ON MONDAY morning, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, introduced to the General Synod the Transforming Effectiveness agenda, which had begun alongside the Vision and Strategy work last year. It had been set up to examine how to enhance the national church institutions (NCIs), reducing the costs of their central operations without further burdening dioceses: where was duplication? what could be stopped? and what should be best done nationally?
High-level reforms of the NCIs had now been approved by the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops’ Council, but consultation with staff was under way; so more detail could not yet be shared. One focus had been how to be “better joined up”, using the biblical metaphor of all being parts of the same body, called to work together to be the body of Christ in the world.
Adrian Harris had now moved from leading the Church’s digital team to heading this new project. He was looking at what aspects of the C of E could be better done once rather than again and again, 42 times; and also what opportunities there were to reduce the administrative burden of local worshipping communities. Online solutions and church support services had emerged as some of the key ways to do this, Mr Harris explained.
The project was voluntary, and dioceses and churches could opt into the services that it would offer as they wished, he said. “Centralisation is neither the objective, nor the answer,” he said. Last year, he led research into the needs of the wider Church, with consultations with dioceses and more than 400 individuals. This looked at everything from finance to property, payroll services to digital solutions.
Among the early ideas being explored was a knowledge hub of policies and guidance, standardised technology provision for church services, free C of E email accounts, bookkeeping software, and payroll services for church employees.
Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) asked how radical the Transforming Effectiveness team were prepared to be when considering the future of the NCIs. Would they look at perhaps moving a whole office to another part of the country, out of London?
The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) raised the risk of unintended consequences in this “complex” work, but also said that the project would require greater trust, which had come under strain during the pandemic.
Gavin Oldham (Oxford) said that, while centralisation was not the answer for all services, there was far too much duplication. A Synod motion addressing this had been passed more than four years before; why had it taken so long to address it?
Bishop Seeley said that there were many levels of consultation aiming at unearthing any unintended consequences. “Trust arrives on foot and flees on horseback,” he also reminded the Synod, and said that work was under way to establish greater degrees of trust with one another.
Michelle Obende (Chelmsford) asked what had come out in the research as having the biggest impact on worshipping communities. Mary Talbot (Europe) urged greater consideration for the diocese in Europe in the design stage of any nationally created projects.
Dr Andrew Bell (Oxford) said that he supported cutting back duplication, but questioned whether it could really be effective for the Church to reinvent administrative software when private solutions were already plentiful.
Mr Harris replied that the diocese in Europe had definitely not been forgotten by his team and workshops, and also agreed with Mr Bell that there was no need for the NCIs to build custom-made software, but instead for them to tender to established businesses that could do it well, besides looking at what was already available commercially.
Philip French (Rochester) asked whether there was any investigation about alternative models of arranging parishes as individual charities.
Elizabeth Renshaw (Chester) asked whether the solutions that Mr Harris was offering would also be available to diocesan boards of education (DBEs). Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) encouraged Synod members to consider using the Parish Buying system.
Bishop Seeley said that there was work looking at the “multitude of charities at local parish level”, but it was incredibly complicated. Mr Harris said that DBEs and other parts of the Church would be welcome to use any of the Transforming Effectiveness solutions, and confirmed that the Parish Buying scheme was involved in the project.
Canon Chris Tebbutt (Salisbury) asked what benchmarking work had been done by Mr Harris’s team to see how the C of E could learn from other similar organisations. John Freeman (Chester) asked and hoped that the software produced would not generate endless reams of paper.
Mr Harris said that a study had been run to benchmark direct to church services, to compare what could be provided by dioceses as well as charity and commercial partners.