Churches and Cultural Climate-Change Denial (Part One): Learning from Canute

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Editor’s note: Writing at the Modern Church, Martyn Percy discusses the short sightedness of the management culture infecting the Church of England.

The myth of King Canute is one of those stories that you may remember from your childhood. Like one of Aesop’s Fables, we may have lost the original point of the story long ago, but the tale nonetheless persists. …

… Mission Action Plans are peculiar works.  Imagine a recipe book written in a foreign language you are not familiar with, and even with the illustrations, hardly any of the ingredients available in your local shops or have ever been heard of by local people.  If you can imagine that, then you will have some insight into the basic problem with Mission Action Plans.  Yet such booklets are routinely churned out across our Dioceses, and somehow must be read.  Few will ever be remembered.

These recipe books – for that is what they are – are not based on research nor are they demand-led.  None of the authors of Mission Action Plans normally bothers to ask twenty parishes and their clergy such questions as “how can we help?”; “what difference could we make to the stresses of ministry, and alleviate the strains faced by clergy and parishes?”; and “what would sustainability look like in your neck of the woods … and what resources do you need just to keep going?”.

No, these are all the Wrong Questions. The Right Questions are “how can we grow … and also cut costs at the same time, and prune parishes and clergy we suspect are unproductive …?”.  The writers of most missional recipe books are Top-Down-Folk by instinct, and hence their results in programme design.  They know what the gospel is; what the church should be; what the people all need. There was no need to consult.  They got all their know-how from the Bible, and so there was no need to do any research or take the local pulse, and ask some actual questions.  

This recipe book approach does not emerge out of collecting local food stories and know-how.  It is prick-and-ping microwave cooking; ready-meals in minutes that just need to be re-heated.  But parishes don’t need a strategy document for this; it is just air cover for enforcing compliance.  So these piles of “new”, “fresh” and “inspirational” missional recipe books, mainly unread, grow ever larger. 

Producing these Mission Action Plans is committee work, but still top-down. Progress from the three-day meeting with the flipchart and post-it notes to the final product – a glossy brochure replete with charts, maps, graphs, numbers, vision, testimonies, aspirations, quotes and photos of Bishops doing something (usually with livestock), and pictures of young people smiling – had been expedited quicker than any super-fast-fibre-optic broadband provider could manage.  Naturally, my friend and colleague had to be paid a visit by the Leader of the Enabling Team promoting the fizzy new Mission Action Plan, so everyone senior in the Diocese was “fully on board” with what it said.  Compliance issues again noted.

My friend and colleague studied the maps carefully, which showed where the new congregations were to be “planted”, and how the “old parishes” were to be “consolidated” into “Missional Minster Areas”.  The rural deaneries were to be replaced with “active-out-facing resource hubs geared for equipping disciples and enabling transformation”.  (Who in God’s name writes this stuff?) This would all be done and dusted by 2035.  There was a new strapline too, as well as a prayer for this bold, adventurous endeavour (written by a committee) and lots of exciting projections.  Looked at on the map, and within the framework of this mission planning exercise, this might have all made sense.  

But my reader, just back from sabbatical, asked if the authors had seen the BBC Weather App of late, and looked at the predicted 2035 climate change map for the UK, their region, and the Diocese in question?  It turned out this future-map had formed no part of mission planning groupthink.  

“Well”, said my colleague, “that map shows half the diocese under water, so most of these new congregations will be submerged.  …

Read it all at Modern Church