David Holloway asks what remedies there are for a dysfunctional church

The Turnbull Report, Working as One Body, is the fourth book relating to Church organisation that I have read recently. Let me tell you about the other three.

First, there was Lyle Schaller’s 21 Bridges to the 21st Century. Schaller, an American Methodist, one of the most shrewd social analysts of the contemporary Western Church, makes the observation that (to oversimplify and using my jargon) the future of the Church in the modern urban world lies with “super-markets” rather than “corner shops”.

Secondly, there was David Mills’ brilliant pamphlet Collapsing Churches – a sociological analysis. This outlined the present malaise and the future hope of the mainline churches (and is available from REFORM, Sheffield). His thesis is fourfold. One, “institutions or groups are held together by shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions”. Two, when these go, all goes: “institutions without shared beliefs collapse rather than transform themselves.” Three, the mainline Protestant churches – and also Rome seen as a whole – are in a state of near collapse. Four, “faced with the loss of their shared beliefs, institutions respond in at least five ways: by denial, centralisation, homogenisation (ensuring that only “company men” get ordained and to positions of influence), frantic activity (such as “mission” statements and decades of evangelism, where no one is agreed what “mission” or the gospel really is), and cleansing – all to no avail. The application of that to the Church of England is obvious.

The third book is an important study entitled The Organisational Revolution. This is a series of papers edited by Coalter, Mulder and Weeks. The last essay seemed highly significant and relevant to our central structures in the Church of England. It was entitled The National Organisational Structures of Protestant Denominations: An Invitation to a Conversation. Its starting point is that mainstream Protestant denominations at the centre are dysfunctional.

Again to over simplify, originally denominations were “federal” in their polity. Thus the Church of England was originally a federation of parishes committed to “mere Christianity” in fellowship and united through an episcopal structure.

This then gave rise this century to the denomination as a “corporation” providing help to parishes or congregations and nationally through “moral welfare agencies”, “adoption agencies” and other practical “goods”. However, beginning about 1960, the corporate model began to break down … For decades a general consensus had prevailed between the corporate managers and trustees on the one hand and the people in the pew on the other. In the 1960s and early 70s, this consensus began to crumble.

The new denominational model that has followed is that of “the regulatory agency”. Correlated with a serious decline in numbers and with financial pressures, the regulatory nature of the current denominational structure has two dimensions. First, in the face of competition over a steadily shrinking financial pie, regulation consists of the development of procedures and policies for adjudicating the distribution of dwindling resources. Second, regulation consists of the development of patterns of governance and control over the budgets and activities of denominationally related institutions [in our case `parishes’ through `quotas’] that the former corporation no longer can support and influence through the provision of funds and services.

Unfortunately, in voluntary non-profit organisations, mature adults who are perfectly capable of living their lives and running their businesses, are unwilling to be told what to do or what not to do, by people who have little knowledge of their own local circumstances, whether these people call themselves diocesan or General Synod officials. Nor is this “independency”.

Rather they can see so clearly that the interests of those at the centre tend to be focused on issues internal to the survival of the bureaucratic organisation itself. The trade off is that at the centre there is demoralisation. It is not that people [in our case] in the House of Bishops, synods, committees and structures mean ill. No! People do not intend to regulate others, but to provide essential services and to exercise leadership. However, what they find … is an organisation whose very structure and momentum virtually prohibit them from doing what they themselves often most want to do. Rather than producing valued and valuable goods and services, they find their time and energies consumed by participation in meetings and consultations internal to the bureaucracy itself, by engagement in conflicts among various parties in the larger system, and by the production of policy papers, regulations, sanctions, and inducements designed to keep the organisation in a state of controlled equilibrium. The conclusion of this essay is that the denominations cannot carry on like this. The regulatory agency model has to go.

So how does the Turnbull Report measure up against these three books?

First, there is an interest in Schaller in the “growth” of the Church. Sadly I found such an interest missing in the Report. Yet the latest UK Christian Handbook and the latest official Church Statistics show that the Church of England is in decline! And if the future is with “supermarkets”, how does Turnbull help? The implied egalitarianism of the Report is no longer warranted. It may make life easier for dividing up the money; it will not help the evangelisation of our cities.

Secondly, what about the Church of England, viewed institutionally, being in a state of near collapse? Certainly there has been the collapse of an overall consensus, not least in doctrine and ethics. Fundamental beliefs are at stake. Surely therefore a National Council advised and steered by a House of Bishops that has already validated doubts or denials of the virginal conception of Jesus and his empty tomb and validated homosexual sex among the laity cannot assume “a following”. It is no good, therefore, talking about National “leadership”.

Thirdly, what about the “regulatory agency”? But that, surely, is what the Turnbull Report will help entrench. The Church of England has only recently moved away from being a “corporation”. It is clearly now becoming a regulatory agency. Turnbull will make it more so. The result of stream-lining and of more power being given to executive staff necessarily will mean more people trying to tell other people what they can and cannot do. With diminished central financial resources, that is one of the few options left for those at a national or diocesan centre. Such attempts, however, will lead to even more frustration and demoralisation. With there being no sanctions on the laity, people are often likely to take no notice as, for example, more and more churches are doing in respect of the “quota”. When regulations are perceived as irrelevant or detrimental to the gospel and the on-going life of the congregation, who can blame them? Counter claims that the centre sees the “whole” are palpably false when its horizon is simply its own bureaucratic or synodical world. Various pressures may then be attempted from the centre, with the only result being the creation of more conflict. The pew becomes more alienated from the centre. And the financial resources at the centre are even more diminished.

None of this is good news. So what is the way forward? Answer: a massive de-synodisation of the Church of England; a de-centralism to the parishes (not the dioceses – they have all the dysfunctional symptoms of the national centre but even worse); a de-prelatisation of the episcopate; but more importantly a return to the gospel of Jesus Christ of our Anglican tradition – the scriptural tradition of the BCP and the Thirty-nine Articles – but presented attractively and relevantly for the 21st century.

David Holloway is vicar of Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne, and formerly a member of many General Synod committees including its Standing Committee, Policy Sub-committee and Joint Budget Committee.