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The Audit Culture

The goal of today’s audit culture is to effect quick change. This contrasts painfully with the call to patience in the parable of the seed.

Among the subtle but rapid changes in today’s workplace – rather like the deceptive speed at which a tide advances on your beach towel – is the emergence of the audit culture. While a case can be made for saying we have not audited our public lives as faithfully as we ought, bearing in mind the acceptance of some financial accounts that led the world to the brink of economic collapse in 2008, the scrutiny of our work has nevertheless been lifted to a new level.


Children’s performances are monitored term by term and quantified for parents; league tables indicate a school’s standing relative to others. When this child enters the workplace, they will find more tables, results and reports by which their performance is assessed. If they are particularly unlucky, they may be subject at some point to an enquiry. Most of us flinch at that prospect and sympathise with those who are because we know our own work would sometimes struggle to stand up to the exacting standards of hindsight.


This audit culture sits uneasily alongside our reading from Mark 4: 26-34 which describes the work of the kingdom of God as mysterious, organic and painstakingly incremental. Those who listened to Jesus struggled to grasp his meaning yet they were immersed in an agrarian society. How much more demanding is the parable of the seed in a restless, urban world where little is felt to exist unless it has been measured and produced quick results?


The prevailing culture of materialism poses an awkward challenge to the Church. The pursuit of identity and purpose which afford us meaning and the intangible virtues which make life worth living cannot easily be quantified and thus become easier to ignore. When they are raised, the debate is sometimes marked by scorn. The government’s interest in measuring human happiness has been ridiculed by those who do not think it can properly be assessed and anyway isn’t the business of government to pursue. This is a complicated debate, but if it isn’t specifically the government’s business it ought to be a shared one. As Robert Kennedy said in the year he was assassinated:


Gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.


One might also add that it doesn’t measure the quality of our relationship with God, either. Critics of the purpose of the Church should not deter us from their core work of bringing people into relationship with God and building up our common life. It is not that the ministry of the Church cannot be quantified, simply that the measurements widely used in society are ill-fitted and the idolising of quick results in particular is at odds with the parables Jesus used.


Resisting a tangible audit culture when it comes to the things of God should not lure us into complacency, however. The early chapters of Revelation show the risen and ascended Jesus to be an unsparing judge of the early churches’ common life. No license is granted them and he is especially critical of churches which lose their will-power and their love. There are several ways in which we are prey to similar complacency, at the heart of which is our stubborn individualism.


We live by the false image that we are self-made, proud and resolute shapers of our environment rather than vice versa. The truth is less heroic but also more romantic. We are profoundly influenced by the surrounding culture and in particular the people we rub up against. Human beings are shameless copiers of the thinking and behaviour of others. We then pass it off as our own. One of the problems of thinking we alone are responsible for shaping our personal destiny is the correlate assumption that we don’t shape anyone else’s. Yet we do. To put it another way, we are scattering the seeds of who we are as liberally as the person in the parable.


In not perceiving the lasting influences we have on others we are in danger of a laxity of faith. Words, gestures, actions and touch all contribute to the growth of the kingdom of God. The romance here lies in the hope that one day we shall see what kind of a contribution we have made. Who knows what incidental prayers, what throw-away remarks or instinctive hugs we have offered may achieve? We cannot audit these materially, but they have extraordinary power to bless. Many of us have at some point listened to someone tell us how influential the one thing we did for them years ago turned out to be. How much more do we not hear about?


If this is an encouragement to us, the warning lies in the same capacity to curse as well as to bless. We would rather not think this, but our words and conduct have a similar ability to harm others. Mostly when we are angry and spiteful, we shut down our facility for empathising with others. This means we do not make a true account of the pain we cause them; we are just too pre-occupied with our own feelings. Yet the harm we cause can burrow into others like a painful burn and make it difficult for them to dwell on anything else. As St. Paul reminds us, there are harvests of unrighteousness as well as harvests of righteousness, like the weeds and the plants which grow side by side. The question is: which are we watering?


Our stubborn individualism is not the only risk to reaping the right harvest; the question of patience must also be answered. One of the goals of today’s audit culture is to effect quick change. People who ask to be judged by the long-term consequences of their actions are deemed to be wriggling out of their accountability, yet the parable of the seed exhorts us to patience. It would be lovely to witness the seeds we sow grow like a plant on one of those fixed long shot cameras where the natural cycle is completed within a few seconds for the viewer, but this is not what God has afforded us.


One of the greatest temptations to Christian ministry is to lose heart because change is not forthcoming. We need the hope that God has set before us to inspire us to take one step after another in pursuit of its realisation. We may not be able to picture this future in all its fullness yet, but one day it will be woven for us, as the disparate and confused stitching on this side of life is turned over to reveal the most vivid and dramatic canvass of all.



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