Monday, March 13, 2006

The AT&T Solution?

Last Monday we awoke to the news that for a cool $67 billion the new-look AT&T had taken over our local telephone company, BellSouth. There seems to be a certain irony in the way that things go full circle, for now we are back to having a handful of telecoms after two decades of confusion and an alphabet soup of companies.

However, the telecom world is at a far different place today than it was when old Ma Bell was split up, with cable companies, wireless, satellite, and voice-over-internet outfits muscling in on a business which communicates more data than it does the spoken word, and is growing exponentially. It will obviously continue mutating, but in the midst of all this change that familiar name, AT&T, with a slightly modified logo is there at the front of the pack again.

Yet it isn't the same AT&T that split out the Baby Bells in the 1980s. This company cut itself into a number of pieces, then those pieces shuffled themselves and did some merging, then some other smaller telecoms got in on the act. Meanwhile they were selling bits and pieces of themselves to each other, until finally what had started out as SouthwesternBell took over the remnants of AT&T - and the venerable name. Now, AT&T had already sold its Wireless service to BellSouth, but as it has taken over BellSouth it has the piece back again.

It sounds confusing, and it is confusing. Hardly had these companies started to settle down to a new way of doing business than mergers and acquisitions altered their configuration so that they were forced to work out new ways of doing business again. However I am not sure than there are many people who would want to return to the controlled and truncated service that old Ma Bell used to offer -- or the prices that had to be paid for the privilege of making use of them.

What has this to do with the Gospel and the Church? Quite a lot if you think about it. What the telecoms have been doing is adapting and adjusting themselves to a wholely different world that has come into being in the last quarter century. Pundits have been noting for a long time that changing technology changes the culture which changes the way goods and services are delivered in that culture. This must change those who do the delivering.

The telephone companies are a fine example of how that process goes ahead. Nothing is tidy, there are countless loose ends, and then there are gaps to be filled. For example, BellSouth provide our landline service and until a couple of years ago our local telephone service. Meanwhile, ATT was our long distance provider. When a snafu with BellSouth happened soon after we moved into our present home we switched our local service to ATT, which means we get ATT service over BellSouth lines.

It is more complicated than that because we get our cellular mobile service through Verizon, the other major player in America's telephone galaxy, although for many years we were with ATT Wireless before that. We are now waiting for VerizonWireless to inaugurate their broadband service in this area because we will then get our broadband through that because living in a rural area there is no DSL provided by BellSouth, and the local cable provider hasn't seen fit to hook up houses on our street!

I suspect you are bored out of your minds by the meanderings of the Kews and their communication needs, but I am getting to the point. The Episcopal Church of the USA has been the primary franchisee of Anglican services in the United States, but like old Ma Bell and the lumbering old auto companies, it doesn't work in the world of today. It runs a top-heavy bureaucracy in New York, and demands fealty from its regional clans (dioceses).

On top of that instead of providing services for mission, the denominational structure gets in the way as it works out the implications of theologies that were fresh and shiny in the Sixties but are now as dated as over-sized cars with fins and Beatles haircuts. Like most tired old bureaucracies the denomination not only keeps on doing stupid things (or enabling stupid things to be done), but it also seeks to maintain its fealty over those who are embarrassed to be associated with it.

Whether it likes it or not, reconfiguration is going on, much as the birthing of the Baby Bells played a large part in the development of today's emerging telecom scene. The old structures are trying to force the old top-heavy structure to stay together, with its tidy diocesan lines and money coming from the grassroots up the chain of command, and the grassroots are increasingly deciding that such a dinosauric approach is for the birds. This is like trying to hold dry sand in your hand on a windy day.

For a start, in increasing numbers of places the passage of money along the chain of command is faultering. In other places congregations or whole blocs of congregations have severed themselves in favor of something less onorous and compromised, and are networking themselves into a healthier church in other parts of the world. There is, like in the day of the Baby Bells, a bewildering array of entities that in one way or another are seeking to be faithful, and that see the old structure as beyond retrieval.

Add to this that there are those who remain in the old structure but are less of it than of the healthier global church with which they identify, and the additional fact that some of the older splinterings of the Ma Bell structure are feeling their way back into the mix, like the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Province in America, and you have something that is far from tidy.

We don't know how all this will play out. The old ECUSA is aging and despite denial to the contrary by those in the boardrooms, the statistics say it is in increasing trouble. I might want to continue pretending that it is Anglicanism in the United States, but that is about as realistic as General Motors believing itself to be America's car company. Because the old ECUSA is in a state of decline something new, streamlined, and healthy could emerge from all these other things that are going on at the moment, and I suspect that we would see this outcome in 15-20 years.

What ECUSA forgot, to use the late Peter Drucker's assessment of the mainline churches, is its core business. It has become absorbed in itself rather than the task that Jesus set the church of making disciples. It has been more interested in protecting its monopoly than seeing ways in which the Good News can be made to work in this topsy-turvy world of today. Just as General Motors has been telling Americans that they should like the cars they produce, Episcopalians and others are shaking their heads and saying, "Nah," and taking their business elsewhere.

The exciting thing, if we use the AT&T analogy, is that there is life beyond the present confusion, but that life will look very different from what things are like now. I suspect that General Convention 2006 will be the last that many of us will take much notice of. The way ahead looks distinctly unclear, but who when the Baby Bells were spawned imagined the sort of world that has come to pass? Yet the Lord is sovereign, he will purge his church, he will help it reshape itself for mission, and those who cannot get with his program will eventually wither and die.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's probably not surprising that a corporate model works so well for ECUSA -- it seems that's all it's become, a religious corporation that upholds corporate values. (Maybe if ECUSA's headquarters moved out of New York City it could begin to take on another perspective?)