Richard Roberts asks of we should welcome the Turnbull Report

The recent Report of the Archbishop’s Commission on the Organisation of the Church of England, Working as One Body, contains an innovative and brilliantly conceived plan for the systematic restructuring of the Church. Central to the Report is a vision of the Church as an executive-led, highly unified organisation, in many respects similar to a business corporation. There will in effect be a World President (the Archbishop of Canterbury), a Company Chairman (again the Archbishop of Canterbury), an Executive Board (the proposed National Council of senior bishops and appointees) and a Chief Executive with considerable powers (the Secretary General) and many key, leading positions will be occupied by archiepiscopal appointees. Part of the plan involves the effective subordination of other important bodies to the Executive. Most notably, General Synod will become an advisory and legislative body representative of other stakeholders, which will, rather like the periodic meetings of shareholders keep the Executive in indirect touch with wider realities. The Church Commissioners will have a restricted financial function and be brought under Executive remit. Taken together the Turnbull proposals are regarded by some as the most far-reaching since the Reformation. Interpretation of the Report must, however, be further conditioned by what is not stated therein. In other words, understood in wider societal context, Working as One Body is as significant in what it fails explicitly to address as in what it proposes.

Under the terms of Turnbull Report, the National Council will be the Executive core of the Church; theologically-speaking it will also be the Head to which the Body of the Church will be responsible. The Report says very little about the implications of these structural changes for the overall “culture” of the Church. Whilst the Report denies that line-management is intended, field reports would, however, already indicate that the middle management of the Church (junior and suffragan bishops, archdeacons and rural deans) will rapidly fall into line and assume the methods and demeanour associated with newly defined roles. No doubt learning rapidly from practitioners in other commercial, business and service organisations, there will be those who will build their careers on the basis of implementing the ecclesial equivalents of performance indicators, Quality Audit, Pew Customer Charters, and so on; besides making sure that the Church’s version of “company loyalty” gently but surely stifles all dissentient voices. Will anything be lost by these changes? Will the responsible freedom of the pastor survive in such an environment? Should we not welcome the assimilation of the Church into the executive and managerial paradigm that has been imposed so successfully upon almost all sectors of British society? Should the Church of England not be “reformed” along with the National Health Service, the Social Services, the Universities and all other sectors of education? Are there any good reasons why the Church should not be thus “normalised”?

The Turnbull plan is thought out on the basis of an acknowledged synthesis between theology and management theory. The document has, moreover, a carefully wrought rhetorical structure reminiscent of a well-planned liturgy: the Church’s executive and managerial deficit is addressed in terms under which the managerial and organisational reform is as it were “transubstantiated” through explicit references to the Eucharistic context (p. xii), to the “theology of the gracious gift” (pp. 4ff.) and invocation of the Holy Spirit (pp. 24).

The Report not only envisages a top-down model of the Church as regards the theological and managerial aspects of episcope (the priority); it also involves a social hegemony. This should not be wholly surprising given a Commission consisting of senior clergy (4), business executives (5), senior judge, civil servant and academic (3) and selected General Synod representatives (5). As the historian Edward Norman has argued, the episcopal elite in the Church of England has almost invariably tended to absorb and transmit the dominant ideology of its peer group. This is now composed of the senior executives and managers who increasingly control all significant sectors of society. Thus a pillar-box Church is fed with ruling ideas from the top which percolate downwards in constant tension with the reality experienced at the base. Such a process of assimilation has happened repeatedly since the development of political economy in the latter half of the eighteenth century. What is now new about the present situation of the Church of England is that the ideology of managerialism now being appropriated by its elite is infinitely more subtle and invasive than any of its clumsier predecessors. Indeed, the outstanding success of managerialism as an ideology (i.e. a comprehensive and regulatory system of interest-bearing ideas specifically incorporating the denial of the interest of its propagators) is that it fights off all-comers with the charge that any resistance to the prerogatives and practices of managerial control is simply the expression of vested interests and an unwillingness to be efficient and accountable. The implementation of the latter almost invariably imply control.

Thus the basic rationale of the Turnbull Report expressed in terms of the need to gain efficiency may seem reasonable enough, but in reality the “managerial revolution” (to use James Burnham’s resonant phrase) involves sophisticated means of enforcement. Can we really believe that the advice that the Archbishop of Canterbury regularly receives from senior Christian executives and businessmen will allow that executive restructuring can be made fully effective without the consequential managerial practices affecting the whole organisation? As Mr Brian Macwhinney, Chairman of the Conservative Party recently remarked on BBC Radio 4, “reform” is achieved through “radical change followed by managerial enforcement”.

The scene is now set for the Church of England to step into line and conform with a national managerial revolution implemented with singular efficacy under Mr John Major’s premiership. Whereas Mrs Thatcher was confrontational (and the Church of England often responded in kind), Mr Major and his advisors know well that managerial enforcement involves a highly differentiated process of de-skilling and the gradual stripping away of professional autonomy from middle-ranking employees. For the latter, the application of British Standard 5750 and ISO 9000 in Quality Audit involves the devising of intricate, self-imposed and internalised patterns of obediential behaviour. For the lower ranks control is simply external and regulatory and the desired effects achieved through the behaviourist training schemes perfected in “McDonaldised” systems of product and service delivery.

Managerial elites and management consultants worldwide have for some time been aware of the need to functionalise religion and spirituality in the workplace; this assimilation or (to use a favoured term) “synergesis” extends far beyond what most people are aware of. The Church of England’s present sometimes unhelpful tendency to sustain a critical perspective upon a divided and imperfectly managed society (once more in evidence with the publication of Staying in the City) would appear to require correction. Rather than engage in fruitless confrontation, quiet advice whispered into the right episcopal ears, and a systematic restructuring of the Church in terms of an Executive and subsequent managerial enforcement are far more effective. Taken as whole, the proposals in the Turnbull Report properly supplemented with managerial control will ensure not merely that criticism will gradually cease (as it has in universities), but that the Church of England will become an efficient, product-led service organisation meeting the spiritual requirements of the residually Christian part of the English population with a regularised and marketable “Gospel”. In the words of Michael Novak, the “empty shrine” of our particular form of capitalism will thereby be filled. Strangely enough, Working as One Body with its twofold role for the Church of England, iconic archiepiscopal representation of the nation to nation and the world, and a universal ministry in each parish, respectively, may also be understood as a consolidated expression of English religious nationalism. The absence of reference in the Report to the social, cultural ethnic and religious diversity of the “nation” (England) is striking.

Religious self- and collective expression remains for the moment one of the few spheres of human life which has so far resisted the invasive managerialism of contemporary Britain. Theology, also, curiously, now remains a discourse (perhaps the only one remaining) which may still, in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, erect barriers against the false ultimacy and infinite cunning of all totalitarian ideologies. In a society without a written constitution and lacking a well-developed understanding of human rights, nothing less than our personal and collective identities are at stake. It will be a great pity if the Church of England silently falls into line and sacrifices the independence and responsible autonomy of its clergy and people on the altar of the false god of managerialism.

Richard Roberts. Department of Religious Studies, University of Lancaster.