Church: organisation or Body of Christ

In the Church Times last week Martyn Percy criticised the Church’s use of ‘secular models of organisation” under the headline ‘It’s not an organisation, it’s the Body of Christ’. (See: for the original article – you may need to be a subscriber to read it in full)  Here is my response, which may or may not also appear in the letters column of the Church Times!

The first thing is to say that if the use of organisational thinking indeed results in the intrusion of a rootless commercialism, over-simplification of complex ideas, an instrumental culture of objectives and results or a tendency to bureaucracy then I don’t want it either. I share the concern that there is already too much bureaucracy: this, to me, is an example of how the Church is adept at borrowing the less appropriate and attractive features of the secular world! The Church can feel over-administered and under-powered as a result. This can be remedied partly by a renewal in spiritual practice and in theology – but also by a richer understanding of the learning that is around about organisations.

I think there is a problem in the language here. The article depends a great deal on a distinction between an ‘organisation’ and an ‘institution’. But Selznick’s terminology is far from universally accepted and is only one attempt to make sense of the world of corporate endeavour. For me ‘organisation’ is a neutral term: it simply describes a corporate entity that can be distinguished by factors like: a sense of itself as an entity; the employment of officers or staff; the existence of structured roles and responsibilities; a shared identity and so forth. On that basis I do not see how it can be denied that the Church of England is an organisation. I further think we can learn from the experience and practice of other organisations, including businesses – there are many that do not see themselves as engines of profit only and have a sense of themselves as the guardians of a longer term purpose – but always with a recognition of the unique identity of the Church.

I believe there is wisdom around which simply illuminates how organised human endeavour works and flourishes. The models I prefer myself do not come from the business world, but from inquiries into the way organised entities of all kinds sustain themselves. This tells me that all organisations need to be able to manage their present, that is, do things well; they also need to be able to discern what the changing world will demand of them to remain relevant and effective; but, crucially, they also need to be able to nurture their identity, that is, ensure that in all things, at all times, they remain true to the purpose, values, and vocation that define them. In other words, the effective organisation must remain true to its fundamental identity and nurture a culture that embodies that whilst at the same time effectively addressing the changing world. A recognition that all organisations need to manage these ‘functions’ leaves plenty of room for individual organisations to retain and develop their own ‘style’.  In fact, it is important that they do.

I believe these activities require some understanding and deliberate action. I believe the Church would be in a far stronger position to meet its many challenges if it understood and developed these capabilities and will be in considerable danger if it does not. For me the Church is the Body of Christ and an organisation. If we can hold the two thoughts together we might go a long way towards helping the Church create a more viable future and preserve its essential character and diversity. The Church, according to Martyn Percy, ‘is not a flagging organisation in search of a new identity’. I agree: the real challenge is to re-articulate the existing and unchanging identity in a way that brings energy and life and powers both new and continuing ways of reaching out to the changing and increasingly distant communities around us.


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