My current job requires me to take a managerial view of my university. I have been an academic for much (but not all) of my professional life, and this has allowed me to comment, and often comment critically, on how other organisations behave. I have often done so from a perspective of self-righteousness, in that the frame of reference for my criticism was informed by a belief that I was spreading the gospel of openness, transparency, accountability and equity. It’s a potent cocktail, because it numbs the capacity to see error in one’s own analysis.
Now I am in charge of a university, and I see at least some things differently. I recognise, for example, that universities are notoriously bad at modernising themselves, see tradition as noble, dismiss out of hand the possibility that they are bad employers — or worse still, that they might discriminate – and are suspicious of the desire on the part of public representatives to hold them accountable. They also have bits of mystical dogma — sometimes described as ‘academic freedom’ — which can be used to slap down argument when all else fails. And yet, beyond the slogans and the traditionalism, universities are stewards of a great public good: education and scholarship which maintains civilised, cultured and tolerant values. It is just when they become too self-important (which usually happens at times of great stress) that it becomes hard to see these values in action.
It’s probably similar with the church. We have all become a little fed up with the evident failings of the men and women (but usually men) who occupy the major ecclesial offices, and we are critical of the way in which both the mission of the church and its resources have been mismanaged. We become impatient when dogma which an educated person probably started to dismiss as absurd at the time of the Enlightenment still adorn a catechism or two, and we wonder whether this is an organism which can adapt sufficiently in order to survive.
But I am also aware that in the middle of all this mess is the Word, and however we have corrupted it, it is still there. So when I hear some daft new episcopal pronouncement and think I want to leave, I remind myself that the church is more than, and bigger than, what currently irritates me. And so I stay.
But staying should not be a comfortable irritation, in which I shrug off what annoys or offends me and get lost in other-worldly contemplation. Staying means accepting the mission to promote, and if necessary provoke, change — in a spirit of love, tolerance and (properly understood) obedience. It means recognising God in the church and striving to be true to God’s Gospel — an unchanging God who, for every generation, makes all things new.