Friday, 27 May 2016

'Ethical Leadership and the CofE'

On Tuesday, I went up to Leeds for a day 'workshop' on 'Ethical Leadership and the CofE'. When I first saw it advertised, I was instantly intrigued, closely followed by the instinctive response of 'that's surely not for people like me'. As someone who has, at times, been rather scathing of the apparent lack of theological reflection preceding major reforms in the Church of England (the Green Report being the most notorious example), however, I realised that this might be a great opportunity to dip a toe into exactly those waters. So I booked, I travelled, and I wasn't (on the whole) disappointed...

It wasn't exactly a 'workshop', more a series of intensely nutritious reflections, philosophical, theological and biblical, on the question of leadership. But with some immensely fine minds, and experienced practitioners, both behind the lectern and in the audience, the conversations that began yesterday (and beginnings, rather than endings, they surely were) were rich with insight.

Leadership as skillful, non-manipulative persuasion

Jamie Dow, a philosopher in Leeds, mined Aristotle's understanding of rhetoric to make suggestions as what 'leadership as persuasive influence' might look like if it was thoroughly ethical, which is to say both skillful and non-manipulative. If a key aspect of leadership is, as he framed it, 'seeking to have a persuasive influence on the beliefs and actions of others in order to achieve a common goal', then there are ethical questions to be asked about:

  1. the 'common goal' itself
  2. the identity of the leader(s)
  3. the character of the leader(s)
  4. the behaviour of the 'followers'
  5. the character and culture of the 'followers'
  6. the process or methods of leadership
Via Aristotle, Jamie argued that the last of these can be considered ethical if it 'gives people proper grounds for conviction' - and, in the process, helps create the conditions, among the 'followers', for appropriate weighing, thinking, deliberating and responding. It is not enough to have a 'trustworthy' leader who presents 'pre-cooked' decisions - such leaders should be skilled at enabling genuine deliberation. In the questions that followed Jamie's presentation, we noted that leaders should be just as skilled at 'holding spaces open', understanding the particularity of context (with its vested interests, power imbalances, pressures and the like), making themselves accountable to the judgment of others, listening well, and reflecting on what they hear (perhaps balancing an emphasis on 'rhetoric' with an attention to both 'dialectic' and 'praxis'). One big danger of overly 'task-focused' leadership, it was suggested (with the story of Socrates' wife in mind), is that there might well be people and considerations apparently marginal to 'the task in hand' whose exclusion could result in the wider fabric of life being damaged.

The practice of leadership in the Pauline epistles

Loveday Alexander, a biblical scholar (and member of the Faith & Order Commission which has reflected on senior leadership in the CofE), offered us a rich picture of leadership emerging not so much from the teachings of Paul but from Paul's practice as a leader through his letter-writing, itself creating the 'social glue' between Christians (himself included), and the 'theological glue' between Christians and their God. Loveday pointed to much evidence in the Pauline epistles of an 'equilateral triangle' of relationship between local church leaders ('B'), the trans-local apostle ('C'), and the God who calls and empowers both ('A'). Each divine-human relation (A-B, A-C) was a two-way relationship of call and response, and the human-human relation (B-C) was also one of mutual support. The important thing for Paul, said Loveday, was 'keeping the triangle equilateral' and not 'collapsing it into (top-down) line-management', whether of a 'congregationalist' ('A-B-C') or 'Catholic' ('A-C-B') shape. Paul is interested, she suggested, in redistributing hierarchical power into something shared and accountable, so that the one who is 'obeyed' is not the apostle, or the local leaders, but only Godself.

The Pauline ethos of apostolic leadership, then, understood leadership as discipleship or calling; as charisma or gift; as diakonia or service (of God, and of others); as koinonia, synergy or partnership (all working within the same divine energy); as episkope or oversight (of a consensual, enabling kind - 'power to' not 'power over'); and as apostolicity, ultimately cross-shaped. Philippians 2:5 was a hermeneutical key for a Pauline understanding of leadership relations: 'let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ' (NEB). Or, in Rowan Williams' words:
"How can anyone carry God, bring God to birth in the world? How can you carry the cup without spilling it? But what if the cup is no fragile container but a deep well that can never run dry? Then you know it isn't just your resource, but God's insistent generosity, carrying you as you carry God." (from 'Waiting on God: a sermon for Lady Day 1992', in A Ray of Darkness, p.13)
The ethics of leadership in a diverse church

Sam Wells, theologian and vicar of London's St Martin's-in-the-Fields, began his reflection with the reality of diversity, difference and disagreement in the CofE, and suggested (in the title of his lecture) that "There's Two Ways We Can Do This". One way is to ignore the diversity and make assertions of 'truth' and 'integrity'; the other way is to embrace diversity in the cause of 'unity' and 'grace'. In fact, for Sam, there were perhaps three ways we could 'do this' - think about the ethics of church leadership, that is - corresponding to his three-fold typology of 'ethics for anyone' ('universal ethics'), 'ethics for the oppressed' ('subversive ethics') and 'ethics for the church' ('ecclesial ethics').

The first ('universal ethics') understands Christian faith as content rather than process, and Christian practices as a 'delivery mechanism' for that content. The 'ethics of leadership' can be considered independent of its specifically Christian context - as a question of universal 'norms' to be negotiated through an ongoing series of dilemmas, rather as President Bartlett in The West Wing or Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister repeatedly had to confront. The underpinning assumption that the 'goals' of leadership are clear, unambiguous and widely shared - such as for Churchill against Hitler - falls down, of course, in the case of the CofE - where most 'goals' are themselves are disputed and fundamental interpretations diverge. The recent Reform and Renewal process emerges as a victim of just such false assumptions of clarity and consensus - which is why it was so widely received as an 'arbitrary exercise of power', Sam suggested.

The second approach ('subversive ethics') finds its expression (in this particular context) in 'lament, criticism, antagonism and even fury' at the exclusion of people on grounds of gender, race, class, sexuality or disability; in 'concern, attention, penitence and even despair' at the misuse of power, abuse and negligence often witnessed in the leadership of the church; in 'a longing for and concerted commitment to leadership models of care nurture, compassion and kindness (in contrast to models which emphasise winning and losing, dominating and submitting, and an infantilising avoidance of responsibility); and, most clearly, in an exasperation at 'business as usual' - the 'narrow habits and exclusive assumptions' - of the church's 'civil service'.

A third approach ('ecclesial ethics') might be seen as seeking, in Sam's words, to "put the church in order before trying to put the world to rights", but most crucially understands the church more as the 'how' than the 'what' - the importance of the process or the journey as much as (if not more than) the destination. Questions of leadership in this approach begin not with supposed 'universals', or with lament from the margins, but with the Christian-specific question of 'what might Christ-like leadership look like?' With echoes of Loveday  Alexander's reading of Paul, Sam observed that the biblical witness often highlights the ways in which human leaders all too often obscure God's authority, and questions and deconstructs the legitimacy of any kind of leadership (e.g. 'the greatest among you shall be your servant', Mk 10:42). Embracing the diversity of the church rather than seeking to pass over it, an 'ecclesial' approach seeks to 'disagree with dignity, muddle through with hope' and, at best, understands that as a much-needed gift to the wider world.

There is, however, Sam suggested, a sense of urgency - anxiety even - in the current CofE, that fears that the church is 'slipping into social oblivion' and that 'something must be done'. The danger is that this anxious urgency works precisely against the good news of the gospel, that proclaims and practises grace, mercy, compassion and forgiveness for what has been; that is confident, in the present, that 'God has given the church everything it needs to follow'; and that is able to be a non-anxious presence, trusting that 'in God, the future is bigger than the past'.

Sam's final point, in conclusion, was to suggest that church leaders must develop the ability to speak two languages (and be able to make the distinctions between them): the language of 'contract' (a 'minimal expectation', perhaps, but one which expresses love through keeping promises, safeguarding the vulnerable, undertaking due process, etc.); and the language of 'covenant' (a 'maximal aspiration', which relies on God, dwells in forgiveness, trusts in time-honoured practices, and overflows with grace and patience). Both 'contract' and 'covenant' are needed, he argued, and in both love is expressed as 'attention to particulars'.

In a rich Q&A session, the language of 'covenant' was questioned - 'co-opted' as it has been by the 'Anglican Covenant' - something which, it was generally felt, started with covenant and ended in contract, an illegitimate switch that people rightly 'felt done' by. The instrumentalising of the CofE as 'the best boat to fish from' was critiqued - 'it's all about being a good boat', Sam said. How might 'contract' and 'covenant' function together to build up the body again from its current catatonic state, someone asked. 'There are things worse than numerical decline,' Sam replied, 'such as losing your soul'. As a church we should embrace opportunities to be more like David and less like Goliath. 'It's not about size - it's about being transfigured.' And returning to the importance of 'subversive' ethics alongside an 'ecclesial' focus, the CofE would do well to 'become more aware of the stones it has rejected over the years' that might just, with the grace of God, 'become the cornerstones'.

Leadership as collective practice, enabling collective practice

In the final presentation of the day, Mike Higton asked (and suggested an answer to) the question "Whose leadership is it anyway?". Starting from a 'low-key' definition of leadership as "assisting others in the performance of a collective practice", and drawing out the distinction between 'assisting' and 'imposing' or 'coercing', he carefully unfolded an argument that if we can 'get non-coercion clear', then we will in fact clarify what we mean by 'leadership' itself in all its most important dimensions.

First, then, 'non-coercion' means working with the 'free agency' of others. 'Freedom' doesn't mean somehow escaping relationships of receptivity and dependence in which we are all enmeshed, but rather not being absorbed into, or co-opted by, other people's narratives - freedom is dependence, but dependence on an attentive love that is not oriented towards meeting another's needs and/or fantasies.

Secondly, God loves us in precisely this attentive, unselfish way: God doesn't have an agency or project defined over against the agency and projects of others in the world - rather, God's unselfish love is precisely the condition of the possibility of our free agency.

Thirdly, for this to become real for us, God's unselfish love needs to be mediated to us - through words and actions ('sacraments'), and through the love of others. We need practices, embodied ways in which we celebrate, learn to inhabit, communicate and pass on the unselfish love of God. Such mediations are, because we're human, imperfect, however - and so we need also to regularly acknowledge our failures in mediation, through seeking forgiveness, healing wounds, etc. These practices of word and sacrament, care and penitence are themselves, then, the necessary conditions for enabling the growth of free agency - a certain kind of communal life which is the 'collective practice' of the church.

So, what kind of leadership is necessary to 'assist others in the performance of [the church's] collective practice'? A kind of leadership which is, in fact, the collective practices of the church themselves. 'Being the church' is what enables us to 'be the church'. Leadership is distributed and shared before it is held by particular individuals - which itself is but one specific way of inhabiting the communal practice of the church. 'Agency is something you receive at the hands of love,' said Mike. A leader is only someone who is 'enabled by all this', to then be able to assist the enabling of all of this. 'The freer I am, the more I am receiving well from others, the more I'm sharing in God's agency'. The argument is beautifully circular.

'But what about the world?' we asked. Mediations of the love of God happen in multiple contexts, Mike replied, but with one telos: for the whole world to be radiant with it. 'What about our needs?' we asked. As finite beings, our needs are inherent to our loving (unlike God's unselfish love), and not just a limitation on it. It's vital, in our church and in our leaders, to acknowledge honestly our needs, insufficiencies and vulnerabilities - as part of enabling us to love honestly, love fully, and enable others to do likewise.

Where does all this get us?

So, much to chew on, for a long time to come. What did I take away - or at least, what is forefront in my mind in these early reflections? The importance, in a diverse church, of creating spaces for conversation - not assuming we have a 'common goal', but discovering one another as we engage each other's different interpretations of what the 'goals' of church, of Christian faith, might be. The importance of enabling others to reflect theologically, to articulate the 'whys' for their beliefs and their actions, as a precondition for any kind of genuine deliberation together. The importance of 'encouraging one another in our relationships to God', as vital to avoiding collapsing 'leadership' into 'line management', in Loveday's resonant phrase. The importance of attending to voices (perhaps barely spoken) and considerations 'on the edges', seen as 'marginal' to the task in hand - the importance, that is, of tending the fabric of life, a telos, perhaps, more important than any more 'focused' goal. The possibility, and the dangers, in holding the language of 'contract' and 'covenant' together - embodying love in our careful 'attention to the particulars'. The importance of a non-anxious ecclesial presence, grounded in a receptivity to the abundant love and patience of God that operates more in an economy of transfiguration than a neo-capitalist economy of endless growth. The importance of our communal life as the most important kind of 'leadership' of which any of us are a part - a life in which we learn to mediate the love of God through our finite, vulnerable, needy-and-gifted human lives.


  1. I think I would have found Sam Wells's session really frustrating. The Hauerwas approach doesn't do it for me. To suggest that we need to fix the world before we fixed ourselves as the church is, of course arrogant, but so too is the idea that we can fix ourselves without the worlds partnership (which is what seems to be suggested by Wells, above). And while it seems noble to say losing your soul is worse than numerical decline this feels both defeatest and like a false choice based on an outdated notion of the institution as whole and comprehensive.

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