by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford
The Clergy Covenant for Well Being is solemnly affirmed and proclaimed as an ‘Act of Synod’. It looks like voting for parenthood and apple pie, but does raise serious questions.
A covenant for clergy well being sounds great, of course, demonstrating that we are a responsible organisation exercising a proper duty of care. But crucially it is not clear that the covenant provides something that the Church of England can actually deliver and – like many diocesan strategies and similar documents – may well be designed for a Church that doesn’t really exist.
That raises a key question about what kind of thing the Church is?
In the Covenant an explicit assumption is made: that it is something like the British Army. That assumption raises all sorts of supplementaries: the army covenant is between the British people and the British Army. So who is the clergy covenant between? It obviously cannot be “the British people”, and is unlikely to be “practising Anglicans”, given that we are not a membership organisation. It cannot be the General Synod because it is not that kind of body. Further, if the army covenant seriously is the model – and that is what the document claims – then there are big questions about the comparison: a well resourced, highly structured public sector organisation with high public status versus an under resourced, loosely structured voluntary sector organisation with low public status.
The word “organisation” also needs some examination. There has been a growing assumption, in actual practice, that the Church is just another sort of organisation. Certainly the Church needs to be organised – that is basic to being able to do our job. But is the Church actually an organisation or are we – like the people of Israel in 1 Samuel 8 – just yearning to be like other organisations? We want a “king like all the nations” or rather “a Bishop like all the CEOs”.
I used to think it was Max Weber, but apparently it was Terry Pratchett, who said that the more organised an organisation becomes, the more it loses touch with those it is there to serve. It certainly sounds like Weber, and I would suggest that it stands as an important critique of many of the current tendencies in churches and para-church organisations. Certainly if we are an organisation, we are not very good at it.
What if the Church is not an organisation but a relational culture?
A relational culture still needs structures and accountability. It may even need strategic plans and mission statements, but only as long as it recognises that these don’t really mean very much. Such documents are more like statements of intent, demonstrations that we have done some decent thinking, like showing your working in a maths exam.
Of themselves plans and strategies are incapable of delivering the mission that stands at the heart of the church’s calling. As every parish priest knows, almost everything God chooses to bless and make fruitful is something we did not think of, did not plan – though the fact we had done some thinking, or even more important, praying, meant we were ready. The God who bursts out at us from the lit bush is unlikely to be tamed or confined by our planning or our strap lines.
The key characteristic of a relational culture is that people pay real attention to one another. Relational cultures demand nurture and formation. They are very complex and it is easy to see why we have largely chosen to replace them with managerial structures.
But in doing so we have created a serious short circuit. Simone Weil’s wonderful line “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” is worth pondering at every level by those involved in Christian ministry.
In some sense the core role of the Christian minister is to pay attention. It is written into the word “episcope”, splendidly translated in Bauer’s great New Testament Lexicon as “the act of watching over with special reference to being present”. So a bishop’s job is to be present and to pay attention big time – to God, to themselves, to those in their immediate care, and to the wider networks and contexts which the church seeks to serve.
That sounds more like a contemplative vocation than a managerial role, and the same is true for those who as ordained, licensed and authorised ministers share in the Bishop’s episkope. The costly work of paying attention stands at the heart of the enterprise, even or especially when the organisational structure appears permanently distracted and chronically anxious.
To make a deeply Ignatian point, what we do comes from who we are, not the other way round. Nurturing and forming people in a relational culture and learning together how to be attentive in worship, prayer and silence are core disciplines, not simply nice things to do for those with the time. Walter Hilton, in the context of a Church that was losing its way and a culture deep in anxiety placed “more desire of love and the spiritual presence of Jesus” at the absolute centre of the life and ministry of the people of God. That way we become the gift, often a bit messy, but welcome, open, hospitable and loving.
Which brings us back to the Clergy Covenant.
Wesley Carr’s analysis of the Church of England could be written off as belonging to a previous era, but there is solid wisdom here. That is precisely because Carr understood deeply that the Church was not really an organisation or an institution but precisely a relational culture. He was clear that the primary relationship on which this relational culture depended was bishop to priest / parish (this cure of souls “which is both yours and mine”) and that the vast majority of blockages arose when either the diaconal system (diocesan advisers, archdeacons, etc) or the synodical system got in the way of that primary relationship rather than supporting it. Certainly that rings true in the experience of a very large number of clergy.
The complexity and challenge is that – whatever the benefits of managerial approaches – the kind of managerial approach adopted in many parts of the Church of England is entirely at odds with this relational culture and effectively dislocates that primary relationship.
In some dioceses there are now as many as five managerial (or faux managerial) layers between Diocesan Bishop and priest / parish. By contrast, it is worth noting that surveys of the effectiveness of Ministerial Development Review make the point that in all effective MDR schemes, a key ingredient is that “accountability for MDR is held by the Diocesan Bishop” (MDR: Top Five Dioceses, Archbishops Council 2014). This is a fundamental to the Bishop’s core role of paying attention to those with whom they share pastoral oversight. Certainly that is time consuming and costly in terms of paying attention, but a cornerstone for the creation and on-going development of a relational culture where clergy can genuinely flourish rather than simply survive.
The Clergy Well Being covenant is unexceptional and unobjectionable in itself, but it assumes the existence of a Church very different from the contemporary Church of England, and the Covenant has no capacity to bring such a Church into being.
Therefore promulgating the Covenant as an Act of Synod simply raises impossible expectations that cannot be met. It is only if we grasp that the Church is a relational culture – and do the careful and costly work to nurture this – that we will be a body which can authentically live out the Gospel in such a way that “the Lord adds daily to our number those who are being saved” (cf Acts 2.42-end) and serve as a sacrament of God’s kingdom for the world.