It has been clear for many years now that one of life’s less comfortable facts is that sometimes people abuse the power they have over others, and betray the trust which is vested in them. As we a society have become more aware of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, we have invested significant resources in processes and practices which we call ‘Safeguarding’.

‘Safeguarding’ is only part of the response to the abuse of the vulnerable, however. Another aspect of the response is that of the legal system to those who have perpetrated abuse. When abuse is illegal it needs to be treated as such, and as we know, the news headlines have all too regularly been dominated by the trials of people who are well known. In many more cases people are prosecuted and imprisoned with no one much noticing, apart from family, friends and acquaintances. The male prison population in this country is getting much older as this process goes on – there often being a huge time lag between offence and prosecution. This leads people to use the term ‘historic child abuse’. It means to refer to events that happened many years ago. The phrase is misleading if it suggests that the effects and consequences of the abuse are historical. For one thing we know about abuse of children is that the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds and consequences can persist not only for days weeks and months, but for years, decades and lifetimes.

A few days ago I was speaking with a leading activist and campaigner in this area. He made the point that whenever he speaks about the subject he assumes that there will be people present who have been on the receiving end of child abuse, and that there may well be those who have inflicted it too. Of course there is no certainty about this, and different people take different views about just how occasional, prevalent or endemic child abuse is in our society. However, the question of the severity of the impact of abuse on the victim, and the enormity of the evil involved in its perpetration, is not a quantitative question. One incident of child abuse is one too many, and any words which might be heard to minimize extent or impact must be avoided.

A sense of the sensitivity of the subject is one reason why a preacher should be careful in the way they address it, and I have wondered whether it is a reason to avoid it altogether. Certainly it’s not a subject that is often addressed from the pulpit. And yet to fail to talk in church about something that is so often in the papers seems to me to be a dereliction of ministerial duty; not least in an area where one of the mechanisms of cruelty and evil is coerced silence, ‘this must be our secret’, and where silence is self- inflicted because the power of shame is so smothering – both for perpetrators, and for victims.

There are those, perhaps, who would see this subject as relatively straightforward. After abuse the crime should be reported, the perpetrator dealt with according to the law, and the victim be given support and counseling to him or her move on. Of course I don’t think it is anything like this simple, either in theory or in practice, and yet this simple little model has much to commend it compared with some responses. And the church, I am sorry to say, is often the source of responses which range from the collusive to the re-abusive. It is well known that for many years reports of abuse were dismissed, disbelieved or denied by church authorities of various denominations, and that at the same time clerical perpetrators where quietly moved on, quite possibly to places where they could continue the habit of abuse. The whistle has been blown on such practices now, and reports written and better policies and practices implemented. But the reports make shameful reading and have shaken the faith of many. There are other inappropriate responses too.

A recent book by Sue Atkinson (‘Struggling to Forgive’ Monarch Books, 2014) , explores many examples of inept and inappropriate pastoral response, not least the sort that is based on what she calls the ‘weird theology’ that puts huge pressure on the victim of abuse to forgive the perpetrator. I have heard, and heard of, so many bad sermons about forgiveness that I have no doubt that this is true, and it is to me just as worrying a response to abuse as is the institutional cover up. You could call it the pastoral beat-up. I have no doubt that people experience this as re-abuse. It is all about putting pressure on a vulnerable and frightened person do so something they are not comfortable with, and quite probably invoking God’s authority. ‘You know you must forgive others everything they do to you’ says the possibly well-meaning but nonetheless manipulative pastor, ‘it says it in the Bible and you pray it in the Lord’s Prayer.’

Let me very clear about what I am saying here. Do I mean that child abuse is the ultimate, unforgivable sin? No. I don’t think that there is any limit to God’s capacity to forgive, unless the person whom God seeks to forgive and transform into a new person actively resists: this is the sin against the Holy Spirit which is the only unforgivable sin. To be clear, this is the sin of willfully and determinedly keeping God out of your life and away from all aspects of yourself that might need to be forgiven. Under these conditions God can’t forgive because God can’t get close enough to forgive. But to say that God can forgive is not to say that the actual victim of abuse is, or should be, placed under any pressure whatsoever even to think about it.

One of the most important lessons that I try to offer whenever I speak about forgiveness is that there are three distinct types: God’s forgiveness, the forgiveness of one person by another, and self-forgiveness. If we had a few hours we could talk about how the three connect and relate, but one thing I hope you take away from this sermon is the clear message that the forgiveness questions are among the last that should ever cross the mind of the victim of abuse who is beginning to come to terms with their experience by sharing it with others; something which typically takes place only many years later.

Now let me add a few points of clarification. It’s sexual abuse that catches the headlines but that’s not the only form by any means. Neglect, bullying, and cruelty – physical and mental – can all be deeply abusive. And nor are all abusers males. Women abuse too, and many who abuse are not the overtly nasty types but pleasant, friendly people who have a high degree of empathy, by which they gain the trust and access that are later exploited in abuse. The other thing to say is that most abuse is not perpetrated by strangers, or adults who insinuate themselves across the normal domestic boundaries, or by clergy, but by members of the same household and family. I hope that I have said enough to convince you that abuse is not a simple matter from any perspective.

I hope that I can also convince you that the impact of abuse on people is not simple either. Psychologists and others have researched this and come up with long lists including emotions like fear, guilt, shame and anger; behaviours like self-harm or even suicide; and experiences like depression and even psychosis. For those whose trust has been betrayed, the whole subject of trust becomes difficult. For those who know that they have been subjected by a powerful other, then questions of how to respond to the power of other people, or how to manage your own personal or positional power, also emerge. For people of faith, spiritual and theological questions emerge – how could God allow this? Why did God let it happen to me? And where the abuser is a religious representative, people have reported that is as if the abuse is being perpetrated by God.

Having said all that, you will not expect me to offer any magic-wand method for putting matters right. I do, however, think that there are a few things that can be said that might be helpful for people coping after the abuse of themselves or someone they know. The first thing is that to feel confused, ambiguous and bad about it is normal. It is also normal to think that you can’t tell anyone about it.

Second, finding someone who you can trust with this, and who is caring and robust enough to share something of your emotional journey, is almost certainly the most helpful thing you can do.

Thirdly, if this has been your experience, or a friend tells you that it is theirs, then it is wise to be in touch with one of the agencies which offers support to people who have had similar experience – check out the NAPAC website for instance. http://www.napac.org.uk

Fourth, it is important to remember that any healing of the words of abuse is going to take time, and that sometimes will feel painful itself, just as the healing process after more simple physical or mental wounds.

And fifth, because abuse is complex and impacts on many aspects of who a person is, then the onward journey is also complex. One book (‘Shattered Soul? Five Pathways to Healing the Spirit after Abuse and Trauma’ by Patrick Flemming. Wordstream Publishing 2011) talks of five different pathways, the first three of which are the pathways of courage, grief and anger.

Courage – to move forward after abuse really takes guts. Grief – to move forward involves engaging with the sadness and loss that is caught up with being abused. Anger (the author actually calls this ‘holy anger’) this is allowing yourself to experience all the indignation that is appropriate when you let yourself realize that this should never have happened. That anger might also of course be directed at God. It’s really important to experience that anger – but also not to be trapped by it.

And that is perhaps the key belief that allows for any healing or transformation after abuse. Namely the Christian belief that however dark the past, the light of Christ is stronger; that however awful the torture, the healing of Christ is deeper; and that ultimately, while it might seem that we have died inside, deeper within is the true soul- self that God desires to restore to fullness of life.

Christianity is predicated on the faith that God in Christ is with us in our deepest need, and darkest loneliness; that God in Christ raises us from whatever form of death in life is inflicted on us; and that God in Christ gives us the grace in the fullness of time to say that although I have been a victim there will come a time when, with Christ, I will be not only a survivor but a victor, standing with him on the glorious dawn of an utterly unexpected Easter.

 

This is the first sermon in the series ‘King’s Divines’ preached as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the completion of King’s College Chapel in 1515.

I have to confess that I only recently discovered that the famous nineteenth century Bishop, Brooke Foss Westcott, had a King’s connection. He is commemorated by a plaque at Trinity Chapel as he was an undergraduate there, gaining a double first and becoming a Fellow. He was the President of what was then called the Cambridge Theological Training School – and is now called Westcott House. But he is also one of us, in as much as he was a Professorial Fellow from 1882. In fact he was the first Professorial Fellow the College ever had. He was ‘headhunted’ as soon as the statutes changed to allow such posts. He was, I might add offered a similar position by St John’s, but King’s asked first, and so we got him. At the time he was Regius Professor of Divinity – a post he held along with being a Canon of Westminster Abbey (from 1884) until he moved north to become Bishop of Durham in 1890.

Westcott is most remembered today for two things: his contribution to New Testament scholarship and as Bishop of Durham. This second point is remarkable in as much as he went to that demanding position in his mid-sixties, his predecessor having been one of his former students who died in office. It is clear from his correspondence and comments from others, that Westcott was an extremely hardworking priest as well as a very able scholar. He had a large family, and like many of that time knew the sadness of the death of children. Several of his sons were clergy; one, a missionary in India, died of cholera in the same year as Westcott’s beloved wife – and this not long before the end of his own life.

Westcott is known as the ‘miner’s bishop’, and is, if I can venture this opinion as a former Canon of Durham, one of three Durham bishops who are remembered especially fondly by the people of the North East today. The other two are Michael Ramsey (who was also Regius Professor here and of course went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury) and David Jenkins, also, as it happens, a clerical don in his prior ministry. And so it is that Westcott is one of those great Anglicans who managed to hold together a commitment, indeed passion is not too strong a word, both for the pursuit of truth through the most serious and rigorous intellectual work, and the pursuit of justice by equally strenuous and forthright social engagement. His most famous act was to reconcile striking miners and pit owners and so bring to an end the 1892 Coal Strike. To appreciate the significance of this you need to imagine not only the dangerous and grinding lives of miners and their families in the colliery villages, but also the way in which striking rendered then extremely poor and hungry. This was a long time before the National Coal Board, or indeed the National Union of Mineworkers. They were desperate days, and it was Bishop Westcott who realised that sorting this out was as important a call on his time as had been preparing a new standard edition of the Greek New Testament. Bishops were of course far grander in those days than they are now. It is said that one meeting he had with miners and owners overran and so he was late for the train at Darlington. The train therefore waited on the station for the Bishop.

Grand or not, Westcott remained committed to the miners and to social justice. In 1895 he was instrumental in establishing the ‘Board of Conciliation for the Durham Coal Trade’ – a means whereby ‘labour’ and ‘capital’ could resolve their differences. And he saw this as more than social work. It was spiritual work; God’s work. And it was given lasting expression in the great Cathedral service which happens towards the end of the Miner’s Gala day in Durham; an occasion which continues to this day, brass bands, banners and all, despite the fact that the last pit was closed in 1993. In fact Westcott’s last public engagement was to preach at a Miner’s Gala service in 1901. He was already ill and it exhausted him. He died a week later.

It is moving to read various statements that were made when he died. The Durham Miners’ Association said that, ‘We recognise that we have lost a sympathiser, counsellor and helper in all our efforts for better conditions, both in our home surroundings and our working life.’ Their statement concludes, ‘we tender our sympathy to the relatives of the truly great and kindly Christian who has been taken from a life in which he lived usefully and well to a reward which awaits all who try to correct the wrongs and brighten the darkness of this life’. And the Durham Diocesan Conference agreed a statement that concluded: ‘It is only the late Bishop’s written injunction which has restrained the Diocese from offering to his memory some material monument. Nothing can restrain us from cherishing and profiting by the spiritual monument of his illustrious work and inspiring life’.

Such is the Durham perspective, what of the view from King’s itself? While he was here he was repeatedly offered Deaneries, and at one time was invited to be Dean of Lincoln. He replied to the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, in these terms: ‘If I could feel that it would be right for me now to seek comparative rest, there is I think, no place which with all misgivings I should accept more gratefully than the Deanery of Lincoln’. He wrote about this later, saying that the decision had been very easy. The work at the Abbey and in Cambridge was important and demanding. Although a Cambridge man, he was no cyclist, and so his family clubbed together to buy him a tricycle. He was also an amateur artist, and some of his sketches are in our College archives. He could express himself pungently – wishing Matthew Arnold was ‘less vain’, and writing in horror to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he heard that Queen Victoria was planning to visit the Abbey in a bonnet: ‘It would be a national disaster. The empire needs sorely to honour the Queen as Queen’. Before he came back to Cambridge as a Professor he was a Canon of Peterborough, and took a good deal of interest in Cathedral music, not least the singing of the Psalms; such involvement or ‘interference’ by a canon shocking and annoying some of the choir men. He was often in correspondence with Archbishop Benson (himself an important figure for us as it was his liturgical innovation in Truro that inspired and encouraged Eric Milner White to try the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols here) – on one occasion adding what he called ‘A very big PS’ to another letter. It was an invitation to preach here in this Chapel the following month.

The records tell us that Westcott was greatly pleased by his King’s connection, and endeavoured to do his duty as a Fellow. He was in regular attendance at College meetings, attending Congregations until 1898, and he promoted small gatherings for discussion on Sunday afternoons. One of the students he influenced while here was W. R. Inge – who became a famous Dean of St Paul’s. About 10-15 undergraduates would attend these events, which took the form of Platonic dialogues, Dr Westcott taking the part of Socrates. I will let Dean Inge’s remembrances form the conclusion of this address for they offer, I think, the key to the significance of Westcott for us as we reflect on our 500 years here. Not only did he preach beautiful sermons (this is recorded) but he also had a faith and spirituality which connected thought with action, and truth with justice, and to which the fundamental connectedness between people, and their equality in the eyes of God, was a fundamental of faith.

Dean Inge: ‘I took no note of what he said, and have only a general recollection that he spoke often about human personality, propounding mystical doctrines of the solidarity of human beings, which then seemed to most of us rather paradoxical and difficult to follow, but which have since come back to me associated with memories of his face and voice. I remember that he spoke of the shame which he felt in reading of any horrible crime, as if he were in some way partly responsible for it himself. But whether we understood him or not, we always felt that we were in the presence of a saint, and that it did us good to see and hear him’.

Imagine Not

She called it the day of which we do not
speak. My grandmother. She was there. One of the
youngest.
Her’s was a girl, but they killed her
anyway. Herod’s
men.

I don’t know why she broke her vow
with me, but one day, when I was
seventeen, she spoke of that
unspoken day. Described the sound of their
coming. Relived the hour of
sword and club. Related the days of
lament. The sleepless
years.
Never have I seen such
sorrow. Never seen such bleakness of
eye. Never have I heard such a long, slow, deep, mournful
moan as slipped from her
soul after the
telling.

She died long after. Closing the ranks of her
generation, sealing the sisterhood of death with
death.
As she went, her eye fixed mine. ‘You know,’ it
said. ‘You know a
little’.
I replied in words which had been
long in coming. ‘I have been there; I have imagined’.
I held her
hand.

She raised her head and fixed my eye again. I quailed
at the effort it cost her. She drew her last draught of
air, then exhaled at me from the depths of her dying
lungs:
‘Imagine it not!’

She fell back. Eyes open, but still.
I stayed with her as, one by one the canyons above her
eyes, and the bright bulbs below, calmed and sagged,
marking in their relaxation the death of her
memory.

I took a vow to kill my
imagination that day. Yet it
lives.

What is the spirit of Christmas?

I have a feeling that your answer to this question might depend on your age. If you are at the chorister stage then excitement will probably be a major ingredient. If you are coming towards the end of your days then I suspect that it is a time to remember loved ones you see no more.

For those of us somewhere nearer the midpoint of life, the spirit of Christmas will certainly include both of these elements, the proportions mixed according to our personality and our circumstances in any particular year.

My pre-Christmas reading, consisting largely of missives slipped inside otherwise innocent looking Christmas cards, tells me that for many Christmas is a time of recollection. It is a moment to report on the domestic year – often spiced with stories of success but almost as often sobered with sadness. Curiously two which I read this week focused on one word which itself stood out from the crowd. Both were from clergy – one who has been struggling courageously with cancer these last few years and the other a professor of theology. The word they were reflecting on was ‘nostalgia’.

The old joke is that nostalgia is not what it used to be. But the truth is that that’s just as well because there was a time when it was a certifiable condition. Longing for the past, what my grandmother used to call ’days gone by’, can of course be a very disabling condition. It’s literally hopeless. The past isn’t going to come back, and the energy we spend on wishing it might could be better spent on engaging with the present moment or seeking a better future.

And yet nostalgia is also homesickness, and who is so heartless to deny us that feeling when we look at beautiful nativity scenes, or remember again the intimate and adoring love between God and humanity intensified in the mutual gaze of mother and child – Mary and Jesus.

Christmas is meant to be a reminder to us of the times when we have felt most loved, and most intimately connected with God and with other human beings. This is a genuinely spiritual experience. It is a recollection of truth, and the Christian faith says that it is the deepest truth of our being.

Nostalgia can mislead us, however, if it suggests that the present and the future are the poor relations in the family of the tenses. This is not so. The present and the future both have their place in the spirit of Christmas.

For all the stillness of Christmas, it is fundamentally a forward-looking festival. Artists get this right when they paint the mother and child in such a way as to hint at the pieta: the image of the crucified Christ being cradled by his mother after being deposed from the cross and laid in the tomb. They make the same point when they incorporate a goldfinch, symbol of the passion as it likes to eat the seeds of thistles, uncomfortably hinting at the crown of thorns.

The forward dynamic of Christmas is also written into the Christian calendar: tomorrow is St Stephen’s Day, the first martyr being given a day of honour. Then it is St John, and then we commemorate the Holy Innocents. Such a day as that is one to put nostalgia in its place. It reminds us that for many the tragedy and pain of the past weigh heavily on their hearts. When they look back, it is with horror.

We do well to remember here that this was especially so in the years towards the end of the First World War. The horror, the loss, and the sheer grief of those days turned out the lights on Edwardian optimism. No more could Christmas be celebrated in the same way again. And so it was that our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was born.

The desire to keep our Christmas celebrations loyal to the genius of that service, and yet fresh and relevant to the people of today, is sincere. It is reflected in both the commissioning of a new carol for the radio broadcast every year, and in selecting and using ‘secular’ readings in our collaboration with BBC2, ‘Carols from King’s’. This is a good moment to recognise the creativity and vision that the Director of Music and Chaplain have brought to these areas today. Literally millions of people have been spiritually touched and nourished by their subtle ministries, most of the work of which has been far behind the scenes. To say that this is part of the spirit of Christmas across the English speaking world is no overstatement. It is genuine recognition and appropriate praise.

Needless to say there are plenty who would frame what we do here as part of the Yuletide nostalgia industry, but I would denounce that as an utterly false reading. It would be more perceptive to criticise us for being overly committed to the present moment. There is in a place like this (not by the way that there is a place like this – and that’s part of its genius) but there is here a spirit of extreme intensification. If you were here yesterday afternoon you would have experienced that as the light drained from the windows until they were black and the candles created a beautiful glow from the centre of which the Provost read the prologue of John’s gospel: ‘the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not’.

It is in the nature of a college to intensify. Unusually intellectual people are drawn into a community of scholars and teachers, and a sharply competitive admissions process identifies a student body marked by abnormally high intelligence and commitment. When I saw the film ‘The Imitation Game’ the other day it seemed to me no accident that Alan Turing was from King’s. There is a confidence here that if you think rigorously enough then you can solve the most intractable problems. That confidence may ultimately be misplaced, but you have to respect people for trying; not least if their unappreciated efforts shaved two years off a world war and saved an estimated 14 million lives.

Intensification, then, can be a genuine virtue. And that’s what happens when we celebrate Christmas here, and it is one of the reasons why people see in what we do something that is not only beautiful in its own right but which speaks of something else which is far more important. People often call this chapel iconic. That is a cliché unless they mean that they get a glimpse of God loving and working through it.

The true spirit of Christmas is not excitement, or family, or shopping, or nostalgia. The true spirit of Christmas is the recognition that God breaks into time both historically in the events we recall and depict, but also in the intensity of the present moment. It is a spiritual duty at Christmas to clear away the clutter, the busyness, the longing for the falsely remembered past and our impatience for a fantasy future and to contemplate with serious joy the truth from above, the truth of God, the God of love.

No one moment can ever fully contain that love, and yet we lose the love if we destroy the precious moments of our lives by clinging to the past or hastening to the future.

May God give you the grace to know the truth and love of Christ this Christmas, and always.

For Christmas Eve

 

As the sun slips the horizon

it barely transcended:

 

degree by degree,

inch by inch.

 

As the darkness rises

to black the great windows:

 

colour by colour,

pane by pane.

 

As the hoarfrost gathers

to glisten creation:

 

blade by blade,

twig by twig.

 

Let my prayer rise before you

as tranquil as incense:

 

cloud by cloud,

plume by plume.

 

Let my hands be uplifted

as gift and acceptance:

 

finger by  finger,

palm by  palm.

 

And let this night fall

with seismic thud

 

to be vanquished and healed

by the flint-flash of God.

What follows can also be found in the BBC’s webpage for the service which is broadcast live on Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04vf8dt

A message from the Dean, and Director of Music of King’s College, Cambridge.

The sound of a solo boy treble singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ in a chapel packed with people who have queued half a winter’s day to be there, transmitted by Radio to millions across the globe, has become the true start of Christmas for many. The precision of the timing, 3.02pm GMT, coupled with the global sweep of the broadcast, bring time and space together, and seem to shrink the business of the world to the scale of a college chapel.

It has not always been thus. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols may feel as if it has always been there, but it was first celebrated in 1918. Broadcasting by Radio followed in 1928 and it was first televised sixty years ago in 1954. Today the Radio Broadcast is a live transmission direct from the Chapel, whereas what is offered to a Television audience has been pre-recorded.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the Festival for those who are present in the chapel, is the way in which the vast windows become dark during the afternoon so that by the end the candles around the choir suggest a remarkably cradle-like shape when the Provost reads the final lesson – ‘and the word became flesh’.

The fact that the first service took place soon after the end of the First World War is no accident. Rather it is the key to understanding the spiritual depths of the occasion.

The service was the brainchild of Eric Milner-White, who had been the College Chaplain before the war and then went to serve as an army chaplain. He was decorated, but also traumatised. When he returned to King’s as Dean in 1918 his experience told him that if religion were to connect with people’s lives it would have to be different. Milner-White was no radical, however, and found his idea for a new service in something that had already been tried. By bringing it to King’s, and offering it as a gift to the city, he transformed the service devised by Bishop Benson for Truro, a transformation which has continued both as he tweaked it into its now familiar shape during his tenure as Dean, and as it has developed musically through the work of successive Directors of Music.

The greater part of the musical content is traditional in character, carols and hymns being selected to reflect the themes of the readings, in the same way that the responsories in the monastic office were linked to the preceding passages of scripture. Some of the choices mark anniversaries of significant composers. In 2013 Benjamin Britten featured strongly in his centenary year. This year, music by two of our senior composers who are celebrating their 80th birthday – Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies – together with a piece by William Mathias, who would have been 80 this year, is included. The distinguished musical contribution of Sir David Willcocks, who celebrates his 95th birthday at the end of this year, is an enduring one. Annually since 1983 there has been a newly commissioned carol, reflecting the need to renew our great tradition regularly with fresh material. This year’s new carol is by the Swiss composer, Carl Rütti.

After the famous opening carol, the service is introduced by a Bidding Prayer written by Milner-White himself in those difficult days when memories of the trenches, and the huge sense of grief at the loss of so many young lives, would have been acute, if not utterly overwhelming. His words have been read by many ministers around the world, but few properly appreciate what was on his mind as he wrote and read this paragraph.

“Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.”

Once the context is known this reads very differently – ‘another shore’ is not just a metaphor for heaven, but a reminder of recent atrocities overseas. And ‘that multitude which no man can number’ would call to mind not merely a vague sense that ‘well yes, many people have lived before us’ but the long, long lists of names that were then being collated and would in time be etched on to war memorials. Memorials such as the one in a side chapel at King’s which Milner-White was responsible for, and which should, perhaps be one of the images in our minds when we think of King’s College, Cambridge at Christmas.

Stephen Cherry, Dean, and Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music, King’s College, Cambridge.

An unseasonal row has erupted in the pages of the Church Times and across the ecclesiastical parts of social media.  Like many church rows it has been precipitated by a document.  This one is called ‘Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A new approach’. It has become known simply as the ‘Green Report’ as the group which produced it was chaired by Lord Green, a clergyman who is a former Minister of State for Trade and Investment and Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings plc.

If you google ‘Green Report’ you will find a huge amount of analysis, comment and complaint, and a few articles on the more positive or perhaps defensive side. I am not going to summarise all that here. Rather let me make a few observations about ‘Leadership Development’ in the Church today.

About half the dioceses of the Church of England have been running ‘leadership programmes’ for clergy over the last decade or so. In my previous job as a ‘Director of Ministry’ I declined to adopt, develop or invest in such programme. It seemed to me that good leadership inevitably emerges if you get the basics of ministerial development right. It also seemed to me that something happens once the word ‘leadership’ becomes a project for the few – and that something is often a bit suspect.  My approach rather was to try to find multiple and diverse ways of helping people develop the perspectives, skills, confidences and habits that would make them good ministerial leaders.

I know the church is on the whole anxious about the quality of the leadership it gets. But this anxiety needs to be analysed. Here are a couple of points. First, just because people are anxious about something it doesn’t follow that you can do anything about it. Second, just because you feel your leaders are not very good at leading it doesn’t follow that putting them on a leadership programme will make them better at it. And yet, human beings are so good at learning that it must be possible for many to learn how to be better at leadership.  The questions are – can we know how? And, suppose our well-intended efforts misfire?

Leadership and Liberalism

One of the features of the church in general and the Church of England in particular is that it loves a conversation, a debate, a seminar.  It values discourse and the production of books and papers. It actually quite likes blogs too. This is especially true of the liberal part of the church – which I still consider its centre.

By the way, it makes no sense to me to say that the Church of England has a liberal wing. It is manifestly a liberal institution. This observation is vital, not least to this subject and the way it is being discussed.

There is no doubt that some construe the Green proposals as an attack on the ethos of the church. And I agree that it is far from axiomatic that it is possible to retain the ethos of a liberal institution at the same time as being strongly led. On the other hand, even liberal institutions ought to seek to flourish, and to know what they are for and to be appropriately administered – and all this is can be compromised if there is no space for leadership. It is not enough to hope that things will work out in the end provided that everyone is given a voice. This is a lovely democratic thought but it is naive and romantic. There is always leadership, there is always an uneven distribution of influence, and some people are always silenced.  The question is, ‘is it clear to all where leadership responsibility is vested, and is the person closest to the heart of that adequately prepared, carefully appointed, wisely guided, appropriately supported, and transparently accountable?’

These are the questions that cannot yet be adequately answered at any level in the church – but especially at the ‘top’.

The New Hymnbook Test

One of the sins behind the row about the Green Report is the failure to base it on sufficient conversation between enough appropriately qualified or representative people. This is an ironic and somewhat silly mistake to make.  One training exercise I have developed for new vicars is to ask them what they would do if they were woken in the middle of the night by the thought that what the church needed was a new hymnbook.

The wrong answers include: ‘order a set of new hymn books immediately’, ‘tell the choir that you don’t like the existing hymn book’, ‘bring a proposal to the next church committee that the church gets new hymnbooks’.  But another wrong answer is, ‘don’t do anything about it’, and yet another is ‘write or speak at length about the virtues of a hymnbook that you want but that nobody else has seen’.

Personally I doubt that there is a leadership programme out there that will furnish people with the right answer to the hymnbook question, partly because I doubt whether there is a right answer. Nonetheless a good ministerial leader will be much better at knowing what to do with their nocturnal feeling about a new hymnbook than a not so good ministerial leader. In  some cases this will result in no change because they will come to realise that their powerful feeling was actually based on subjective factors rather than a good analysis of what the church really needs. In other cases it will lead, in the fullness of time, to the happy acquisition and assimilation of a new hymnbook willingly paid for by people who, until recently, were more or less content with the old one.

Faithful Improvisation

The approach I have described here is perhaps a simple example of what has been dubbed ‘Faithful Improvisation’ in a recent church document. This has received far less attention than the Green Report, but is the best analysis of leadership in the church I have read.   (It is called ‘Senior Church Leadership – A Resource for Reflection’ FAOC (2014) 15A. It is available as a PDF via the ‘Thinking Anglicans’ website.)

There is no doubt in my mind that the Church needs ‘leadership’.  There are, however, many doubts in my mind as to how much can be helpfully said about leadership in the abstract, and whether any training programme can deliver the kind of self-aware, contextually-alert, vision-led and yet collaboratively worked through style of ministry that looks and feels like appropriate leadership today.

So, does the Green Report belong in the shredder?  No, I don’t think so. It’s a clumsier and clunkier document than it needed to be, and if it is not interpreted carefully – not least in the light of the criticisms it has precipitated – it could be damaging, not least by encouraging an regressive, topdown and authoritarian leadership style – largely among those already inclined to offer precisely that.

But just as leadership has at its heart the careful reading of context, so too does the proper interpretation of this Green Report. Yes, it is full of the wrong sort of language – management-speak – but you don’t need to have a fully fledged theology of everything in every document.  If it is put alongside the FAOC report, and fed into a church that knows itself to be liberal to the core, and has centuries of tradition to draw on, and used to assist not with the early formation of people for ordained ministry but with those who have years of ministerial experience – and plenty of leadership mistakes – under their belts, it can do good.

Afterword

In this blog I have avoided commenting on the detail of proposals for ‘Talent Management’ aspect of the Green Report. In a nutshell I see these as no more invidious than current arrangements, but significantly more transparent and therefore open to adjustment in the light of experience. Nor have I made the point that it is wrong to confound the leadership roles of  bishops and deans. This I believe to be a serious but non-catastrophic error at both a theological and practical level. I may blog about this another day, but basically, bishops never buy hymnbooks.

 

 

 

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