Call Centres – a metaphor for our churches perhaps?

I read, with a sickening mix of disbelief and recognition, about the mother of a shark attack victim trying to change a flight so that she could cradle her dead son. She encountered an impersonal, inflexible CALL CENTRE. The bereaved woman was left on hold; and finally only offered expensive alternatives. Governed by protocols and time limits; unable to think outside the square, or to respond with compassion or altruism, Call Centres are becoming the bane of many a life.

A metaphor for our churches perhaps?

“All I want is to talk with a ‘real-life’ person”, we say. Not automated voices with strange accents. Do our church services offer encounters with a ‘real-life’ God in ‘real-life’ people? Are those with problems fobbed off to come back during office hours – Tuesday to Friday, 9am to 3pm? Do I put God on hold? Do we recognise the spirit dwelling within? Do we offer hospitality – being fully present to this person standing in front of me?

Many businesses (and church offices) now offer menus before you get to talk with a real person. ‘Press 1’ if you want x. ‘Press 2’ if you want y. ‘Press 3’ if you want z. By the time I have listened to all the options, I have forgotten which one I want or need. So I give up.

Do rubrics and traditions and canon laws impose unfair pressures and restrictions and difficulties on our access to to sacrament: an encounter with divine LOVE? Does institutionalism and bureaucracy and sheer bloody-mindedness put up roadblocks which discourage our full, conscious, and active participation in God’s love affair with us?

The Call Centres I have dealt with all seem to be located off-shore. Are they conversant with our accent, our idioms, our attitudes, our culture? In a scene in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, Evelyn (an Englishwoman living in India) describes the ritual of ‘dunking’ a biscuit into builder’s tea to a Call Centre executive … “Means lowering the biscuit into the tea and letting it soak in there and trying to calculate the exact moment before the biscuit dissloves, when you whip it up into your mouth and enjoy the blissful union of biscuits and tea combined.” We grow best; we understand better; we communicate clearly when we speak the same vernacular, share the same story.

Not so in many of our churches. We stumble and trip over awkward words and phrasing in our liturgies. We stay silent during unsingable chants and refrains. We are human beings, born into a specific time and place and culture. Does our worship reflect our identity and our environment?

Call Centres are increasingly being moved ‘off-shore’ – centralising in massive buildings, trying to meet the needs of a global community. We should ask of Call Centres – and of our Church Communites – do we need to out-source; to centralise; to merge; to change or rebrand on a whim? What is the collateral damage: Relationship? Compassion? Belonging? Identity? Memory? Empathy? Trust? Intimacy? Are we shaping our spiritual practice on a corporate business model or do we need to reacquaint ourselves with the model presented by Jesus – empowering, inclusive, knowing, compassionate, challenging, human?

I think Call Centres are a physical embodiment of a growing desire for power; for control; for conformity; for commodification. They reflect an emphasis on quantity; on using ‘correct channels’; on correct procedure. The entire process can be dehumanising and very un-Christlike. Jesus looked people in the eye; felt their touch in a crowd; didn’t belittle people or put them on hold. He treated adults as adults – with dignity; able to make their own decisions, albeit with a little help sometimes.

Call Centres should enable me to express my concerns and get a reasonable response. Church communities should enable my relationship with the divine. Do either succeed?

Liz Pearce, mother of 3 adult children, loves story, dollmaking, writing and silence.

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