The Church of England has recently published five reports outlining what it plans to do to respond to the reality of serious and prolonged numerical decline in attendance, under the overall title of Reform and Renewal. I am both encouraged and relieved that the Church has recognised the need to take urgent and serious action to counter five and a half decades of sustained reduction in the number of people attending Church.
The five reports are Developing Discipleship; Resourcing Ministerial Education; Resourcing the Future; Simplification; Leadership Development (also known as The Green Report). All of them can be found on the Church of England’s website
There is much to like in the content of these reports (even The Green Report, which has been widely criticised has, to my mind, much to recommend it.) There is an admirable willingness to face facts. The trends in the attendance statistics and the urgency of the situation are fully acknowledged. Given that the Church is losing people and influence, it is surely right to put the focus on mission and growth. Given that the availability of suitable leadership is usually a key factor in organisational success, focusing on that is welcome too. Concentrating financial resources on mission is an important commitment to put the Church’s money into growth rather than maintenance and removing unnecessary red tape should allow much more innovation.
These are all significant steps in a positive direction. It is what happens next that will determine how effective they are in achieving the overall goal of ‘Reform and Renewal’. Here are some suggestions about what else the Church could do to maximise its chances of making a profound and lasting change. In summary I think there would be huge benefit in placing specific initiatives within an overarching narrative which offers a credible, positive and inspiring account of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we hope to become’.
The Church could, in the first instance, give more thought and content to the question of its identity. I do not want to sound as if I’m criticising the reports for not addressing a question they did not set out to address – the reports were intended, I assume, to achieve something more specific. But in the absence of something clear and sufficiently comprehensive to provide context the reader is bound to make deductions on the basis of what is there. So, for example, it is acknowledged that the Church of England has a continuing role to care for the whole community across the whole country but that is the limit of what is said about its role in relation to the people of England. There is a strong focus on discipleship and mission but that does not seem to me a sufficient account of the identity of the Church of England. There are welcome references to the intention to promote spiritual as well as numerical growth and contribute to the common good but the thought could do with developing much further. There are few or no references to the Church’s role in pastoral care, occasional offices, chaplaincy, or social activism, for example. I think the process of change would be immeasurably strengthened by a persuasive and comprehensive account of what Anglicanism is and can become. There is a real danger that in the absence of such a narrative people make largely anxious and negative assumptions about the ecclesiology driving the change process.
Secondly, I suggest the Church could do more to provide an account of what its future could or should look like. Given the steady and persistent decline in Church attendance and the changes in the world around us, it seems unlikely that doing the old thing better will be enough. The Church is likely to need innovation, new ways of being church, new models. There would be great value in indicating what these might be, or, at least, what issues it will need to address in creating them. I appreciate that the Church is at a point where a ‘paradigm shift’ may be required and such changes are by definition hard to imagine in advance. But it would help if this were itself acknowledged and the intent to experiment signalled more deliberately.
Thirdly I suggest that there would also be immense value in developing and enacting a plan to engage the Church at large in the change. This could be a large, organised, purposeful and time-limited ‘conversation’ through which the future is co-created. It would be time-consuming and need careful management but the prize would be a Church confident and affirmed in its diversity but sufficiently aligned around a strategy to create a better future.
Another way to look at it would be to say that if the Church were to act as I am suggesting it would mitigate a number of risks:
- That the actions recommended by the reports remain too locked in the present, insufficiently liberated from current assumptions and models – and as a result change is neither radical enough nor sustained nor effective
- Change is resisted and contested, absorbing immense amounts of time and energy with the net result that the initiatives have limited impact because it is:
- Seen as driven by particular factions or interests in the Church
- Not widely understood or owned
- Seen as not sufficiently coherent or rooted in Anglican identity
There is, it seems, a deliberate (and understandable) intent to keep what is done and said at national level minimal and to look to the dioceses for strategy, energy, direction, and innovation – partly perhaps because the process is seen as too urgent to delay with unnecessary deliberation. I suggest that the dioceses might need more help, however. Can the big, historic chaIlenges be solved at the diocesan level? Are the dioceses sufficiently adept at strategy? I suspect the national church might need to manage the required conversation about identity and future because only it can see the whole landscape. It could offer the dioceses a framework within which to think and act. It would take time, indeed, but if done well so that what emerged was a widely understood and accepted ‘big picture’, swift action could follow nationally and in dioceses with far less risk of resistance and inconsistency and far more confidence of success.
It may help if I am clearer about where these ideas are coming from. They reflect my understanding of what drives organisational effectiveness and sustainable transformation. This understanding is rooted in particular models of viable organisation and sustainable change. The former is based on a development of Stafford Beer’s approach to organisations as whole systems and the latter on twelve years of working with Telos Partners using models derived from the Tomorrow’s Company Inquiry and reflection upon experience. Here are some of the key principles, as I see them:
- Organisations need to manage three functions simultaneously if they are to remain viable: they need to manage their present, create their future and nurture their identity
- Managing the present is about the need to improve current performance, to make what we currently do deliver more
- Creating the future is about recognising that the organisation exists in a changing environment and that what we do today, however well, may not be appropriate or effective tomorrow. We are likely to need new models, new ways, new activities – what are they? This is the question of vision – where is the change we make designed to take us?
- Nurturing identity is about ensuring that in making decisions about the future the organisation is able to disentangle its core identity from accumulated custom and practice and allow innovation whilst retaining its integrity. This is vital if an organisation is to make the right choices about the future and retain the support of those it needs to relate to
- Change is not best managed either ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’. It needs to be led from the top but managed so that through an iterative conversation the whole organisation owns and helps to create the change – without that ownership the best strategies struggle to gain traction
- All this can only be achieved through deliberate processes that require an immense amount of time, concentration and leadership – the organisation (and especially its leadership) will usually need to put other things on hold to give the change the attention and priority it requires
You may or may not find these ideas persuasive but I do wonder about the extent to which the Church’s current thinking is based on a clearly articulated and coherent understanding of itself as an organisation and of how it manages change. This is another area in which some additional work could, perhaps, be usefully done. The Faith and Order Commission’s recent report, Senior Church Leadership, introduces a promising and helpful notion of ‘faithful improvisation’ as the means by which the Church has created positive change in the past: that report might be a good place to start.
As I offer these thoughts I am aware of the dangers of second guessing the process when there is a lot I can’t see and don’t know. I may lack important information which changes the picture. Or perhaps there are people in Lambeth Palace and Church House already busy creating the larger narrative, filling in the gaps and planning a consultation process. If this gets read by those in a position to influence the process I hope they will take from it what might be useful.
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