Managing the Church? Order and Organization in a Secular Age

Gerald Vinten (Southampton Business School, Southampton, UK)

Management Decision

ISSN: 0025-1747

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Vinten, G. (2000), "Managing the Church? Order and Organization in a Secular Age", Management Decision, Vol. 38 No. 6, pp. 437-440.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

I found this book just a tad disappointing. The Church – and the army – tended to be the subjects of early organisation theory and sociology. Since then, and with the disputed notion of the secularisation of society, the Church is rarely present in management texts and case studies. The present book seemed an opportunity to put the Church back into management, but in the event it is unlikely that it will command much attention from such quarters. There is no objection to the warning of the dangers of drinking too deeply and drowning from the wells of management schools and sciences, except that the editors seem obsessed with it, since they mention it at the start of both parts one and two. It is too much written from a confessional viewpoint, predominated by the Church of England, although with contributions from Methodism, the Free Churches, and the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but for these last two simply in regard to the question of women bishops. These contributions are basically for comparison with the dominant Church of England, which has to be worrying given the comment of contributor Richard Laughlin that few can be like the Church of England (p. 71). The title should have been “Managing the Church of England” and then the parochialism would have been to be expected, rather than provoking comment. Even then one would have looked for some genuine analysis of the situation in other church groupings.

The book was published in the wake of the Turnbull Report Working as One Body, but annoyingly little is said of the report by way of its gestation, overall content, and impact, and it is not even indexed. The central question put before contributors was “should we be looking at management or order?” This itself needs translation, especially if the management fraternity and general readers are to understand the precise nature of this dichotomy. We have to wait until page 100 to encounter the insight, rather than definition, that “Order in the Church always has to keep collegiality and hierarchy in balance.” The introductory chapter is by former vice‐chancellor Derek Burke who seeks to draw parallels between the Church and the University. Some might opine that each is as bad as the other, and therefore, consider the comparison appropriate. Indeed this is the later view of contributor Richard Roberts who mercilessly attacks the book Strategic Church Leadership which Derek Burke co‐authored with Robin Gill. He considers that the type of “constructive dismissal” whereby, thousands of experienced university staff fade exhausted and disillusioned into premature retirement, deprived of making their mature contribution, may well take place in the churches.

The present chapter was composed as a paper to a July 1998 diocesan study day. It was no doubt effective for this medium, but unaltered its verbal face‐to‐face style is less suited to print. Indeed it seems too much off‐the‐cuff and half‐baked. Overly facile distinctions are drawn with the secular world and its values which are to be disavowed. Depending on the criteria chosen, the Church would not invariably show up trumps in any such comparison, and there is evidence that it may even perform worse in supporting what the book might wish to refer to as “Christian” values. Charles Handy seems to be writ large across the chapter, which is ironic given that his religious derivation only includes Christianity among a list which equally includes secular humanism, pantheism and Buddhism.

The book then divides into four parts. The first is “Managing the church today”. Bishop Ian Cundy and former oil industry manager turned priest Justin Welby consider whether a bishop can order a diocese. There is some valuable information and reflection here, including the post‐modern approach, and adopting the Peter Senge derived notion of the servant leader. It is a pity that the narrowed focus of the book did not allow consideration as to whether having bishops is a help or hindrance. The Presbyterian Church is one among many which would regard the bishopric as at the root of troubles in church governance. Richard Laughlin provides an insightful model of financial accountability for the Church of England, based on his 1984 PhD thesis. This is simply a reprint of an old article, and it is vitiated by quoting as the latest data from 1983 without taking the trouble to update. So although this chapter would have been perhaps the most valuable in the book (except that the reviewer had already read it elsewhere), one loses sympathy with being presented with out‐of‐date material, with no indication of developments in the last 20 years which, given the pace of change generally, are likely to have been crucial. This indicates a serious lack of editorial direction.

Part two is “Assessing managerial reform”. Richard Roberts writes the most engaging and inspiring chapter that clashes head‐on with Robin Gill and Derek Burke’s Strategic Church Leadership (SPCK, London, 1996) as moving beyond Turnbull “towards the implementation of a system of quality audit and performance appraisal that invite, indeed, will inevitably reproduce within the Church, patterns of human abuse characteristic of society at large” (p. 79). The only naivety is the assumption that such abuse has not been present within the Church from time immemorial, and did not require any external motivation or ill‐considered publications for its propagation. The reviewer shares his disdain for what has been referred to elsewhere as the audit society, in which everything has to be constantly reduced to measurement and appraised. The crass Taylorite style of management of the universities is seen as being transferred to the churches, with the shallow pattern of accommodation favoured by the Church simply repeating itself. In the tradition of Donald MacKinnon’s life‐long concern with the systematic abuse of ecclesiastical power, Richard Roberts utters the warning that: “We cannot assume that some hidden power will miraculously preserve an immaculate Church from collusion or seduction with the increasing banality of life characteristic of mass consumer society; yet we can at least question such assimilation.”

G.R. Evans continues the critique, less vituperatively, on the ecclesiology of the Turnbull Report. This shows the advantage of a contemporaneous medievalist being able to offer an historical perspective on the argument, particularly on how the proposed National Council would function. Dr Evans finds the leitmotiv in the report of an uneasy juxtaposition of the language of pilgrimage and the language of management dynamics (p. 107).

Finally, former secretary of the Methodist Conference Brian Beck provides a Methodist reflection on structural change. This is a valuable chapter in that it provides the background and theological justification for the 1996 Methodist restructuring. However, all the ire of Richard Roberts may be invoked, since Brian Beck indicates that if you extract some of the peculiar Methodist terminology, Turnbull and the Methodist equivalence are virtually interchangeable. Later, Brian Beck reveals that pragmatism, no doubt born of the crisis of persistent membership and financial deterioration, as well as theology underline this restructuring, which has certainly imitated the worse commercial model in terms of the disillusionment, lack of communication at grass‐roots level, and internal politics. Of course, the chapter provides not an inkling of all this.

Part three is on “The shaping of the church”. This returns to the pervasive theme of the goodness of fit between management theory and the theology of the Church as an organism. Stephen Pattison recycles a 1996 essay and shows that he could not even be bothered to pick up the telephone to find out what the Institute of Measurement and Control is, opting to surmise and conjecture from ignorance. This leads into his theme of the McDonaldization of society, and objections to “aims and objectives”. Such prophetic outcry is necessary, since it is not just the distinctiveness of religious caring which is threatened. If it were not for the fact that the Church is so busy assimilating this skewness of measured aims and objectives, and ignoring the insights of its own industrial chaplaincies, it might well have formed part of its own message to the world and leavening of the lump. Vaughan Roberts treats us to an explication of the metaphor and symbolism of the body, a notion full of theological and management resonance, and central to the matter on hand. The chapter provides a note of realism in drawing attention to the tension between the “will‐to‐consensus”, and the “will‐to‐conflict” which is seen as the more powerful in the Church.

It is a pity that this theme is not pursued in the book, which is thin on providing anything by way of case study material. The nine o’clock service is mentioned in passing, but not explained, and the less significant Chalcraft affair is outlined briefly, but that is all. Conflict between vicars and organists seem far from isolated, yet the book does not provide bottom‐up examples from which conclusions can be drawn. It is about the ethereal levels of Church life, which are likely to be far out of the reach or even interest of the average member of a congregation, who in numerical terms predominates as fodder to be “managed”. Managing volunteers is a major topic in the not‐for‐profit sector, of which one imagines the Church to be a part. Again this literature and experience is not drawn on. Martyn Percy discusses a theology of change for the Church, drawing on several metaphors. Sadly, we are told that the Church of England is presently torn between two polarized models of collegiality – the PLC with a board and chief executive, and the medieval court with prelates presiding as feudal Lords over priests and laity, although Anglicanism abroad has done better with more democratic and accountable systems of governance. Only one vague paragraph in the entire book is devoted to this, despite G.R. Evan’s criticism of Turnbull for doing just this, that is neglecting the worldwide body of Anglicanism.

Part four is “Ecclesial order and ecumenism”, although surprisingly this is taken to mean only the issue of women as bishops. When Professor Ben Fletcher undertook his own study of the clergy in London, he soon found that the presenting issue was that of the large numbers of closet gay clergy, who led double lives away from their congregations, including those whose lifestyle could only be described as promiscuous. Apart from briefly mentioning this as an issue that, among many, can divide the Church, the book has no more to say on this issue, even though it is an equally and probably more momentous issue of role conflict than women as bishops. Indeed this whole section serves as a distraction in the book. The topic is adequately served elsewhere, and there is plenty missing in the book on its core subject. It does contain the interesting phenomenon of using an Anglo‐Catholic opposed to the ordination of women to write on the situation in the Free Church tradition.

The conclusion is particularly indeterminate. Referring to Alisdair MacIntyre’s “After virtue” wish to recover new forms of community that will endure through the Dark Ages already on us, he hopes for a new and no doubt very different St Benedict to achieve this. The editors then tell us that, in fact, any true servant would do. These last words are of the status of pious rhetoric from which it is difficult to derive any agenda for action. The editors seem to pine for a golden age when service had not become an industry to be costed and accounted for, and often thinks it cannot afford. The book is short on reference to empirical research on management aspects of the Church or churches, or even on prior reports written on aspects of the subject, such as the 1964 Paul Report on the Deployment and Payment of the Clergy. Neither does it set itself within the wider context of corporate governance initiatives. In sum, the book has not realised its promise through slack editorial control, and there is redundant material within, as well as significant areas of neglect. Having said that, given the paucity of such texts, those within the Church of England with due interest will want to obtain and read this text, and will benefit, although its impact in general management circles is likely to be negligible, which is a lost opportunity.

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