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The daily penance of paperwork

13 March 2015

We are all collapsing beneath the burden of bureaucracy, laments Judith Robinson


Not waving but drowning: form-filling has become all-pervasive

Not waving but drowning: form-filling has become all-pervasive

A WRONGLY planted tree on church premises was rotting a neighbouring house, and the PCC reluctantly agreed to have it cut down. But, oh, the paperwork involved! After months of consultation, inspection from the diocese, the Town Council, the Christmas Lights Committee, and some bad weather, the tree has yet to be felled, six months later. We were offered the opportunity to plant another tree elsewhere, but declined it. We took one look at the forms and lost the will to live.

This was yet another bit of the bureaucracy that hounds us daily - the "must-be-in-bys" turning to "should-have-been-in-bys" - and with which anyone, in any job, is familiar. Every parish spends hours on bureaucracy. The Christian Church, once at the forefront of loving care, is now at the forefront of . . . paperwork. Jesus must be thrilled.

We are not alone. Bureaucracy is rife in every organisation, and is responsible for stifling creativity and energy. In the working world, people of faith can either do the paperwork, while admitting that "the days are evil" (Ephesians 5.16), or simply refuse to fill in irrelevant forms. (One friend's sudden change of manager required duplicate form-filling, which sucked up time with his clients; so he refused. This led to disciplinary measures. Three months later, when the new boss left, the whole room full of extra paperwork was shredded.) We may even feel driven to withdraw from beloved voluntary groups, or retire early from work, and take up a hobby instead. Thus, both the workforce and the voluntary groups lose valuable skills and experience.

OF COURSE, the Church is not allowed to escape. At one meeting, our PCC had a particularly heated discussion over a mandatory policy that we saw as being antithetical to Christ's instruction to forgive. Our Vicar asked whether we would be prepared to resign at the next annual meeting because of it.

There was a long silence. Then one member said: "It's cheaper than a hair shirt." It was not an overstatement to compare our paperwork to this medieval form of self-imposed penance, and the rest of us agreed: it was just as irritating; just as itchy. And it scratched at the meaning of our faith. Despite that, no one chose resignation as a means of escape.

CHRIST humbled himself. We humble ourselves to the point of draining a creative brain into grey, zombie-like drivel, as we dutifully fill in forms that imply that we cannot talk to children, transport adults with learning difficulties, assess risk, climb a ladder, handle church funds, or even serve a cup of tea without evil intent. All the while, we know that any real criminal would find ways to continue truly nefarious practices undetected.

"Lead us not into temptation." We ask forgiveness as the mind reels with imagined sarcastic replies to a statistics survey that demands an-swers to questions that we never dreamed were germane to being the people of God.

So why don't we give up, as so many excellent teachers, librarians, nurses, and social workers are doing? After all, being a member of a church committee is a voluntary job.

Perhaps it has something to do with keeping the church there. We do the paperwork, not only for the smattering of penniless Sunday worshippers, who are the community's powerhouse of prayer. We are also there for the market stall-holders who need a lavatory, and a cup of tea; for the baptism, wedding-, and funeral-requesters; the whim-worshippers; those who take, and give nothing in return; the pre-schoolers who run around the sanctuary as if they owned the place (they do); the stranger who wanders in midweek to lay his hands on the church walls because "they are soaked with prayer"; the man who stumbles in during coffee time and bursts into tears at the suicide of a relative; the person who is "not religious", but checks the community prayer book each week; the little girl with nightmares; the fervent prayer of someone who just wants her dad.

We do the paperwork so that others can think on whatever is true, lovely, of good report - the things that are God's - and share their faith in the community. We do the paperwork so that Jesus is there, among those who suffer and those who celebrate.

But, while we're doing this, something beautiful happens. It is the wonder of God, who can draw together such a wildly disparate group as the members of our church council, and nurture us as we pray, wrangle, and work together - needing each other's skills, while our arrogance gets knocked down, and our confidence gets notched up; through the roadblocks we face, or the gaspingly impossible miracle of meeting our parish share. And, as we ourselves are changed, we keep the common vision of our church, open for the community and for the world.

SO, DESPITE the infuriating, energy-draining, time-guzzling, Caesar-rendering, faith-skewing bureaucracy, we volunteers keep going - not in order to proclaim the gospel, but to show that the Church is at the forefront of "good practice". Could this be love?

Judith Robinson worships at St Michael and All Angels, Shefford, in the diocese of St Albans.

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