Could Bishop Cottrell save the church from the management department. Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

July 9, 2020   5 mins

Bradwell power station is a vast, concrete and partially decommissioned Magnox nuclear reactor set out on the flat windswept salt marches of the lonely Essex coastline. A few miles away sits the much more modestly sized St Peter’s Chapel. A simple stone structure, it is one of the oldest churches in England. This was where Bishop Cedd in the mid 7th century came down from Northumbria to evangelise the East Saxons.

This was also the place where Bishop Stephen Cottrell — Essex boy, born and bred — made his final pilgrimage as walked through the Diocese of Chelmsford, saying his goodbyes to the local churches. Today he officially takes up his new job as Archbishop of York, second-in-command of the Church of England.

And St Peter’s chapel was a highly symbolic place for him to visit. He had come here very early in the morning on the first day of his ministry as Bishop of Chelmsford. Found at the end of a muddy track, it could easily be mistaken for a cow shed. Yet it points beyond itself. The modesty of the structure serves to emphasise the vastness of the Essex sky and of the vulnerability to the elements of those who gather there. Marinated in centuries of silence, this little corner of the world invites even the most limited imagination to reach out into space and time. Its power is the very opposite to that of its brutal concrete nuclear neighbour.

Yet if England is one day to be re-evangelised, it will be because of the power of lonely places like this. Out in the stony beaches and agricultural flatlands of the Dingie peninsular, there is a compelling sense of life as having a vertical axis. Out here, God makes sense.

In truth, most bishops end up disappointing people. And archbishops more than most. It is an impossible job, especially in an age where Christianity feels like it is in retreat. Last month the Diocese of Chelmsford announced that due to financial pressures it has been forced to plan for a reduction of 60 clergy posts over the next 18 months. And such reductions may well be a thing of the future as the Church continues to contract.

But what is more dangerous to the overall mission and credibility of the church is the fearful reaction that often accompanies reductions and closures. Financial pressure stimulates panicky missionary initiatives with inviting sounding names dreamt up in the religious PR department. Bishop Ched managed with the Bible, faith in the living God and a good pair of shoes.

The Church of England has disappointed many people over these last few months. Many experiencing loneliness and confinement were looking for a finger that pointed to the divine, a reminder from their comforters-in-chief that God was present amidst it all. Yet as busy evangelical executives counted their increasing Zoom followers, the buildings of the church were abandoned by the very people whose job it was to keep them open.

Instead, the internet became the latest fresh expression of church, and — just whisper it — potential way of restructuring a Church with less clergy around to run it. On 29 May a number of senior churchmen wrote in the Church Times with this rather depressing vision for our future:

“Being prevented from ‘going to church’ might liberate us from our habitual routines to ‘become church’ all over again — or, perhaps, for the very first time. Such rejuvenation may help to release us, at last, from the prison of our church building, which, for many, have become shrines to the past which not only soak up energy and resources, but also perpetuate concepts of division and hierarchy harmful to a mature understanding of who we are.”

Closing the churches, even to the private prayer of the clergy themselves, was a terrible mistake. But so too was replacing the mysterium tremendum with a bit of soft-Left activism and the box-ticking language of health and safety.

And do not underestimate how health and safety-ism, as a distinctive moral philosophy, is now totally transforming the Church. Last week Bishop Stephen was himself forced to apologise for a lapse in judgment after it was discovered that a safeguarding matter he dealt with 10 years ago was not fully documented and the appropriate authorities were not properly informed. The issue looked like a minor mistake, and a mistake of process not intention.

But these days, when even previous senior bishops from George Bell to George Carey have been very publicly disgraced over their handling of the issue, the processes of the Church are where the real power now lies. Some see this as a welcome attempt at moral objectivity, indifferent to the status of offenders; others fear that it makes power inhuman, bureaucratic and dangerously beyond question.

Well over a century ago, the sociologist Max Weber was writing about how organisations are transformed by bureaucracy as a way of mediating authority. Traditionally, of course, the bishop is the supreme example of what Weber calls “charismatic” authority – and that does not mean they have authority because of their winning personalities, but because of the perceived presence of God in them. They are imbued with the charism of leadership, a gift of the holy spirit.

Weber argued that charismatic authority is transformed by routine into something very different: bureaucratic authority. The hallmarks of this distinctively modernist system of authority are the specialisation of labour, a reliance on rules and regulations, technical competence guidelines, a reliance on written rather than verbal communications, record keeping and above all impersonality and personal indifference.

You may believe that this “professionalisation” is a good thing — but it is extraordinary that the Church has been transformed by it with very little reflection as to its virtues. And there are some of us who think it is proving to be a disaster, with the Church of England now going the way of the University, gradually being strangled by risk assessments, impact reports, and HR departments warning against “reputational risk”. Weber called it an “iron cage” and that is how it feels.

Bishop Stephen talks just about enough of this new Church management-speak to make the true believers think that he gets it. And perhaps he does — you can’t get on in the Church these days without genuflecting to secular management processes. And indeed, he was the Diocesan Missioner in Wakefield, one of those non parish jobs that is all about inventing vacuous vision statements and planning meaningless days of action.

But I can forgive him all of that, because what I really like about Bishop Stephen is that bit of him we get to see when he puts up his out-of-office sign and steps away from the endless round of Church committees. Some bishops look like they were purpose built for synods; they find the kingdom of God in the minutes of the last meeting. Not Stephen Cottrell.

Bishop Stephen’s pilgrimage to Bradwell was not a one-off. The theme of walking is a favourite of his. Travelling Well was one of his books, as was Walking backwards to Christmas. He also contributed to Walking the Way of the Cross and Pilgrim: A course for the Christian journey, while in 2016 he walked part of the famous Camino, the pilgrimage to Santiago in northern Spain. “Our forebears knew the truth we have neglected,” he wrote: “that all the important things are learned on the road.”

Like Cedd, Cottrell’s primary task is the evangelisation of England. And I am strangely encouraged by this simple emphasis on walking as it relates to the task of spreading the word in a post-Christian society. The Church is not a business. It does not need to be a model of efficiency. Indeed, it should look completely different to the secular organisations that demand our day-to-day allegiance.

To walk is to break free from the iron cage. You can’t take much with you, and you have to trust yourself to the elements — and often to the simple charity of strangers. Keep walking Bishop, and avoid as many meetings as you can. Walk the Yorkshire Dales. Pray along its highways and byways. And on the way you will meet people and explain the Gospel to them. That’s what the Church needs from its leadership.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.