It was July 1992 when John Plender dropped a bombshell in the Financial Times, reporting that the Church Commissioners had lost about £800m of their then £3billion portfolio. A year later, I joined the Church Commissioners as a graduate. At one point, around 1995, I was seconded to the Diocese of Chichester for a while. Do you know what their average weekly giving was per head at that point? 97p; in one of the richest dioceses in the land! 1995 was an important year for it was the year in which the Turnbull Commission reported, ushering in the era of the Archbishops’ Council and a slim-lined Church Commissioners. Many would see this change as a pivotal one, because it altered the organisational landscape of the Church of England, and to some degree the balance of power. But I have come to see that it was the Copernican Revolution in parish funding that has really altered the Church of England, because since 1992 the living church – in the parishes – has had to move from being subsidised to being largely self-financing.
It’s hard to find the exact figures, but before 1992 the Commissioners footed about 25% of the Church of England’s annual bill. This included cathedrals, pensions, and clergy stipends. After 1992, it became apparent that not only could the Commissioners not afford to keep paying this, but that the cost of the Church of England was going to increase quite substantially, because of the pension liability. In future, the entire cost of running the parochial system would need to be met by the living church, and not the endowment.
This double whammy of reducing subsidy and increasing costs meant that 97p per head wasn’t exactly going to cut it. Of course, non-conformist churches have always had to pay their own way, and it is not so much this state of events as the transition to it that I think has been so negative for the Church of England. This is partly because it coincided with the 20 year period between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the collapse in credit when capitalism and the logic of the market reigned supreme. So the narrative has naturally been one of profit and loss, of assets and liabilities, and of sales and marketing.
Embracing the narrative de jour has led the Church into all kinds of trouble, chief of which has been a fundamental change in the clergy’s actual and psychological contract of employment, in pursuit of a well-meaning attempt to modernise the awkwardness of the clergy freehold. This has taken place just when it has become apparent how much secularisation has robbed clergy of their social mandate, compounding a feeling of retrenchment, as parish boundaries are redrawn and clergy are asked to cover ever greater patches, and to be more accountable for their performance. Now many of them talk about a need to keep the faithful happy enough that they keep contributing to the parish share and provide positive feedback for clergy appraisals and career development. So it has become entirely logical that the Church of England should have developed a preoccupation with bums on seats as a key metric both of clergy success and as a way of keeping the show on the road financially.
Thankfully, this currently shows up more in the rhetoric than the statistics. Linda Woodhead’s YouGov numbers report that 67% of Church of England clergy still think the Church should prioritise ‘England as a whole’ rather than any ‘member’ constituency. But the numbers trail off in the non-established churches. One hopes this is not a direction of travel, as he who pays the piper starts increasingly insisting on calling the tune. Anecdotally, this is already happening in some dioceses, where churches have been known to at least threaten to withhold subsidy from those churches with whom they theologically disagree. Writ large this threatens the parochial system, which depends on cross-subsidy to provide its universal service. And if it can’t, the case for establishment becomes much more evidently one of historical anachronism, if clergy cannot claim in any meaningful sense to be serving the citizenry in every corner of the land.
In the jargon, I think the church is caught at a classic crossroads: should it manage the organisation, or manage the enterprise? As a business person, I can of course see that in pursuit of the former we could easily take out cost, leverage plant, optimise HR, and increase market share. Whether or not this would enhance the Church’s mission, I have doubts. Either way, as Iain McGilchrist reminds us, this is a classic dilemma about attention. McGilchrist’s work shows that the left brain favours the alluring measurability of managing the organisation, while the right brain favours a soft focus approach on the big picture. And while the two hemispheres are complementary, brain plasticity would argue that attending to one more than the other will have the effect, over time, of strengthening the muscle that is most often used. So, while management attention is focused on measures and metrics to improve the organisation, less attention by busy leaders may then be paid to the more nebulous outreach activities, in spite of the fact that these are the very activities that seem best placed to cleanse the church’s toxic brand – Fairtrade, foodbanks, credit unions etc.
And this is the key ecclesiological challenge. These activities, by in large, do not serve those who pay for them through parish share. I welcome initiatives like the former Bishop of Durham’s, to ask the parishes what they want to pay, because I think it is at parish level that the value of these outreach initiatives in the community are really felt. But how do we ensure that a gradual shift towards member-led priority-setting doesn’t drift towards narrow self-interest?
Iain McGilchrist, again, offers some comfort for the church in this regard, because the habits of theology tend to encourage suppleness in the right brain. But only if we resist attempts to convert these habits into left-brain simplicities. You probably saw the headlines when Linda Woodhead’s latest statistics were released, screaming ‘Time to get serious’ and ‘We’ll be dead in 10 years’. If we can keep our heads (both halves of our heads in particular), I don’t buy these predictions. In psychological terms, managerial control is about a need to feel competent by exercising dominion over the environment. God even encourages this by his commissioning of Adam in Genesis, and psychometric research bears out a trend amongst the senior management population to have a strong bias in favour of this tendency. This is all left-brain stuff, and it feels natural. So calls to arms about bums on seats play into a pre-primed mindset, and allow us suddenly to feel like masters again. But we also have, courtesy of Jesus’ many clashes with the Pharisees, a reminder that this should not be allowed to become a snare for the unwary. Mission inward is only ever legitimate if it serves mission outward. It’s not just in the Gospels that the Church is at its most attractive to new recruits – and fresh resources – but when it is manifesting love for the marginalised.
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.