FIGHTING and conflict were raging across Syria. In this country,
hundreds of thousands of people on benefits were turning to
foodbanks and loan sharks in order to feed their children; and
clergy were coping with the harsh realities of ministry in a
post-Christian culture. And what were we talking about in last
November's sessions of General Synod? Ourselves, mostly.
In particular, we were discussing a motion from the London
diocesan synod urging us to find a less "parliamentary" and more
consensual way of making decisions - a motion that, unsurprisingly,
was overwhelmingly rejected.
Of course, there is much more to our structures as a Church than
the General Synod. But the existence of so self-obsessed and
out-of-control an organisation at the heart of our life symbolises
in so many waysthe innate ungovernability of the Church of
The General Synod is more than just dysfunctional: it is
dangerous. It is innately conflictual, its hallowed processes
making no space for listening or genuine engagement. Its set-piece,
pre-scripted speeches encourage the sort of grandstanding and
attention-seeking which is inimical to proper decision-making.
It has, in abundance, the worst aspects of parliamentary-style
democracy, but none of the traditions (party discipline, whipping,
committees, etc.) which allow for the building of consensus and
It is disgracefully expensive. Its membership is all too often
complacent, static, and bitterly resistant to reform or change. The
car crash of November 2012, over women bishops, was inevitable, and
it is only by interfering with due process - in a manner that the
Church's civil servants are likely to resist ever happening again -
that a way ahead appears to have been found.
AS ANGLICANS in the UK, we are looking down an evangelistic
cliff of unimaginable depth. The demographic time-bomb, the triumph
of secular materialism, and the post-modern distaste for religious
institutions mean that no number of Messy Churches can hide the
reality of the crisis that is approaching. At a time such as this,
the Church needs strong leadership, clarity of vision, disciplined
use of resources, and unity of purpose.
Unfortunately, as the General Synod so potently demonstrates,
our clumsy structures render such things impossible. We may know
what we want; but the problem is that the complex, inherited
pattern of governance procedures, appointments processes, canons,
laws, and traditions make it undeliverable.
Take, as another example, the bench of bishops. They are a
highly committed and faithful group of men who work incredibly
hard, and often under levels of stress that threaten their
well-being. But they are lumbered with a job that is
Their shiny new job descriptions give them terrifying
responsibility for the mission of the Church across vast tracts of
the nation, but they have hardly any levers of power with which to
deliver on the expectations that we lay before them.
MAROONED in a sea of clergy conditions of service, private
patronage, canon and charitable law, synodical muscle-flexing,
opinionated archdeacons, and bossy diocesan secretaries, they have
highly limited room to manoeuvre or bring about real change.
All they have left to resort to is the formation
ofwell-intentioned, alliterative vision statements, or the
privileged comfort of the House of Lords.
And, of course, a great deal of the problem lies with people
like me. We parish priests do not especially want to be managed,
governed, or led. In fact, avoiding such things was a factor that
led many of us towards ordination in the first place.
There are many cases where the extraordinary freedoms allowed to
parish priests lead directly to entrepreneurial and risk-taking
ministry, and thriving local churches. But, equally, there are many
others where it has resulted in inactivity, laziness, and
All the studies show us that quality of leadership is the
biggest factor in enabling a Church to grow.
Bishops long to find ways of developing the capacity of their
priests, and in things such as ministerial review and the
Continuing Ministerial Education programme of in-service training
they have some resources to offer. But the problem is that, unless
those priests choose to co-operate, no one has the power to do
anything about it.
THE results of this decision-making paralysis come home most
clearly to me when it comes to church planting. Five years ago, an
ordained friend, along with his small but wonderfully bold
pastorate group, was asked to reopen a church building that had
been made redundant some 20 years previously.
In order to achieve what the Bishop had asked him to do, the
priest had to negotiate the project through six PCCs, deanery synod
and chapter, the pastoral committee, the diocesan finance
committee, the diocesan advisory committee, the Bishop's Council,
and numerous consultative bodies.
There was £200,000 in inherited costs to be paid off, in
addition to £150,000 for urgent, remedial repairs, and the new
church had to guarantee financial viability from day one (including
the payment of, in full, the priest's stipend and rent).
The whole process took more than three years, and included a
number of setbacks that would have caused most mortals to give up.
And this was in a diocese thatis highly committed to
It is no wonder that so many church-planters sidestep such
arcane and dysfunctional processes, and simply get on with the job.
For all the lovely language, our structures are as
It is easy to vent frustration by criticising individual
leaders. But, actually, this doesn't help, because the problems are
structural. Our inherited processes are unfit for purpose, and are
incapable of delivering the "Church in mission" which we all want
to see. We spend far too much of our time and energy having to
manipulate, or fight against structures that should be there to
We can all dream of a new-look Church with clean, flat,
transparent decision-making processes, strong and empowered
leadership, and a reformed Synod working to help the local churches
to flourish. The trouble is, someone will vote against it.
Far more likely is that we will have to allow the current broken
structures to die, and enable something else to grow up from where
the Church's heart and soul really lies - in the local.
The Revd Philip North is the Rector of St Pancras Old
Church, London, and a member of the General Synod.