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Middle Management Malaise

Charlotte Gauthier speaks from her experience of middle management in the secular world – how it works well, and where it works badly. The Church of England is replicating all the worst management patterns of a failing company heading for collapse. How can we stop this malaise and restore an efficient and energising vision of what the Church of England could be?

Much has been made recently of the increasing bureaucratisation of the Church of England, with a seemingly endless proliferation of middle-management-style posts at diocesan and central level. Commentators have decried the rise of Associate Archdeacons, Directors of Peace, Justice and the Integrity of Creation, and other such conjurations of overzealous HR departments, whose ministries seem entirely disconnected from the worship of Almighty God amongst our friends and neighbours in the village church.

As a former middle manager at companies and charities ranging from six-person startups to multinational publishing houses, I know that effective middle managers act in the same way a transmission does in an automobile, driving power from the engine to the wheels. But adding more and more transmissions to a car won’t help get you anywhere if the engine is choked – or dead. Middle managers translate vision into the strategy and tactics that will turn things written on paper into a reality in the world. They are useless – or worse, destructive – in the absence of a clear vision, and can never compensate for its lack.

A lack of vision is therefore the single most pressing issue facing the Church today. Practical problems, like the structural issues with central funding that cannot be used for parish ministry and thus encourage the proliferation of central roles, need to be addressed in Synod. The motivation for addressing such practical problems will not arise without some sense of what we are striving towards as the Church, however.

The plughole diagram that presently substitutes for the 2020s vision of the Church of England is dead on arrival. Jargon-filled meaninglessness never motivated anyone to dedicate their lives to building it. People have to be wildly over-compensated to spend their careers enacting such things. The present proliferation of Directors of this and Associate Archdeacons of that is plainly an attempt by Church leadership to substitute strategy and tactics for vision. The Directors have been hired to figure out what to do without being given the support or the leadership necessary for them to do their jobs effectively or the clear vision that is so necessary as a yardstick for their effectiveness in their roles. It’s a pattern depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked at a failing company with a CEO who is out of his depth.

Fortunately, there is an alternative vision available – a clear, compelling vision with which the majority already agree. It is simply this: A Christian presence in every community.

Six words. And that’s all you need. Everything else – Church structures, funding, training, and all the rest – can neatly fall in line behind it, if we have the courage to drop the insulating and responsibility-shunning layers of management twaddle and commit to something so simple, pure, and holy.

Let those who have the experience translating vision into strategy and tactics show the Church how to make it work. These needn’t be overpaid central posts; plenty of experienced laity would jump at the chance to work with clergy to figure it out. Most of all, it’s a vision to which people can dedicate their lives. Christians from the Apostles to the present day have done so. Why not us? Why not now?

Charlotte Gauthier is a historian whose research focuses on late-medieval conceptions of ‘Christendom’ and the effect of the crusades on Church, state and society in fifteenth-century England. Before returning to academe, Charlotte was a manager specialising in digital strategy for the publishing and charitable sectors.

3 thoughts on “Middle Management Malaise

  1. It is often the case that ‘middle management’ will expand significantly before an organisation implodes. Institutions which are is great decline need to be managed downwards, and Parkinson’s chapter (in his eponymous ‘Law’) about the inflation of bureaucracy applies as much to the Church as to the Admiralty, the Colonial Office and other mid-century organisations which he critiqued.

    Middle management was a feature of the medieval Church. If I think of the works of Christopher Cheney (on episcopal chanceries), Philippa Hoskin, R. M. Haines, R. W. Swanson, etc., each bishop had his familia, which would form the core of his administration – this would vary for each diocese, with some travelling in his retinue whilst others remained in a fixed place (usually the location of the episcopal treasury). That there was a limit (perhaps more often honoured in the breach that in the observance) of 30 horses for an archbishop and 20 for a bishop when on tour, we might suppose that the core familia was something like five or ten clerks. The overall size of the diocesan administration is open to conjecture: naturally that of a massive diocese like Lincoln or York would be different from that of a small diocese like Llandaff or Rochester. Moreover, the clerks would usually draw their incomes from sources outside the personal revenues of the bishops: they would invariably be beneficed, and and many might hold prebends (assuming the diocese in question had secular cathedrals with a sufficient stock of prebends: thus Coventry & Lichfield or London, which had 30 or so prebends would have less to offer than Lincoln, Salisbury or Wells, each of which had more than 50 prebends).

    However, after 1840 prebendal estates were liquidated and vested in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Moreover, the concept of the ‘familia’ had shrivelled after the massive expropriations and forced exchanges from the 1530s. Threadbare bishops could not depend on a mass of clerks, and Henrician sees were so poorly endowed that their bishops would themselves often be dependent on income from other benefices. Of course, even in the middle ages, many bishops were not entirely masters within their own houses, because of the thicket of peculiar jurisdictions, or because they had devolved their administrations to subordinate officials: the archdeaconry of Richmond being a particularly extreme example of this.

    This was not a particular problem, since the Reformation also elevated the parish to the most important unit of local government (absent the quarter sessions). As the post-Reformation bishops stood back, and as intermediate local institutions like the rural deanery withered, the parish incumbent became more than ever the king of his own toadstool. The power of the bishops was often reduced to a very high level supervision of their legal corporations or their powers of ordination or the issue of letters dismissory. Some bishops assessed candidates for ordination and licences in a very rigorous manner, not least because once a clerk gained freehold title to their benefices, they would be almost impossible to eject; this issue was compounded in sees like Oxford or Peterborough where the patronage rights of the bishops were exceedingly limited. Nevertheless, the bishops were often a near-nullity in their own dioceses: that is perhaps one of the reasons why so many of them were so often non-resident – think of the diocese of Durham, where Nathaniel Crew (Lord Crew) ruled from Steane Park, near Brackley, Northamptonshire, Richard Trevor from Glynde Place, near Lewes, East Sussex, or Shute Barrington from Mongewell House, south Oxfordshire, near Wallingford (and also Beckett Hall/House, Shrivenham, Berkshire).

    Moreover, some bishops had every incentive not to spend money on making their dioceses more efficient using administrators, since they saw being a bishop as being a path to profit and status: think of Pretyman Tomline of Lincoln/Winchester (Riby Hall, Lincolnshire and Orwell Park, Suffolk), or Bowyer Sparke of Ely (Gunthorpe Hall, Norfolk).

    What I think changed everything were: (i) the redistribution of diocesan incomes after 1840; (ii) the reorganisation of diocesan boundaries from the same point ((i) and (ii) being the fall of the ‘old corruption’); (iii) the shock of the 1851 census; and (iv) the rise of, and reaction to, the Oxford Movement and the growth of evangelicalism. It was felt that the Church could only retain its privileges if it ‘got a grip’ at every level (Arthur Burns’ ‘diocesan revival’). Since episcopal estates had passed to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the bishops becoming annuitants/pensioners of the latter, they had to keep the numbers of their assistants as low as possible. This meant that an increasing weight of responsibility fell upon the bishops themselves: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are the period of the bishop-as-hero, functioning as pastor, teacher, statesman and administrator (no wonder than so many of them had risen from public school headmasterships or large urban parishes). The shrivelling of that talent pool, the erosion of Church assets and incomes, the creation of the Church Assembly as a geyser of legislation and regulation, and the increasing demands on trustees and accounting, meant that it became impossible for the bishop to act as administrator. Diocesan bureaucracies waxed, even as income and attendance fell.

    The ‘orderly management of decline’ has meant that bishops have become CEOs, to the detriment of their other functions. My argument is that this now has to stop. Middle management – especially middle management which has superior pay and rations to the rank and file – is a major drain on assets (and is a long-term drain, since dioceses must fund post-1998 pension accruals). It is high time that bishops stopped playing at being CEOs and that their administrative functions were devolved to the Church Commissioners (who already run the payroll at a fraction of the cost that would arise were each diocese to have its own payroll). Diocesan bureaucracies – a relic of the medieval familia – and concept of the bishop as baron, should be abolished almost completely (the chanceries of RC bishops are often a fraction of the size of their Anglican counterparts). Insofar as dioceses could continue to exist, it would be solely as pastoral agencies, all diocesan assets also passing to the Church Commissioners in exchange for the partial disendowment of the latter to provide a dowry for the maintenance of church buildings by the state – title to most churches being vested in an agency of the state.


    1. I should add that – lest I be accused of defaming the memories of Pretyman Tomline or Sparke – Riby was left to Sir George Pretyman (on the proviso that he adopted the name Tomline), and he did not himself purchase Orwell; neither did Sparke purchase Gunthorpe. However, their respective families were left so wealthy as a function of their respective episcopates, that these acquisitions could be made, almost with loose change (in 1827 Pretyman Tomline left a will of about £13.6m at today’s values, and that was in personalty alone, not including extensive estates in Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Hampshire – around Lymington and Milford). Both bishops showered their families with preferment, and although these were extreme examples, they were not unusual. David Thompson provided a fascinating insight on the Pretymans:

      “The Pretyman’ accumulation of offices was notorious, even in an age when pluralism was rife What marks them out is the ruthlessness of their pursuit of material gain, their frankness about their motives and the consequences for [Lincoln] cathedral of their longevity…a combined total of ninety-four years in office. Moreover, having acquired their preferments early in life, and not then receiving any more, the Pretymans survived at Lincoln as a reminder of a past age and an obstacle to the coming of the new. Arthur Benson [son of E. W., and master of Magdalene] wrote of the large stables and lofts, the granary and the coach house at the Chancery ‘all beloning to the time when Chancellor Pretyman…lived at Lincoln in such state that, an old resident told us, a footman stood behind the chair of every guest at dinner.'” (‘A History of Lincoln Minster’, ed. Dorothy Owen (1994), at 225-27).


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