Institutional narcissism church of england
Ethics & Morality

Institutional narcissism in the Church of England

“The BBC, the NHS and Oxfam have a bad case of institutional narcissism”, wrote Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times yesterday. It is a terse but cogent thesis, coming in the wake of the BBC’s ‘Diana scandal‘ and the revelation that Martin Bashir resorted to forgery and fraud in order to further his career and secure the interview scoop of the century. “The Panorama scandal shows how the assumption of purity can allow bad things to go unchecked”, we are told, because, as Oscar Wilde observed, “Charity creates a multitude of sins”; the point being “that while bodies set up for the public good are often admirable, good intentions alone are not sufficient to inoculate them against the dangers of vice, nor to obviate the need for checks and balances. Indeed, sometimes the quest for moral purity can exaggerate human frailty”. Syed explains:

Wilde’s point is a subtle one, but it has deep echoes in recent psychological research. A 2017 paper by economists at Chicago University found that working for a socially responsible company increased the tendency of people to act unethically. The authors called it “moral licensing”: the finding that when people do good, they sometimes feel they have more latitude to do bad. A study last week in the tech industry found that companies that had made public statements in support of Black Lives Matter had 20 per cent fewer black employees. The perception of virtue provided a fig leaf for its absence.

And this tendency may also be observed in:

..Oxfam, Barnardo’s, the National Health Service, the Boy Scouts, the social care sector and the Catholic Church, among others.

Each of these bodies has demonstrated systemic failings that seem wholly at odds with its founding principles. Yet this paradox should not be so surprising when you realise that the pursuit of virtue can provide cover for unethical behaviour.

It is interesting that Matthew Syed omitted the Church of England from this list, which has its own examples of forgery and fraud in order to procure pre-ordained outcomes; not to mention narcissistic pronouncements which magnify its sense of moral purity and self-righteousness. This spiritual disorder may derive from human frailty – or sin – but it also derives from the nature of Establishment: Bishops in the House of Lords; an institutional self-aggrandisement which conveys aloofness or superiority and feeds arrogance and organisational disorder.

It is easy to point the finger at the sins of others:

..we have seen the Jimmy Savile scandal (the BBC “missed opportunities to stop attacks” because of a “culture of fear”), the Stuart Hall scandal (the BBC “turned a blind eye” and “failed victims”), the Rolf Harris scandal and more. When BBC insiders said the Panorama scandal last week wasn’t so very bad, or wasn’t characteristic of a great public body, they were deluding themselves. The BBC has proved hopelessly inadequate at policing itself.

And let’s not forget what the BBC did to Sir Cliff Richard. Yet for every incidence of BBC failing – reputations destroyed; victims ignored; emotional turmoil; distress – there is (at least) one equivalent in the Church of England, along with a fair amount of episcopal ‘moral licensing’ and organisational ‘perceptions of virtue’, while all the time the corps rots behind the whited sepulchre.

We might call this “organisational narcissism”, the way that the interests of sanctified institutions can become superior to the people they are designed to serve. This is certainly the pattern at Oxfam, a charity that was so convinced of its own rectitude that it didn’t feel the need for rules that are standard in “ordinary” organisations. Aren’t rules for bad people? And so staff were able to organise sex parties with vulnerable women after an earthquake in 2010 that left hundreds of thousands homeless. And then Oxfam covered it up.

The Church is supposed to be different, and yet with a plethora of Non-Disclosure Agreements we see the same tendency to obfuscation and cover-up. Jesus wants truth to be known; for the light of the sun to disinfect the body, and the Light of the Son to cleanse the temple. And yet here we are, displaying the same characteristics of institutional narcissism as those which infect and affect secular institutions.

This is not, of course, to impugn every bishop or to denigrate every work and mission and ministry: what Matthew Syed says of the BBC and the NHS may also be said for the CofE:

It perhaps goes without saying that I am not impugning the entire BBC, which has many brilliant journalists, or the NHS, which has thousands of dutiful staff, or any other of the bodies listed above. All have a comprehensive ledger of good work as well as my admiration. I am also not making a case for the rectitude of the private sector. No, the point is that we need to wake up to why organisations devoted to public service, which attract upstanding people, incubate so many scandals with the recurring themes of obfuscation and moral self-entitlement.

And the solution:

You might suppose that the answer was to be found in more rules and regulations. More checks and balances. But I would argue that those are, in a sense, peripheral. The most important thing is to stop deifying bodies such as the NHS and the other sacred cows of our culture, placing them above debate and criticism, for it is this, above all else, that leads to organisational narcissism. And this isn’t just dangerous for the public. It is a tragedy for the institutions themselves.

Is an institution which holds the keys to national salvation not likely to be more prone to institutional narcissism than the BBC, the NHS or Oxfam? Is an institution which is concerned daily with the business of ‘deifying’ not likely to have more than its fair share of those who exercise a bit of ‘moral licensing’? Or has the Church of England got something in its General Synod which mitigates the tendency toward self-aggrandisement and guards against the worst manifestations of being holier than thou? How much worse would things be in the CofE if there were no organisational mechanism which permits ordinary members to be a thorn in the sides of those who are convinced of their own rectitude and righteousness?