Blog article

Can the Church be a Co-op?

Pope Francis wrote the following: "Cooperatives challenge everything, even mathematics, because in a cooperative one plus one makes three! And in a cooperative, a failure is half a failure. This is the beauty of cooperatives!" 

Addressing the Italian co-operative movement back in 2015, the Pope may not have expected at the time that the co-operative challenge might also fall upon the Church but that’s what happened at Greenbelt this year. The popular talks at the festival ‘reimagined’ our health sector, the system of money, our institutions, sport etc. So this year’s Exchange Venue became an ideal place for Co-operatives UK to ask whether a co-operative model could work for ailing churches or even the ubiquitous Church in general.

The Beauty of a Co-op Church

Anyone who’s started a co-operative will know that its strengths are unique to each co-op and only fully realised once you’re actually doing the ‘Co-operation’ bit. That means deliberately embedding your agreed principles and values in your organisation and living by them, even when you don’t want to! Like a secret cure, the most impressive changes happen as much by accident as they do deliberately - that’s the beauty of a Co-operative. The principles are tried and tested. Some early co-operators believe the principles come from ancient and even divine beginnings. Other Co-operators would keep religion out of co-operation all together. Despite the many differences and approaches in a working Co-operative, progress is often made, fields are ploughed, seeds sown, harvests reaped. And it's all done together, democratically.

What would a Co-op Church look like?

The question ‘Can the Church be a Co-op?’ was put to around 2,000 people at Greenbelt. We questioned church leaders, retirees and volunteers for whom church seemed an ever-increasing series of activities, try-outs and community projects. Most were serving churches they loved though many had something of a ‘Martha’ syndrome and were exhausted. It didn’t appear to be a minority view.

To develop the discussion we first had to get past any notion of churches as co-op retail shops! A Co-op is not a brand but a movement, a philosophy or a discipline… call it what you will - it is not a brand. Any organisation can implement co-operative values and be a 'Co-operative' as long as it embeds, and lives by, its declared values. In addition, a more democratic Church was not really the crux of the discussion either. Since Peter and the apostles had ‘cast lots’ to elect a replacement for Judas, as in the book of Acts, a level of democracy seems to have survived as an integral part of the Church today.

The Bigger Discussion - Church Ownership

It was Ananias and his wife who first broke the early community rules, according to Luke-Acts, by initially selling their property to support the growing Christian Church but later holding back those profits for their own purposes. The apostle Peter condemned their actions knowing God would deal harshly with Ananias and Sapphira. Were these crucial communuty rules a type of 'manifesto' for the first century church an the actual ‘rock’ of the first century church Peter wanted to build upon? A manifesto that the wealthy Barnabus was able to stick to even though Ananias couldn't. God struck down Ananais and his wife dead on the spot for flouting their own community church rules so it would seem a manifesto of some kind - one to prevent a misue of profits - was that important. 

The Co-operative Movement has no such power over Church controversies today thankfully. However, it does have pioneering and strong values about the use of profits or surplus in organisations, about wages and fair conditions. In the 1840s, Co-operative’s values provided the ground for ‘purer’ goods, fair pay and even a stake in business ownership for staff or customer alike. By accident co-operatives first led the market for quality, unadulterated food and better working conditions. By accident this took the Victorian rogue merchants by surprise who found they could only rescue their established businesses by not paying themselves as much as they were were used to. Instead they were forced to use the profits to improve their produce, pay and conditions too. An accidental stroke of genius by the Co-operative Movement.

Many of these values are still embedded in the hundreds of thousands of co-operatives today. It comes down to the overall mandate of a co-operative which is to build up and not tear down. A co-operative can nestle among any organisation, even its perceived competition, and still be open, frank and collaborative – as if by accident – because it is the collaboration that builds up everyone and not just the few. For this reason the Co-operative Movement may be the only requisite ground from which even the Pope can be invited to discuss Church structure, management and ownership.

Without prejudice we ask all churches, and all its people, whether the high or low churches, or any church, can be owned by its people. Do churches even like the begging bowl mentality of charity? Could a commitment to mandates, values and manifestos in your church be likened to the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus wanted Peter to build his Church? Is Jesus the ultimate Co-operator? Can the principles of Co-operation, the giving up of ownership help build the Church up and not tear it down? And is a lovingly prepared Church body, that is owned by the many not just the few, the unblemised (or unadulterated) Bride that Christ is waiting for? Let’s hear your anonyous views and we'll publish them in this blog at @churchcoop1

Subscribe to the blog / book a facilitator for your church

  • Join the discussion on devolved Church power and ownership, volunteerism and the ‘Martha’ syndrome. If you want Co-operatives UK to act as facilitator for a similar discussion among your congregation contact [email protected]
  • Attend Stir to Action's event ‘Unlocking the Next Economy: Churches and Community Enterprise, 9 October 2018
  • Follow the twitter account on the Church as a Co-op on @churchcoop1
  • As a church trustee, and with a masters in theology, Irena Pistun writes this blog and is able to facilitate a discussion on Church and Co-operation in your church.
  • To book a faciltation session for the co-oerpative discussion at your church email [email protected]
Written by Irena Pistun*
Updated: 12/11/2018