Committee-shaped Church

02 November 2006


More bits of paper come through the door containing election material for loads more General Synod committees. My heart groans. We are not a mission-shaped Church. We are a committee-shaped Church, run by committee people for committee people.

Once committees get established, they are self-propagating. People who put themselves forward for them are generally those who think committees are a good thing. So committees self-select in favour of those who work in a particular way. As every new challenge emerges, the committee invariably sees yet another committee as the answer.

Like ground elder, once the committee system has taken root, it's a devil of a job to get rid of it. It grows and spreads and chokes the life out of the other plants in the garden. The nightmare of the committee-shaped Church is that we end up with all the energy and charisma of a call-centre in Slough - a vision of the Kingdom being replaced by a discussion of last month's minutes.

Back in the mid-part of the 20th century, philosophers such as Theodore Adorno were warning about the changes to society that were being brought about by the extension of bureaucracy. He argued that, in the wake of the Enlightenment, social policy came to be dominated by a way of thinking characterised by evaluation, measurement, and testing. In this efficient style of thinking, subjectivity is steadily eradicated.

As he put it: "Thinking objectifies itself to become an automatic, self-activating process - an impersonation of the machine that it produces itself so that ultimately the machine can replace it."

One of the important aspects of Adorno's vision is his claim that such systems of thought are good at means-and-ends questions, but unable to answer (or even ask) "why" questions. Indeed, he argues, it was precisely this emphasis on efficiency - yet the failure to question why - that created blindness in thousands of Germans who worked towards the establishment of the Nazi death camps.

The committee-shaped Church is also good at blocking out questions of the wrong shape, and focusing instead on efficiency and management. It is so ironic. One of Adorno's observations is that this style of thought is peculiarly secular, a consequence of the universe's becoming cold, technical, and disenchanted. No wonder there is clergy burn-out. We thought we were reaching for the Kingdom. Years later, we realise we are working for just another multinational conglomerate.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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