Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 66 - Jul 2017
If this edition has a theme, it is that of leadership. We in Modern Church face challenges in this area this summer, as our trustees vote for a new Chair, and as we learn who has been appointed as our new part-time salaried General Secretary. Who will lead us? How will their roles work out in a new configuration of responsibilities? What will their leadership styles be?
But such issues in our organisation, and in the wider Church, are dwarfed by those on the public stage. This edition goes to press following one of the most disturbing (and leader-dominated) General Election campaigns we have known. Leadership in our nation, and in many others, is more problematic than it has been in living memory.
Our book reviews include some recent publications about leadership. That reviewed by Vanessa Herrick deals specifically with leadership in the Church, with examples from Scripture drawn by a Bishop whose own leadership is widely acknowledged. That reviewed by Michael Goater is more general, but it is of particular interest to me as the authors were formerly my colleagues in the (Whitehall) Department of Education; and, though it only makes very occasional references to the church as one institution needing leadership, one of the authors is a Reader who I know would never separate his faith from his work, and who therefore may have something to teach the Church as well as secular leaders and organisations. This is followed by a glowing review of a notebook by a parish leader, and a much more critical one of a book drawing on the life and writings of one widely regarded as one of the greatest recent leaders in Christendom who has been an inspiration for the current Pope. And, lastly, a challenge to the Church - from an evangelical source - to show more leadership on the issue of human trafficking.
It is something of a cliché that, for Christians, leadership is based on servanthood. The Pope is ‘the servant of the servants of God’, and for once we have a pontiff who appears to be trying to live up to that. But how does the servant leader exercise power or influence over those who themselves seem to repudiate such servanthood, who demonstrate a different dynamic and/or may use the servanthood concept as a means of moral blackmail of their opponents? (All too familiar phenomena, whether in the dirty politics of Latin America, the underworld of trafficking, or even in the day to day life of the Church.) And how do servant leaders deal with different dynamics which may be present in themselves - whether they be fear and reluctance, as discussed in the Shaw/Douglas book, or the assertiveness that so easily slips into aggression, itself often a cover for insecurity?
Power is a fact of life. Many movements for social and environmental justice rightly remind us that ordinary ‘powerless’ people have more power, and hence more responsibility, as citizens and consumers than they may care to recognise. There is a risk that a perfectly proper assertion of servanthood can be used as a cop-out by those who are afraid of exercising power and leadership. ‘Secular’ books on these topics, though often reflecting the influence of centuries of Christian culture, can nevertheless sometimes escape from the hang-ups and cop-outs which we as Christians experience and may, for that reason, have much to teach us, even about servanthood. Therefore, though (as will be clear below) I dislike many aspects of the Church of England’s Renewal and Reform initiative, I will not join in the chorus of outright rejection of its approach to leadership training - especially since our own President, Linda Woodhead, has made a challenging contribution to that! So-called secular thinking about leadership is not by any means all bad; some of it is a good deal better than anything that we have seen in the Churches, and some valuable philosophical and theological bridges have been built by authors such as Charles Handy.
Our understanding of leadership is bound up with our understanding of human nature. Some readers will remember an influential book on management and leadership of a good half-century ago, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise. He contrasted ‘Theory X’, the assumption that workers are all self-seekers who need to be managed with material bribes and punishments, with ‘Theory Y’, the notion that people are ultimately good and anxious to make a positive contribution, implying a very different leadership style. Theory X sounds like extreme Augustinianism, and has been often misused by church leaders. Theory Y is likely to find more favour amongst Modern Church members. But surely neither approach is absolutely true or absolutely false. More sophisticated analyses have demonstrated the multi-layered nature of motivation amongst leaders and followers, and this marries up with the penetrating psychological analyses of great spiritual writers such as Harry Williams. Robert Baldwin, in his article in this edition, likewise draws on the natural and human sciences to challenge a one-dimensional understanding of ‘Bible teaching’ about human nature, and therefore also has a contribution to make to this debate; the presenting issue here may be sexuality, but his arguments can be extended to apply to other aspects of human nature and to give a picture closer to that of Harry Williams than to those of many more conventional Christian writers.
Theories X and Y have a bearing on some basic current issues of church leadership. The Church no doubt needs to change and grow, if its mission is to continue. But is that best achieved through dire threats of decline, from a sectarian standpoint, putting firecrackers up the backsides of current clergy and laity (Theory X), or by building on the positive connections which the Church still enjoys in our community (Theory Y)? Linda Woodhead and Martyn Percy have implied that these two approaches represent different ecclesiologies. I recently tried to unpack the debate in my regular ‘Window on the World’ column in my local parish magazine. Colleagues have asked me to include that in this edition of Signs. If anyone were to find it helpful to reproduce this article locally, there is no copyright.
But I return to our individual dilemmas, and their theological challenges. If as Christian leaders we are to model the best sort of leadership, we must clearly work towards the ideal of forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than the defeat of our enemies or the expulsion of those who are thorns in our and the community’s side. And we must be aware that not all powers given to leaders under canon law or the Church Representation Rules, or by other ecclesiastical or secular legislation, are wholly fit for purpose, so we cannot take for granted any justification of our power. But we do have power, which means that we also have responsibility, under God, to exercise it when it is needed. That may involve finding a way of removing a totally unconstructive PCC member or dismissing an incurably non-achieving member of staff. Not comfortable, and seemingly in conflict with ‘the plain teaching of the Gospel’ about forgiveness. But, if such forgiveness is at the heart of the order of redemption, the fact of power, and the need for it, is equally at the heart of the order of creation. The tension between these two is a key part of what it means to be human, and hence to lead human endeavours, and no attempts must ever be made to short-circuit it.
It is reputed that some ‘primitive’ peoples, when killing an animal for food or even in self-defence, would ask forgiveness of that animal. That may be worth meditating on, as we consider the apparent conflict between forgiveness and the exercise of power. Our relationship with the animal world can be a touchstone for our understanding of our relationships with other human beings and with our own selves. As a dog-lover - a characteristic which I know I share with many readers - I can testify to what I have learnt about these things, in what looks like a relationship of pure power and dependency with much scope for projection and fantasy. All leaders, in Church and society, should own a dog and learn from their relationship with it.
Leadership is an art more than a science, and one mark of the good artist is knowing when to stop. So, for the moment, I will.
One last word, however, on a different matter. We have yet another loss to record from amongst our Vice-Presidents: Marilyn McCord Adams. Jane Shaw, co-chair of this year’s Annual Conference, wrote a splendid obituary in the Church Times on 7th April, and I do not propose to reproduce or summarise it here. Most of us knew Marilyn mainly from her contribution to one of our conferences, several years ago, when we were discussing ‘Saving the Soul of Anglicanism’ and she did a wonderful demolition job on the proposals for an Anglican Covenant, displaying to the full her legal as well as theological skills.
She was a true leader, both in theology and in church politics, both here as an Oxford theology professor and General Synod member, and in her original home, the Episcopal Church of the USA.
One story which Jane relates about her is about the t-shirt which she wore on Pride marches with the legend ‘Straight but not narrow’, witnessing to her constant fight for gay rights in the Church. Not a bad slogan for those of us in Modern Church who are not themselves gay. And a superb example of leadership by witty persuasion.