Robbie Low retails the decline of a great institution
There was a time, I am assured by even the most modest capitalists, that every portfolio of blue-chip shares would have included a small piece of Marks & Spencer. They were the high street gold standard retailer. Never particularly exciting, they were utterly reliable for the unequalled quality of their, let's be frank, pricey foodstuffs and the ubiquitous provision of the wardrobe of middle England. From tomatoes with flavour to ready meals that you would not have been disappointed to have cooked yourself, Marks & Spencer was the place. Generations of men and women owed their intimate clothing comfort and their outer smartness and presentability to good old St Michael.
When a woman friend of mine, on Samaritan's duty, was telephoned by a desperate man slavering, ‘Can I see your knickers?’, she was able to respond cheerily, with no loss or face to either party, ‘Certainly, dear, any branch of Marks and Spencer's.’
Happier times. In recent years even the patron saint of people's pants has been unable to ward off the evil of decline. Unconsidered upstarts of forty years ago, like Tesco, now offer exceptional ranges including top end quality. Clothing of reasonable quality and a bewildering variety of consumer goods beam from many hypermarket shelves and the high-street clothing stores have, of late, allied quality to bulk and all at lower prices.
Recent years have witnessed the steady and seemingly inexorable decline of the once safe bet of retailing. The share price has tumbled and, if there has been panic in the boardroom, it has been, on the whole, dignified, understated and unhurried. Chief Executives have come and gone along with directors, most of whom seem to have had better things to do with much of their time. New ranges have appeared, largely failed to excite interest, and disappeared. More women have been put in management. Stores have been radically reorganized in directionless bursts of activity. They are not more vibrant; on the whole, it is just that the familiar is now harder to find. Going into a branch is not an edifying experience and certainly not the ‘total shopping experience’ aspired to by most of its competitors. The food is unexciting and priced at the levels of a generous charity auction. Much of the women's clothing appears to be refugee from jumble sales and unwanted chair covers. The possible exception is the Per Una range which is more attuned to the under-30s. But why would a woman under thirty go to Marks & Spencer in the first place? The men’s stuff is … well, suffice it to say that even Fr Geoffrey Kirk has taken to buying his black socks at BHS. The great and reliable provider no longer does even the basics well. (As I write, the new purveyor of hosiery to the ecclesiastical gentry, BHS in the shape of Philip Green, is bidding for the limping giant.)
Why, you will ask, am I detaining readers of a serious theological magazine with an item on retailing? It is true, as friends will attest, that I have often promised to write the definitive 'Spirituality of Shopping' but that is another article. The fascinating thing about the decline of Marks & Spencer is the obvious parallels with the institution that we inhabit. The Church of England's place on the high street of yore was secure. It never offered the more extravagant or exotic spiritual fare (my apologies to those London churches to whom this stricture does not apply), but it was consistent, reliable, good quality and, when you stepped through the door, you knew what to expect. To some that may seem dull. To most it was reassuring and gave the kind of security that led to deep investment and often lifelong custom. You came for what you knew and, encouraged, came back for the treats as well as the basics. There was a brand loyalty, the Holy Grail for which all retailers strive.
Most retailers have learnt that people are not thrilled by constant rearrangement of the furnishings, the labelling or the language. There is constant re-presentation but clam chowder and crème brulée are not randomly interspersed with cami-knicks and cucumber soap. Disorientation does not lead to excitement and exploration but irritation, dissatisfaction and early departure. The ambience of constant change is exclusive. Knowing things by heart, so derided by failed educational theories, turns out to be very important to man and his ability to make an informed assessment of something new.
Thongs of Praise
Like Marks & Spencer much of the Church of England is stuck in a time warp, mainly the 1960s when 'modern' equalled 'good'. How dated it all looks now, far more so than any lump of Victoriana. The spiritual food is seldom high quality but costs vastly more. Much of it is ill prepared, unedifying and would not pass any doctrinal health test. The clothing department is also in disarray. Shabby, dated and dishevelled would describe much of it and, in some cases, non-existent. (A small Catholic shrine near me had to take a visiting celebrant into the vestry and explain that open-neck shirt and trousers were not what the regular customers expected for Holy Communion.) But it is not just sartorial. If doctrine has its equivalent in garments in many churches, you can no longer buy a decent pair of boxer shorts or black socks. The 'girdle of truth' has been replaced by a leather studded thong and the 'gospel of peace' is shod in stilettos. Inexplicably, to the management, the customer base is shrinking.
The Management, like that of M&S, used to be staid 'suits' but 'suits' whose families shopped there and liked it. They knew the job and how to train others and how to appoint branch managers who could do the job. The current Church of England management is largely inexperienced or under-experienced in front-line services. It is full of people who wanted to be on the board but never much wanted to sell the product. Worse, many of them are part-time managers using their position to further their own multifarious interests. Sitting on Government committees, attending art courses, town twinning jollies, link dioceses outings in sunnier climes, ecumenical visits and endless, endless meetings with each other. The senior management has surrounded itself with a comforting ring of junior management, waiting no doubt for Buggin's turn, whose task is to provide comfort in the face of falling sales and collapsing staff morale. No doubt someone somewhere has produced a cunning plan that, if 75 % of the branches and staff were made redundant, then Head Office could survive with increased dividend and share options for the directors.
Unlike Marks & Spencer, there is no prospect of a reviving takeover from without or an urgent response from within. The watchword remains 'the management of decline'. There has been a gradual and inexorable takeover of the Church of England, but it has been from within by people who have a patronizing approach to the customer and the staff and little belief in the product. As long as shareholders are willing to subsidize this folly, there will be no incentive to reform.
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