REGULAR READERS of this column, sensitive no doubt to nuance and suggestion, will have gathered that I have something of a problem with futurity. Not only is it for the most part undesirable in itself; but it is hurtling towards us with an ever increasing velocity which is further cause for concern. When, therefore, hidden among the rainforest of discussion papers for the recent meeting of the General Synod, I came upon a notice suggesting that I should include an e-mail address in my entry in the Church of England Year Book, I was faced with a dilemma. Would everyone else have an e-mail address? And if hard-edged Evangelicals and flamboyant Affirming Catholics sported such status symbols, could I allow myself to go naked into the debating chamber?

With reluctance I went with the flow. I now have an e-mail address, which like all of these things is instantly unmemorable, and so I can justly claim to be keeping up with the Frankensteins.

What no one warned me about was the sheer amount of material which comes flooding in daily, when I flex my nifty little modem. Statements from Kuala Lumpur, advertisements for events at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and only the other day, quite unsolicitedly, some kind person in Canterbury sent me most of the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

I greet each offering with naive astonishment and a credulity which springs from a complete ignorance of the technology which makes all these things possible; but even I was somewhat surprised by the following – the only e-mail, to date which I have received from the future:

‘The origins of the recent crisis of Episcopal Ministry in the Church of England can be dated with considerable accuracy to the very end of the nineties of the last century…

It was then that the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, began that reassessment of the status and desirability of parochial ministry which was to have such an effect on the life of the Church. The work of the parish priest, said Carey then, is the most worthwhile and fulfilling in the Church…

His own resignation and subsequent appointment to a United Benefice of twelve rural parishes in the Welsh Marches set a trend which was to alter beyond recognition the patterns of episcopacy in the Established Church.

Other bishops followed suit – Chartres to a housing estate on the fringes of Liverpool, Hope to a farming community in the Yorkshire Dales. By the forties of the present century the octogenarian Bishop of Horsham remained a sole witness to older ways.

In retrospect it can be seen that the initial response of ABM and the Church Commissioners to the serious decline in the number of candidates offering themselves for episcopal ministry was woefully inadequate. The sale of palaces, moated granges and desirable Edwardian properties in leafy suburbs, and their replacement with efficient living units in urban settings, easily accessible to public transport, did little to increase the number of takers. And the creation of United Dioceses, whilst it was workable as a temporary expedient, placed unacceptable burdens, in the long run, on the selfless individuals who were prepared to undertake such near-impossible tasks. The travelling expenses of the Bishop of Carlisle, Bradford, Blackburn, Manchester, Liverpool and Chester, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner told Parliament, were a sorry tale of a man stretched to the utmost of human capacity.

It was in the early twenties that the break-through came, and, as so often, light dawned by means of a discussion paper presented to the Synod by one of its many boards and committees. GS987654321 (‘Bishops in Secular Employment: Meeting the Challenge of Church Management in the Thirties’) was based on the theological groundwork that had been done in the previous year by the House of Bishops Theological Working Party (‘The Townsend Report’). GS987654321 took from the Bishops’ Report a basic theological understanding of the Bishop as ‘manager’.

“Episcope”, said the Report, “is essentially the efficient shepherding of resources and manpower in the service of Progressive Retrenchment. In the last century, and particularly during the ill-fated Decade of Evangelism which preceded the Millennium, the Church still thought that evangelism was about numbers.”

“But serious theological reflection in the last twenty years has dispelled the shallow optimism of such an approach. The words of Jesus which resonated in the ears of thoughtful Church people in the early years of the new century (‘Many are called but few are chosen’) facilitated the development of a new concept of Mission.”

“Leaven Theology, which frankly acknowledged that no amount of compromise with secular society would be likely to persuade people to join the Church, and the recent ministerial profile showing that 92% of Anglican ministers are now in secular employment and that to a woman they are all over 60, have both been liberating factors.”

“In recent years it has been possible to develop patterns of ministry better suited to modern times. The word ‘pastoral’ with its outmoded agrarian associations, has generally been replaced by the more appropriate term ‘managerial’; and ministry has been seen for what it is (and, from the time of the Apostles themselves, always truly was) a secondary occupation or hobby activity.”

BSEs – Bishops in Secular Employment – were the logical and inevitable outcome of this ground-breaking Report. Once it was seen that ministerial commitment was not appropriately or even desirably life-long (by 2035, 73% of Church of England Ministers were on a five-yearly renewable contract) the way was open to appoint as bishops men who held down similar senior managerial posts in the business world.

The pioneer was George Sandford, Bishop of the M25, and General Manager of B & Q. After the usual period of reception, the new pattern of ministry was made obligatory. And so the present happy state of affairs was reached, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, as a matter of course, is also the General Manager of ICI.’

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark and cannot remember his e-mail address.