Some years ago, Archbishop Justin Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, was asked to name his favourite sound on Radio 4’s Today programme. He recorded the noise of gentle chatter in his local post office, that low hum of community interaction in which people were asking after each other, and passing the time of day as they picked up their pensions or posted a letter. This is a place in which the Church has long been naturally at home.
The postmaster, like the vicar and the publican, has historically created a kind of tapestry out of individual, sometimes rather lonely, human lives. Through the wonderful alchemy of community, it is capable of transforming them into something immeasurably more worthwhile. But in the first half of last year, pubs were closing at a rate of two a day. Churches are being shut down by the very people who are supposed to be keeping them open. In 2000, nearly a million people went to a Church of England service on a Sunday; by 2022, that figure fell to 549,000. And, as all of us have learned this January if we didn’t know already, for the past two decades the Post Office has been driving its own employees into the ground.
The Church has become intertwined in this scandal in more than symbolic ways however, through the figure of Rev. Paula Vennells, first ordained as a deacon in 2005 and CEO of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019. She is now personally and nominally tied to one of our century’s great miscarriages of justice. And I imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury now rather regrets the foreword to his book Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope in which he credits Vennells with having “shaped my thinking over the years”. But this wasn’t just a rhetorical tribute: Vennells’s thinking has left its mark on more than one national institution. Across her careers, she has championed and centralised precisely the kind of centralising managerialism that leaves the little people forgotten. It is exactly this approach that Welby has galvanised as a battering ram against the local parish church throughout his tenure at Canterbury.
Despite the fact that Vennells had almost zero parish experience, never having been a vicar for instance, her candidacy for the post of Bishop of London — the third-most senior clerical job in the country — was supported by Welby. Astonishingly in retrospect, she came within a whisker of getting that job in 2017. This was at a time when Vennells’s star was riding high. She had turned a loss-making Post Office to profit. Perhaps she could do the same with the ailing Church of England, restoring both institutions to their position — alongside the Pub — in the holy trinity of British communal life. But, as we now know, not since Beeching has the local had such powerful enemies.
Embarrassingly for me, many of us subscribed to Vennells’s ideas back then. In 2015, without recognising the irony, I wrote for the Guardian: “We must do to the churches what Beeching did to the railways.” Here are some lines from that sorry piece. “The Church of England is the custodian of 15,700 churches… I suspect that if every single one of them were blown up tomorrow, England would be a much more Christian country in 10 years’ time.” The idea was this: “Instead of one over-stretched vicar covering six of eight rural churches, we should copy the way in which England was first evangelised through the establishment of minsters – churches that are supported by a community of clergy, churches that have the scale to maintain good organists, choirs and Sunday Schools… These high-morale, better-resourced bundles of energy could then become local campaign headquarters for the re-evangelisation of England.” What we needed was some creative destruction.
It was a ridiculous thing to believe and I regret saying it. Mea culpa. But others kept the faith, and practised what they preached. Leicester Diocese, for instance, describes their Minster Communities as “groups of churches and fresh expressions working collaboratively and sharing resources to enable effective mission”. In 2021, Leicester Diocese voted to close 234 parish churches and replace them with 20-25 Minster communities each led by an Operations Director — who may or (more likely) may not be a priest. Clergy numbers could be cut and thus savings achieved.
What do these clergymen and women do all day, after all? In my own Guardian piece I described the Church of England as mired in nostalgia “for a parish pastoral in which the local vicar, who knows everyone, wanders around in some wheel of benevolent aimlessness”. But this was to besmirch a vital civic function. Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw has noticed the dire consequences of this Minster mentality over in the Diocese of Truro: “Parishes are losing their clergy and you’re getting these huge mega-parishes that are unmanageable.”
In 2019, Rev. Vennells was tasked by the Church of England to write a secret review of how all this new thinking was going, in a church governance and buildings report. And not longer after she’d apologised to the wronged sub-postmasters for the “distress” they had been caused, the Church Commissioners asked her to come and tell them about her findings. The report surfaced last week, and in it the scale of the central church’s attack upon the local is fully revealed. It speaks of 1,000 church closures over the country: “Manchester has closed more than anywhere and balances its books with closures. And Chichester – £1.5 million deficit and was able to take £1.5 from closed churches and pastoral account and again this year.”
One Bishop who spoke up for the local church and against mass church closures was castigated in Vennell’s report for an attitude displaying an unwillingness to face “the ‘burdens’ of truth”. In an Orwellian twist, the report suggested that such recalcitrant Bishops would benefit from a “peer review” — which is manager-speak for re-education. It advised they have a “‘leadership contract’ or covenant agreed by senior leaders aligned to shared leadership values and behaviours”. This is the kind of language by which managerialism clasps its bony hands around the throats of the church.
In the light of the Post Office scandal, there has been much understandable anger about Vennells personally, claims that she is somehow morally deficient and in it for the money. I don’t quite share this view. In a sense, I think it’s worse than that. What the shocking treatment of sub-postmasters has revealed is not so much a story of avarice but of unwarranted trust in systems — systems of management, systems of technology — over people. This is the 21st-century equivalent of the banality of evil. And now, 700 ordinary decent men and women have been accused and prosecuted for theft on the say-so of a system of data. Divorces followed, stress, illness, bankruptcy, in some cases suicide. Apparently they thought computer systems — unlike people — could never sin.
Something incredibly beautiful has been broken, perhaps never again to be mended. I was a fool to think that the local parish church could be replaced by vicars in regional hubs, fired with start-up entrepreneurial energy but hiding behind their laptops. I wanted some quick fix to the church’s slow decline, but I helped to make it worse. Clergy were described as “limiting factors”, church buildings as expensive millstones. Out with the old in with the new. Move fast and break things, was the spirit of the age. The sad story of Rev. Vennells and the Post Office has the same roots: a hubristic faith in technology and progress. Tragically, we broke far more than we ever realised.