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What does it mean to be a humbler Church?

17 September 2021

Steve Morris casts a brand consultant’s eye over one of the key words in the C of E’s Vision and Strategy

THE manager of the England football team, Gareth Southgate, has a knack of saying the right thing at the right time. Commenting on his players’ rather gauche celebrations after they had paper cups thrown at them this month by a hostile Hungarian crowd, he urged them to show a bit more humility next time, a bit more class. He pointed out that humility tends to get the crowd on your side.

Humility is a word often heard in a rather negative context — false humility, the sycophacy of Uriah Heep, and so on. But it is intriguing that the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy for the 2020s calls for the Church to be, among other things, “humbler” (News, 26 November 2020).

I used to run a brand agency, and worked with many of the largest organisations in the land, vision-setting and helping them to take that crucial second step: making it actually happen.

Brands generally have a set of words to describe what they stand for, or what the end user will notice. Brand consultants get used to seeing the same kind of words come up time and again. But, when you get an unusual, meaty word, then you can really have some fun working out what it means in the context of the organisation. It gives you scope to be bold — even playful. “Humbler” is just such a word. The challenge is to get the very most out of the word.

If I had been advising the Church, I would have wondered two things straight away. First, what are we going to be humbler than? Notice that it does not say “humble” — which is definite — but “humbler”. This implies that we are to be humbler than we have been in the past or currently are. That’s exciting, because it is a challenge.

But I wonder whether more could have been made out of the word. At present, “humbler” is described in the strategy document as “recognising our failings and working with others to serve the common good”. These are good things; but there is more scope to explore the richness of being a humbler Church. It is about more than simply saying sorry.

The second question I would have asked was: Where did this word come from? Was it the rank and file who asked for more humility? Was it the leadership? Was it a resounding need, something that was an obvious way to proceed, or just a nice-to-have?

 

WITH all strategies, the devil is in the detail. So here are just a few ideas from someone on the outside to get us wondering about what a humbler Established Church might look like.

There may be some theological issues to sort out. If we have a “victory” model of the cross, how do we honour, value, and celebrate the truth of God that other faiths can help us with?

Being humbler is about actions and language; so, I would suggest a look at the language that the Church uses — aiming for simplicity, clarity, and everyday words. Test out phrases on regular folk. We keep the beautiful words; we don’t ditch liturgy or all that is precious. But we should aim to sound like regular, modern people in the way we put things.

We could position ourselves as fellow seekers, along with the rest of humanity. We don’t have all the answers, but we do want to hear people’s stories and celebrate them.

If we want to win people over, gain their trust, then, perhaps, we should build on the amazing acts of service that people carry out every day in our churches already. We are a blessing, no strings attached. Great brands build on what is already there — they just make that bit more prominent and do more of it.

And then there is the way in which we clergy deal with people. A humbler clergy (and the ones I know are humble and good) might reflect on how we handle complaints and differences. We might examine our attitudes to power and inclusion. Recent cases have reminded us of the toxicity of putting leaders on pedestals and crushing alternative voices. Here is a long shot: what if all clergy, just for a couple of months, stepped back from the foreground and served in a humble position in a team?

 

I REALLY like the fact that the Church is going through this strategic process, and the results are, to say the least, radical. It is bold and to be celebrated. It could have been launched more effectively: brand graphs and language do not play well without stories and conversations and clarity. It could have been written more crisply — even more humbly. But we learn as we go along, and none of this is an exact science.

Finally, of course, if we are to be humbler, we have to take a good look at ourselves. I am part of the problem, and I don’t want to be.

The next chapter could be very exciting — if we can just keep our cynicism at bay and be a little humbler.


The Revd Steve Morris is Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in the diocese of London.
His book Our Precious Lives: How listening to and telling stories can save the Church (Faith, 7 February 2020), is published by Authentic Media at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99), 978-1-78893-079-6.

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