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Angela Tilby: Church of England should heed lessons of Post Office saga

12 January 2024

ITV

Former sub-postmasters campaign in Mr Bates vs the Post Office (ITV1)

Former sub-postmasters campaign in Mr Bates vs the Post Office (ITV1)

NOT since the 1966 play Cathy Come Home has television galvanised the nation with a moral drama as compelling as the recent Mr Bates vs the Post Office, broadcast on ITV1. The injustice done to more than 700 sub-postmasters was a result not only of incompetence, but of evil — corporate evil or structural sin, as we often call it today.

The moral blindness displayed by the Post Office bosses and the Liberal Democrat ministers supposedly in charge for the Coalition Government is unfortunately common today. It is a feature of the technocratic management culture that has taken over in so many areas of our common life, in which, when “Computer says no,” computer is believed, in spite of all human evidence to the contrary. Behind such mismanagement is the wholly secular assumption that machines are to be trusted over people, and that human institutions can and should be run like machines.

In such an ecology, the management hierarchy will always be right. The Post Office bosses, including the largely silent the Revd Paula Vennells, put the reputation of the Post Office first. Yet, those in frontline posts, who found that the computer system distorted their accounts, were simply disregarded, isolated, and often ruined. It has taken too many years both for their case to be heard and for the faults of the executive to be exposed as potentially criminal blindness.

St Paul’s analogy of the Church as a body has been widely influential in Western culture. It suggests that “corporations”, institutions, fulfil their function only when there is mutual respect between those creating policy and those enacting it. Hierarchies have their place, but they should never be merely about command and control. The whole notion of hierarchy is explored theologically in that ancient mystical text The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius. The work describes how different elements of God’s creation work together for a common end under divine providence. Proper function depends on proper relationships, mutual recognition, and respect. But the Post Office bosses preferred the machine.

Most incomprehensible has been the lack of basic curiosity about why so many individual sub-postmasters should have suddenly become corrupt. Each case was treated as unique; each individual was deliberately isolated. The truth, to which bosses and ministers were so culpably blind, was that those who sold stamps, weighed parcels, and advised the public were the face of the Post Office in the communities that they served. This is why their plight eventually won such public support, and why, today, we are still outraged by what has happened.

The Church of England should take note, because we have seen the way in which it has prioritised reputation management over the needs of abuse victims, and top-down management over parish mission. Its mindset, corporately, is perhaps closer to the Post Office’s than the New Testament’s.

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