"I teach 400 children. Slightly more, actually, but we'll call it 400. That means your daughter counts for 0.25% of the children I teach. It is difficult for me to honestly and accurately tell you anything about her, so please forgive me if I speak in vague generalities at parents' evening and try to avoid using your daughter's name. I might have forgotten it.
I teach twenty five lessons a week. Despite my best intentions, some of these lessons are boring. To plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can't do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn't as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn't have the time to do it. I don't think the children notice, they are used to this...
Schools are full of middle-management types....The school needs to improve, but I'm not sure it can. Common sense and trust in human communication is being forced out of the profession. A lot of teachers seem to like being told exactly what to do and how to do it. The status quo is just fine for a lot of middle and senior management too. It allows them to wield power, justify inflated salaries and be recognised by their peers as being "outstanding" teachers. A recognition the children in their classes would never give them. Never mind. They never really liked teaching children that much anyway."
The reason why this article struck me this morning is that - if you change the relevant terms (including 'outstanding teacher' to 'senior priest'!) then the same analysis applies to the life of an increasing number of parish priests. That is of interest, not because I want to share in the groaning - done enough of that recently - but because it shows how far the Church of England has become bound up in the prevailing patterns of our culture.
That culture is one of expecting more and more to be achieved by less and less - and of putting bureaucratic control systems in place to achieve it. So, in teaching, it means a significant increase in central government direction and intervention, carried through by qualified consultants and enforced by Ofsted. Similar things happen in other fields, like the NHS. The church - being behind the times - is only now starting to move in this direction, but it is clear that Common Tenure is from this stable, and this pattern of thought has clearly infected many.
I say that with confidence because I think it has also infected me - and I'm trying to extirpate it (which I do, through things like writing out my thoughts in a blogpost). For example, I am closely involved in Deanery discussions planning for the future - specifically, how to negotiate a reduction in stipendiary clergy of around a third (from 13.5 to 9, covering 27 parishes). My first reaction was to develop a plan to restructure the Deanery around geographical clusters, each with at least two clergy, so that the workload is distributed fairly. So, from an average ratio of clergy to people of 1:120, it will shift to around 1:180; or, using a Deployment Indicator that takes account of local population and number of churches, it will shift from an average of 101 per priest to an average of 144 per priest - either way, it will effectively mean a 50% increase in workload for clergy here. (For comparison, and in lieu of another moan from me, the figures for Mersea are 1:300 on the former measure, and 186 on the latter, so I do have a very good idea of what these implied changes mean in practice). Yet as time has gone on, I become more and more dubious about this type of change - the notion of spreading clergy around in a perfectly balanced distribution seems simply to be about managing the decline.
What, after all, will be the consequences of proceeding with this plan? We will be asking clergy (and bishops) to do more and more with less and less - exactly the situation that the teacher in the Guardian article is describing. We will end up either with ever-increasing levels of clergy burn-out; or with ever-increasing congregational decline and disillusionment; or, most probably, both. This is exactly the pattern of thinking that led us into our present problems, so why do we expect a different result from continuing with it?
So what is to be done? One answer is to 're-imagine ministry' - along the lines that Bishop Stephen is calling for here in Chelmsford Diocese. I strongly support what +Stephen is attempting to do, but I suspect that we are still not digging down into the real roots of the problem. Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or - increase the numbers of clergy?
After all, one of the great challenges about 're-imagining ministry' is to make sure that we don't re-imagine ministry away completely. The reason why Killing George Herbert has always resonated with me is simply because the George Herbert model of ministry is so tremendously attractive. To be a pastor and a teacher building up strong relationships with a group of disciples - and through that to enable each of them to live out their calling with joy and giving glory to God - what priest could possibly object to that? If we are to have a truly enabled and energised, inspired and inspiring laity - is there not a role there for those whose job it is to help such a thing come about? That is, I am not sure that the answer to the problem of a shortage of clergy is to do away with such clergy altogether. The answer is two-fold, it seems to me - we need more clergy and we need to have a much clearer idea of what clergy are for.
In the secular world, to provide resources for training and development is straightforward and obvious. It is an investment in the future. The Church of England doesn't do this - and I sometimes wonder if there is something in our ecclesiology that says we are only allowed to take the bad bits of management practice and have to ignore the good. If we were serious about priestly ministry then we would invest a much greater proportion of our resources in training and developing priests - and we would then set those priests free to do the work that they have been called and trained to do. There are many ways in which this might be done. Personally I am coming around to the view that anyone accepted for training should be installed as a curate in a parish, with housing and a stipend, and then spend the next seven years doing 50% work in the parish and 50% formational training. I am very aware of the benefits of full-time residential training, but that model only really works with people who are single, and probably young as well.
More crucially, I believe that we need to make a decision about what we expect priestly ministry to look like. This is a long conversation but one key element of it, surely, has to do with the size of the congregation - that is, how many people is one priest expected to pastor? Bob Jackson's research pertains to this - for me, I would suggest a ball-park figure of around 100 as the limit for what one person can effectively minister to. Beyond that number the possibility of genuine relationships with each member of a congregation diminishes exponentially. If something like this is accepted, then it has a direct implication for the recruitment and training of clergy. If we have 10,000 people needing to be pastored, then we will need 100 clergy, and we will need to ask each of those 10,000 people to give 1% of their income in order to pay for them. All that is happening now is that we are a long way into the spiral of decline that spreading butter over too much bread inevitably causes. Put another way, we need to abandon the use of the Sheffield formula and its equivalents in working out how to deploy clergy.
Personally, I don't believe that this challenge can ever be met without at the same time addressing the folly of the parish share system. That is, without some sense of direct relationship between what parishioners give, and what they receive there will be no chance of increasing - that is, financing - the necessary numbers of clergy. Of course, this immediately runs up against some of the principal taboos of church culture - taboos which are, sadly, principally twentieth century in origin. After all, one of the roots of the blight of management culture across the different areas of our lives is the huge growth in centralised state control - and the parish share system is simply one aspect of that, as applied to the church. The sort of system that I would like to see - benefices tithing their income, then paying for the costs of their own ministers - is a massively decentralising process. I happen to believe, not only that this is the form that the Spirit prefers, but also that it is in profound harmony with the way that the world is developing at the moment. Yet like all release of centralised power, those who hold such power will not release it voluntarily, they will have to be persuaded by non-rational means.
Essentially, what I am describing is the shift from maintenance to mission - and in saying that, I am depressingly aware of what a cliche it is. I am sure this has all been said before, and much more articulately. So the question becomes - why has there been no change? Why is it that we are still circling the plug-hole? I believe that the answer is to do with our capacity to make decisions. To actually address these issues properly requires painful choices to be made, and it is the incapacity to make those choices which is our fundamental problem. I don't believe that we can escape from the truth that the church is in crisis because it has lost its spiritual moorings – and this has led to our culture being in crisis (see my book for more detail). We can't discriminate between good and bad management because that requires spiritual discernment – and in an environment that doesn't take spirituality seriously (the church) that sort of discernment is not encouraged as it is too challenging to the existing powers.
So what is to be done? I hear the words that say 'leave with the others', to which I want to respond to the church 'but you have the words of eternal life'. What can those who are loyal to the CofE actually do? That is, what do those who actually believe in the gospel as the Church of England has received it do when that very same Church becomes the obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel? I think that my heart's desire is to do the work of a Samuel, and change the structures in such a way that it becomes possible for the priests to do their job once again. Yet in my darker moments I wonder whether what is truly needed isn't a Samuel but a Samson - someone to pull down the pillars of establishment and leave nothing but rubble and dead bodies behind.