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Clumsy, dysfunctional, and dangerous

06 February 2014

The Church needs strong leadership. Instead, it is clumsy and ungovernable, says Philip North

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 England.

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 compromise.

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 impossible.

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 death.

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 church-planting.

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 anti-evangelistic asever.

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 assist us.

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.

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