issue of accountability and end up with an unelected council that is accountable only to the church's own bureaucracy. The risk to the morale of the working clergy is clear. The church must find ways of becoming more efficient and which invigorate its rank and file rather than buttressing the power of the hierarchy.

That means a rethink rather than proceeding now with unseemly haste to a leisurely repentance. After all, the most successfully centrally-managed church around is that which has its corporate headquarters in Rome. The cost of such efficiency - both in the shadowy scandals that have in the past surrounded the unaccountable Vatican finances, and in the authoritarian hammering of dissenters - has been high indeed.

Comments