UK: GOD'S MANAGERS - The way to the top of the church hierarchy remains a mystery.

UK: GOD'S MANAGERS - The way to the top of the church hierarchy remains a mystery. - GOD'S MANAGERS - The way to the top of the church hierarchy remains a mystery. Peter Stanford lifts the veil and explores the mixture of piety and skills needed to quali

by PETER STANFORD.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

GOD'S MANAGERS - The way to the top of the church hierarchy remains a mystery. Peter Stanford lifts the veil and explores the mixture of piety and skills needed to qualify for a leader's role in the modern business of religion.

The ride-attendant at Disney's Florida playground was strapping everyone into their seats before they were swept off up the Magic Mountain.

'What's your job?' one over-eager tourist asked him, as if it wasn't obvious.

'I change people's lives,' he replied, a messianic glint in his eye. Like many employees in big corporations, he had learnt at various inductions, refresher courses and on-the-job assessments to regard his anointed role not simply as work, but as a quasi-religious mission.

Drumming up the enthusiasm traditionally associated with a religious vocation has of late become a crusade for some personnel managers in progressive business organisations. It isn't a particularly profound raid on religion's tabernacle of treasures. You don't have to say three Hail Marys and sign up to transubstantiation before you get a job. Mostly it simply involves the wholesale takeover of the traditional language of belief to the purpose of motivation. So every area of the company will have a mission statement. At training centres and management get-togethers the talk is of getting the message across, preaching and even of 'the (insert company name) gospel'.

Skin-deep as this may be, such an annexation carries with it a terrible irony, for it would have been hard to find less businesslike organisations than the churches. They continue to lose members at a rate that would crucify any secular marketing director - one in five Christians has departed the flock in the final two decades of this century - and they persist, from the pulpit, in turning up their collective noses at anything that smacks of commercialism.

Capitalism and consumerism are as wicked as communism, Pope John Paul II has often remarked. You only have to think of the multi-million pound losses made in ill-advised property speculation in the 1980s by the Church Commissioners, protectors of the Church of England's investment portfolio, and the disgrace of the Vatican Bank in a money-laundering scandal to conclude that God and Mammon is not a match made in heaven.

Behind the rhetoric, however, the relationship between the two is rather more complex. Take the question of how churches train and select their future leaders. The anointed six years in a seminary are spent studying theology, spirituality and what is termed pastoral practice - how to deal with parishioners' needs. So a new generation of church leaders learns to do the right thing morally in their parish when confronted with poverty, marginalisation or fractured relationships, to preach the right thing morally from the pulpit on a Sunday, and generally to follow a moral agenda that answers the summons of the Bible and not of focus groups.

The men and women who are tipped for the top when they leave Catholic and Anglican seminaries are those who satisfy these criteria, but who do so while always maintaining an overtly holy demeanour. If clerics are to be, in one of the Pope's favourite phrases, signs of contradiction in a secular age, then they have to give the impression at all times of carrying God in their shadow. That is what society has come to expect of the church and what it now expects of its chiefs. As one of the contributors to a recent book of tributes to Cardinal Basil Hume put it, the Catholic leader's greatest success in 23 years on the national stage has been to fight secularism with his own evident saintliness.

It helps if that holiness can be combined with a middle-class veneer. In the Church of England, there has long been, when it comes to the selection of bishops, what might be called a Derek Nimmo tendency - an inclination towards nice, well-meaning, holy and very bourgeois amateurs.

There are, of course, nods in the direction of academia, usually in the See of Durham, and towards men of more humble origins for inner city vacancies like Stepney or Bradford. The odd bureaucrat, fresh from 20 years in an obscure post in Church House, slips into the ranks of the bishops to keep up the appearance of professionalism and take minutes at in camera meetings, but he will be counterbalanced by mavericks like Hugh Montefiore in Birmingham, a convert from Judaism with radical views behind a solidly upper-middle-class veneer.

But by and large you get on in the Church of England if you can bumble and keep your head down as well as any of the older generation of bishops, who in practice elect their own successors. There remains a seemingly insatiable appetite for the dependable chap of uncontroversial opinions and mediocrity, hiding behind a double-barrelled surname and, like as not, pushed by a great uncle or godfather or patron who has the ear of Canterbury or York.

The great upsetter of this apple cart, of course, is George Carey, born in humble old Dagenham, with estuary English vowels and not a drop of ecclesiastical blue blood in his veins. He is the product of neither a minor public school nor Oxbridge and its imitators.

Carey owes his promotion to that peculiarity of the established church whereby the prime minister, if he or she so wills, can interfere and veto the choice of the Anglican bigwigs. Margaret Thatcher wanted to punish these grandees, and particularly her great tormenter, Robert Runcie, the de facto leader of Her Majesty's Opposition for much of the 1980s. So she insisted on the least clubbable and most unfashionably low-church evangelical she could find, with the remotest claim on Canterbury.

The continuing discomfiture of Carey at Lambeth Palace, as he struggles with a job that is just too big, too subtle and too public for him, must give her a great deal of satisfaction. The mistake, however, is unlikely to be repeated in the near future by a prime minister with much more respect for the established church's role as social cement, even if his personal sentiments veer more towards Roman Catholicism.

The Catholic church hierarchy used to be the antithesis of the Anglican elite, a haven for gruff men of Irish stock, little education or finesse, and working-class roots. But aspiring Catholic bishops need no longer search out a long lost great aunt in County Donegal to catch the eye of the hierarchy. Basil Hume - the upper-middle-class son of an English knight - exemplifies the changing and increasingly bourgeois face of English Catholicism and its leaders. Today it is potentially more of an advantage for a would-be bishop to belong to the old boys' association of one of the handful of pukka Catholic private schools such as Stonyhurst, Prior Park, Worth, Downside or - Hume's alma mater - Ampleforth.

However, such accomplishments are optional. The new face of the English Catholic episcopate more accurately reflects 50 years of changes in the pews. Since Butler's Education Act of 1944, Catholic grammar schools have taken in young men and women from modest homes and turned out a generation of high-flyers - John Birt at the BBC, Patricia Scotland QC, Gerry Robinson at Granada. The majority of the bishops are drawn from the same pool - middle-class by education if not in origin.

If serving as a bishop's secretary, a seminary rector or, best of all, a university chaplain are the icing on the cake when it comes to selecting a bishop in both major churches, correspondingly little store is set by the candidates having proved themselves efficient or effective managers.

The same is true of those who steal a march and make the first leap on the ladder of preferment - to be a parish priest or vicar before their fortieth birthday is enough to be considered a high-flyer.

Clerics of both flavours in such roles run the equivalent of branch offices, with schools, buildings, bank accounts and small staffs. Yet it is somehow imagined that because they are holy and polished, they will know how to chair a meeting of school governors, handle the parish books or deal with difficult personnel issues in churches which, because of the lack of vocations, rely heavily on the laity to keep these godly multinationals ticking over at grass-roots level. The assumption is that such skills are at best incidental to the business of being an effective church leader.

And the delusion doesn't stop there. When these high-flyers move on, usually in their fifties, to be bishops, archbishops or - in their sixties - cardinals, with even bigger property portfolios, budgets and retinues to lead, they are simply plucked out of their parish or, as in Hume's case, a deliberately remote, socially aloof monastery, given a mitre, a cathedral and a large house to live in and told to get on with it. Often the results are disastrous. The saintly cardinal, for instance, quickly recognised the need in his central London archdiocese for greater church provision for the homeless, single mothers and the elderly. Prophetically he encouraged the setting up of a very impressive network of agencies and hostels around his cathedral. But a few years down the line, the Westminster archdiocese found itself in a financial mess. It was forced to take the unprecedented step of publishing its accounts in March 1985, revealing a deficit of £4.9 million, in order to appeal for assistance in putting its house in order. An experienced chartered accountant from the City of London was appointed to bring a semblance of order and spare the cardinal's blushes.

The much smaller Roman Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury found itself at the end of the 1980s, to its evident surprise, £3 million in the red. Again the fact was revealed at the same time as an appeal to the faithful to cough up more. And at roughly the same time the Vatican announced that the cost of maintaining the Pope's global presence - the Vatican's daily newspaper, its radio station, its television channel, etc - meant that it was now running an annual $80 million deficit.

There is a temptation for churchmen, when faced with such uncomfortable statistics simply to shrug their shoulders and fall back on their holiness.

Money is of this world.

If the churchmen are doing the right thing by their consciences, if they are answering the ultimate authority that is God's, then all the incidental details will resolve themselves. Autocratic behaviour of this kind has raised one of the oldest cries in political history: no taxation without representation. Finally in recent years congregations have begun to say no. If you are such hopeless managers that you find yourselves deep in debt, don't just expect us to bail you out because you are churchmen. Try applying the same financial disciplines that we do in our everyday lives and businesses.

In order to continue to collect their taxes, both churches have had to show a willingness to reform. At the Vatican Bank, the Pope's one-time bodyguard, whose only connection with banking was that he liked golf, has been replaced in the director's chair by a panel of lay experts. The Church Commissioners, stung by criticism from the House of Commons and General Synod, underwent an overhaul and now are turning in a tidy but uncontroversial profit.

As a role model they couldn't do better than the Methodists' Central Finance Board which has proved so successful in getting a good return from funds invested in the sort of ethically sound organisations which chime neatly with that church's principles that it has now set up a separate arm, Epworth Financial Management, named after John Wesley's home town, to sell its expertise. This change of heart is slowly beginning to trickle down into seminaries and parishes where clerics are beginning to acknowledge that they may be ill-equipped to be in sole charge of everything. A brief introduction to leadership and management, personnel and finances is now being offered to students for the priesthood, although it tends to be optional. Gatherings of clergy are addressed by senior businessmen on what they can learn from business. And budding ecclesiastical Investors in People will even soon have a magazine of their own, Church Management International, which is scheduled to begin publication in Britain in the spring. If it proves to be disappointing, then they could get a copy of Andrew Finn's new book, Corporate Christ, which 'unveils the management and marketing techniques of arguably the world's most influential figure'.

There is now even an inter-church organisation, Modem (Managerial and Organisational Disciplines to Enhance Ministry) pushing for closer links with industry in the run up to the new millennium.

Openness to such ideas is closely related to age. In general, the older the priest, the vicar or bishop, the less enthusiastic they are to embrace at least some of the wisdom of the secular world of business. It is no accident that Bishop John Crowley of Middlesbrough, the one Catholic prelate in England and Wales who is pioneering the use of management techniques in his diocese by putting a retired ICI director, Jim Whiston, in charge of administration, is also one of the youngest of the current bench.

Reluctance to bring in the managers is about more than a resistance to new ideas or a suspicion of the ethics of business.

It ultimately comes down to power and keeping hold of the strings. The Church of England leadership at least makes a stab at democracy with its General Synod, although the bishops retain a disproportionate influence on crucial issues. Catholicism is rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian and is ruled by one of the last remaining absolute monarchs in the world.

The power of appointment lies solely in his hands - acting, of course, with the help of the Holy Spirit. If you complain about the authorities' lack of interest in lay opinion, as I did on many occasions when I edited the Catholic Herald, you are put firmly in your place. 'The church is not and never will be a democracy,' the papal nuncio to London told me with pride over a lavish lunch at his mansion on Wimbledon Common.

This lack of openness to debate, to criticism and therefore to precisely the sort of forces that might make for more effective, more accountable and more inspired and inspiring leadership, reverberates throughout a dysfunctional system. Both churches suffer from the old junior doctor system - those on the lower rungs are terribly overworked - but that was good enough for the people currently in charge and, therefore, will not be changed.

In-service training for clergy is patchy. Personal assessments and career development are scant, and any link between vocation and career is denied, although the Church of England launched a new MBA in church management last month, to be run by Bishop Grosseteste University College and the University of Hull.

Church leaders also seem unwilling to recognise that the private crises of many clergy damage the institution of the priesthood, its moral authority and individual priests. In seminary, private behaviour, in particular questions of celibacy for Catholic ordinands and homosexuality for Anglicans, are rarely mentioned.

In Rome recently, I found myself in a restaurant sitting next to a group of Catholic seminarians from the English College, usually the chosen destination for mature vocations, those who have tried out life in civvy street first and found it lacking in some way. 'When did you come out to your parents?' one trainee priest asked another. 'Oh, I haven't,' he replied, 'although I'm often tempted to, just to give them a really nasty shock.' They all laughed.

The English College prides itself on turning out the most intelligent and most promising of the church's priests. On that table were, inevitably, a future bishop or two. It is not that I believe their homosexuality will make them bad priests - or bad bishops - per se. They all may well be inspired and spiritual young men, and potentially dynamic heads of parishes or dioceses. What is a fatal flaw is that these men are training to be leaders in a church that has taken an outspoken and - many liberal Catholics like me believe - outmoded position that homosexuality is wrong. It is 'a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil', teaches the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the official watchdog of orthodoxy.

How then are these young men going to be effective leaders if, simultaneously, the church asks them to regard their presumably God-given nature as potentially evil? It is a recipe for tortured and ineffective priests for whom sexuality is a public invitation to hypocrisy. How can you take a moral stand in an area that remains a domain where people expect the churches to offer guidance, if you cannot be honest with yourself or about yourself?

The problem is not an isolated one in Rome, or even in Roman Catholicism.

The Church of England is currently struggling with the issue of gay clergy.

But Rome's celibacy law does seem to demand a certain level of hypocrisy.

Richard Sipe, the American psychotherapist, compiled statistics based on the many Catholic priests who consulted him over their mental traumas.

His conclusions are the most compelling piece of evidence that the Catholic Church is facing a crisis among its current and future leaders. About 40% of priests will not live up to their church's ideal that they remain celibate. It makes for a climate of fear and secrecy among both the leaders of the church and their clergy, Sipe reported,

The drive to doctrinal clarity - to be found in Catholicism's recent return to a catechism which sets out what is right and what is wrong, and in grass-roots Anglicanism's slow progress towards an evangelical agenda - may well provide just the sort of black and white morality that people are looking for at a time of uncertainty and millennial angst.

But at present too much time is being spent on the dogma and not enough on the structures, personnel and leaders, present and future, who are expected to deliver the long-awaited return to God. For any well-balanced young man or woman with a vocation to change lives, the corporate gospel of the likes of Disney may well represent a more predictable bet.

SIX EASY STEPS TO A MITRE

ONE: Affect a spiritual air. Think Basil Hume - a shrewd, clever, well-connected man whose public profile is that of the simple monk, backing humbly into the limelight. Holiness is still the cardinal virtue.

TWO: Find a patron. Few sons or daughters follow their fathers or mothers into the ministry, so bishops are always looking for someone who reminds them of themselves 40 years ago. Since many appointments are still done on a nod and a wink, friends in high places are indispensable.

THREE: Avoid talking about sex - either your own experiences (especially if you're after a Catholic posting) or dishing out advice to others.

It's too easy to make a fool of yourself and there will always be a journalist in the audience to ensure you make page three of the Daily Telegraph.

FOUR: Get grass-roots pastoral experience. Selection panels like talk of how happy you were in the parish, a workaday cleric fulfilled in your vocation by dealing with everyday people and their problems.

FIVE: Use ecclesiastical buzz-words - evangelisation, incultration, magisterium - to disguise a diplomatic silence on key moral or doctrinal questions.

SIX: Spend a couple of years in the church bureaucracy. It is not so much that management skills are valued. Rather the experience will open your eyes to who is really making decisions.

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