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Church of England Technology Director on securing its future and legacy

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth November 23, 2023
In five years, the Church of England has de-risked and modernized its technology estate

An image of the inside of St Peter’s Church
(Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay)

The peace and tranquillity of a church feel completely different to the noise and aggression of the City of London, or other major financial trading hubs. However, the Church of England is a large organization with a boutique investment division; it is one of the UK's largest grant-making bodies. 

It is also an institution with people, buildings - and though it feels wrong to call a religion a product - it is essentially responsible for just that. One that means a great deal to many. As a result, the Church of England has a complex and demanding need for technology to serve its purpose in the 2020s. For the last five years, Terry Willis has been modernizing technology and cybersecurity at The Church of England as its Director of Technology and Cybersecurity. 

Dioceses are responsible for the churches in your local community, while the Church of England central organization manages an investment fund, which is then granted to the diocese for the upkeep of the churches and church halls that are central to many peoples’ community life. Willis says of the organization from Church House, a stone's throw from Westminster Abbey: 

We are an investment boutique, we operate the church's pension scheme, it is also a large land owner, and we have a housing association with 3500 units, as well as the work the Church of England does in the House of Lords, through to Christianity. It is a wide stream of people and roles. I have people using Bloomberg terminals through to a collection box. So there are lots of applications and use cases to consider.

Willis says technology has become an enabler to the Church, and just like his peers and former life in corporate IT, he has a technology estate that encompasses Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, as well as development to suit the uniqueness of some of the use cases within the Church of England.

De-risking and modernizing  

When Willis arrived at the church five years ago, his first priority was to de-risk the technology estate, which had leaking cooling systems, a single power supply and connection to the internet, with the backup on site too. This is an organization that is one the largest grant providers in the UK and has people dependent on it, and its technology, for their homes, pensions and investments. 

Once the backup was moved off-site, and a second power supply and diverse network connections were in place, Willis had the opportunity to think strategically about how technology operated and supported the Church of England. The first strategic decision was moving into a tier one data center and the adoption of Microsoft Azure to shift the Church to the cloud. This was the beginning of a strong relationship with Redmond, Willis says: 

Microsoft is really good to us, and we are a pure Microsoft 365 operation. 

As with so many of his peers, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of technology in the Church of England. He says: 

We were very lucky that Microsoft helped replace all our laptops and we used Autopilot to configure them to a standard set-up in an hour. So, 800 people in the organization received the technology they needed within six weeks.

In addition, Willis moved the church to Teams telephony, replacing a legacy Mitel installation. The Church of England, alongside its public sector and enterprise brethren, made one of the biggest changes to its technology uses during the pandemic, and like many organizations, the necessity removed potential blockages that may have occurred in "normal" times. 

Modernization continues. The technology infrastructure of both Church House, the effective head office and conference centre of the Church of England in Westminster London, and Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, are being upgraded. The application modernization continues too, he says: 

We are reviewing our financial systems and looking at a new property management system as well as the use of Large Language Models (LLM)."

With the Microsoft 365 platform being essential to church operations, Willis is an early adopter of Coreview, the Microsoft 365 management platform, which he says helps with managing a workforce that is often working remotely from any corner of the globe. 

He says this provides not only an ability to see how the estate is performing, but also automates tasks, such as provisioning IT to new joiners to the organization, creating email accounts and notifications for device supply, for example. 

The regular reports ensure Willis and his team always know when someone is unwell or no longer with the organization, to secure and or protect their system access. 

This adds to the cybersecurity layers that Willis has put in place to protect the Church of England; he says: 

We have Zscaler at the edge and Microsoft Defender internally, and we are overlapping things for the best protection. We take cybersecurity very seriously. So we continually look at the risks and assess for protection. 

Willis says he makes sure that half his time as a business technology leader is devoted to cybersecurity.  

Unique role, a typical role

There cannot be too many business technology leaders in the UK who have quarterly meetings with one of the most recognizable, influential and famous people in the land, but Willis regularly meets with Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and has a regular reporting line to the COO of the Church of England. But, like all business technology leaders, Willis is helping the members of the organization navigate the new technology landscape that religion, commerce and the public sector have to exist within. As an institution, there are long-standing members of the church, and some will find technology incredibly disruptive. The role of a business technology leader, no matter the sector, is about culture change, and a church is no different.   

Willis has a heritage of this; we first met when he was Director of Information Systems at Age UK, the charity which has a commercial arm as well as an emergency service, all of which needed that diverse range of technology for volunteers, emergency responders in a contact centre and charity operations. 

My take

No organization, on the surface, looks less likely to be a user of enterprise-grade technology, especially when you sit on the pews of a historic village church. But as Willis reveals, these historic institutions are complex and, therefore, need technology to simplify, standardize and continually modernize.

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