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.
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.
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.