Another enlightening day with the CofE this time with the Social Responsibility Network, SRN, at Church House in London. A grand entrance just round the back of Westminster Abbey with lots of marble and polished brass. Doors with numbers and important looking inscriptions. It reminded me of my first day at the BBC at Broadcasting House more than 30 years ago, those mysterious corridors with important things going on behind slightly ajar doors.
Room number five was the setting for our meeting, a medium sized conference room. The group was sitting in a large circle. Forgive me, but pretty well all the meetings at the Church of England have taken place sitting in a large circle. I thought at first it was to achieve equality but I’m beginning the think it is in fact to maintain the maximum distance between participants. I was a late-comer on account of being a Northerner and so had to get the entire circle to shuffle outwards by a small but disruptive adjustment calculated by Pi.
The group was made up of Church of England officers, a title I don’t altogether warm to. The social responsibility officers are there to make sure the parishes take proper care of their poor, as all Christians are called to do. Exactly how this is done will be resolved when the cows come home but in the meantime we were there to bond and behave as one.
There seems to me to be four disconnected groups of people – ones who talk about mission, those who decide how it’s to be done, those who deliver mission and then finally the beneficiaries. This list is in ascending order of importance but is often transposed. Wouldn’t it be good if we could merge them a little bit or at least have a drink together?
The conversation at one point sailed dangerously towards those organisational promontories called power and decision making – do we do our mission top down or bottom up? How does the Church of England maintain one big glorious national identity while at the same time being a myriad of independently minded parishes?
Let me put on my old BBC producer hat for a moment. I would say that the only way to produce meaningful content is to get as close as possible to the stories. BBC journalism is constructed around the presence of reporters in each of the communities. To properly understand people you have to live with them, or even be one of them. I heard the term journalism of attachment mentioned once by Martin Bell. The Church of England has as its glorious strength a presence in every community – this in much the same way as the BBC aspires through its local reporters. The link between national and local is critically, critically important.
The BBC needs these local connections as does the Church of England. The role of the BIG organisation is to equip and protect those ground troops in order be present in people’s lives. The organisation at the centre pulls together the global picture and helps put the stories into a broader context – to be able to explain what’s going on. To help people in their small corners see the big picture; to help those with power work for the greater good and to call them to account. We need both the BBC and the Church of England at both national and local level. I believe.
The concept of the BBC is possibly more important than its organisation. The BBC – the most creative producer of high quality television and radio on the planet. The BBC stands for truth, creativity, inclusivity and exceptional quality. It is independent and not swayed by commercial pressures (wish). It is bound by the licence fee in a contact with its viewers to be inclusive, and without the BBC the world would be a less secure and more uncertain place. Gosh.
How am I going to end this blog post? Well, I think there is a challenge to connect the Church of England in a single identity clearly expressed. What’s it for and why do we need it? There is lots of talk about structure but I think the concept of the Church of England is more important. The people and the languages they use carry the message of the Church of England and importantly the Gospel message. If we really do have a presence in every community then we will have a diverse membership and a diverse leadership. We will be fluent in a range of lingos and celebrate difference. We will bring people together while affirming independence. The way we talk will be inclusive and respectful and we will demonstrate love by welcoming and serving all members of our communities. Our theology will formed with a local accent.
I am now in a packed train carriage practically sitting on the the lap of the bloke next to me. There are people standing in the aisles spilling coffee. Maybe that’s a better image than a perfectly formed circle.