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Hallo again to all.

Even a casual reader of world history will have noticed that greatness waxes and wanes as time passes. Political power, economic strength, cultural leadership, corporate dominance: all of these things are, in the long view, ephemeral. The introduction to an intriguing list of 'The 100 oldest companies in the world' notes that in general hereditary family businesses outlast transnational corporations. (We note in passing that only 20 of those companies are older than the Church of England: it is a survivor.)

A defunct church buildingOne intriguing class of exceptions to the pattern of man-made organizations being ephemeral is universities. The Wikipedia list of the oldest extant universities in the world indicates a goodly number of universities that have been around for a long time. There are numerous footnotes, discussing what it means to be a university, and how to include ancient centres of learning that don't meet the modern definition of a university.

Old organizations are not the same thing as old buildings or old places. Universities that are lucky or careful enough to have well-maintained ancient buildings will often use the antiquity of those buildings to advantage in their publicity materials. And though God is just as present in an ultramodern church building such as Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, or the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona, those churches fortunate enough to have a usable old building guard it carefully and feature photographs everywhere they can.

If a building has been built well and is maintained well, it will last as long as its materials and environment allow. The same is not true for organizations. Something built out of stone will last as long as the stones do, but something built out of people and their relationships needs to significantly outlast those people or it is just a social club. And people are notoriously unreliable and fickle. A thousand-year-old cathedral has something to say on its own. An organization of people that claims to be a thousand years old must rejustify and redocument itself constantly. One well-known example of an organization whose origins have more legend than evidence is Freemasonry.

Hamburger UniversityUniversities might feel like collections of buildings or collections of books or collections of rules and regulations, but in fact they are complex human organizations that will remain great only by transcending the mortality (and occasional pettiness) of their current employee-stewards. One near-universal technique that universities use to help guard against backsliding into irrelevance is the outside review. Formal structures for outside reviews typically involve the creation of 'visiting committees' or 'review committees' or some such. These are groups of people who are not in any way beholden to the university, who are invited in regularly to evaluate and explore and make recommendations.

Financial organizations have long known the value of outside review. Requirements to pass a formal audit by experts who are not part of the organization being audited have long been a major tool in maintaining the quality of groups of people who deal with others' money and therefore with constant temptation.

We've long thought that churches would benefit from formal outside review, but we laugh out loud at the thought of a church actually changing its ways as a result of a critical report from a visiting committee. Don't get us wrong: we know that churches have lots of committees to review everything from coffee hours to columbaria, but these committees are invariably composed of insiders who have enough time on their hands to serve on committees, and who have a personal stake in the outcome. No, we're talking about outside review, about honest evaluation by people who have no stake in the outcome. A parish or diocese or province can have critical problems but no interest at all in doing anything about solving them.

Widespread unwillingness to listen to evaluations and criticism isn't unique to the church, of course, but it festers there, phantasmagorically bolstered by a mixture of 'we've always done it this way' and 'we just do what the Bible tells us to'. Nevertheless, there are sometimes talented outsiders who review churches (or 'the church') from the outside, knowing full well that those who need most to hear and understand will least be interested.

One of our favourite outside reviewers of the Anglican world is Andrew Brown, an English writer and journalist and photographer who has spent decades writing brilliantly about the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. The Modern Churchpeople's Union has just published a transcript of a speech that he gave at its recent conference. We commend it to you highly. Perhaps our favourite snippet:

'At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, I had two experiences which led me to believe that I really ought to be a Christian. I left the 1998 one determined that I would do nothing in future to allow me to be mistaken for a Christian – i.e. for someone like those bishops were. The interesting point, at least to me, was that this was not a matter of doctrine, in either case. If the measurement is on “liberal” policies, Lambeth 1998 was much more liberal than the 1988. What had changed was the atmosphere and the quality of discussion. What had changed, I think, was that people had come to think of Christianity as something they could manipulate, and not as something that might manipulate them.'

We've occasionally had thoughts of outside church review committees that combine the penetrating analysis of someone like Andrew Brown or Riazat Butt, some form of Mystery Worshipper like those writing for Ship of Fools, and perhaps an ordinary chartered accountant to look at the church's financial records. But then we blink and it all goes away.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 24 August 2008

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