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A Western Electric Model 500 telephoneHallo again to all.

One of our friends used to be employed by the Western Electric Corporation, which did the manufacturing for the US telephone system back in the era when The Bell System was an established monopoly. He's retired now, and in his retirement he has more time to tell stories. He tells the story that in one of the factories producing the iconic Model 500 telephone, there had developed a problem of what manufacturing people usually call 'inventory shrinkage'. If you have inventory shrinkage, it means that someone is stealing from you.

The managers of the telephone factory were said to be outraged at these thefts, and (the story goes) they hired detectives to find out who was stealing from them. The detectives evidently failed to catch or identify anyone, so in desperation the factory managers turned to the technical experts at the famous Bell Laboratories, and asked them to devise burglar-alarm and detection systems that could prevent these thefts and identify the thieves so that they could be punished. The fixation on stopping the theft and prosecuting the thieves became an obsession.

The story continues: after a time to study the problem, the security experts at Bell Laboratories reported back to the factory management that their best course of action was to do nothing. There weren't really very many telephones being stolen, and the cost of any security or surveillance system would be far greater than the cost of the stolen telephones. The experts advised that the goal, after all, was for the factory to be as profitable as possible, and the cost of any form of security or surveillance would cut into profits far more than having a few telephones disappear every week. The experts also pointed out that the only value of a telephone was to be connected to the telephone network so that it could make and receive telephone calls, and that even stolen telephones would probably make money for the parent company.

No one expects the Spanish InquisitionThe factory managers were too obsessed to follow this advice, and reputedly spent millions trying to catch the thieves, which they never did. They could afford this obsession; since the Bell System was a regulated monopoly, they knew could simply petition the government for permission to charge higher prices since their manufacturing costs had increased. Their goal seems to have been personal satisfaction, and not the good of their business or the benefit to their customers.

We often think that so much of the public behaviour of church leaders is driven by some similar obsession. It becomes so important to punish the miscreants — whomever they might be — rather than to do the sensible thing. In a for-profit company, 'sensible' means 'profitable while remaining ethical and legal'. In a church, 'sensible' probably means 'does not drive away current or potential members' or 'helps the church accomplish its mission'. More often than not, these days, when we mention to someone that we are Anglican, their immediate response before they change the subject is 'Isn't that the church that is spending all of its time and money infighting about sex and gender?' Some mission.

The 1988 Lambeth Conference adopted 'Five Marks of Mission' as a statement of what it felt the global mission of the Anglican Communion should be:

  • To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth

More recent discussion has advised various slight revisions, and includes some excellent commentary. But it should be obvious to anyone who stops to reflect that in fighting about sex we are failing at mission. The 1999 MISSIO report† ends with this question, and so shall we:

If you were to ask people in leadership positions in your Province (diocese, parish) whether they see mission as "the bedrock of all we are, do and say as the people of God", how do you think they would answer?

We really fear that many people in leadership positions in every Province would answer by insisting that identifying and punishing heretics should be the bedrock of all we are, and that a necessary tool for identifying heretics so that they can be punished is to have a Covenant. Now there's a mission.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 27 January 2008

†You can read the 1999 MISSIO report here. It's a 78-page PDF file, but it's well written and literate.

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