As someone who has been involved in Church activities for over 40 years I should have known the ninth Beatitude. “Blessed is s/he that doth not immediately refuse to volunteer, for s/he will be lumbered with doing it”. But a few weeks ago, as a result of forgetting the golden rule, that one should keep eyes focussed on the floor, when nominations are asked for in an AGM, I found myself appointed to the office of chair of the local Voluntary Community and Faith Sector forum. While one can see this new personal role as stepping up to the plate in an act of Public Leadership and an opportunity as a Christian to serve the local community and influence the life of our city for good, I doubt it is going to be a smooth road or an easy task.
With the General Election pending, the public seems perplexed and cynical about the political leadership of the UK, and fragmented over their voting intentions. Part of this results from the growing sense of disillusion with politicians and party leaders. The public at large has a very negative view, which has real underlying causes such as the expenses scandals, the failed look-alike policies of the main parties, and the distance of Oxbridge educated elites of Westminster based career politicians from the ordinary provincial voter. Contempt for politicians is probably further fuelled by satirists and the media focus on stories such as Dave and Georges exploits with the Bullingdon Club, Ed's kitchen and his bacon sandwiches, and Farage's flagon of ale well described in Laurie Penny's piece on the far-right:
Orwell was wrong, the English will accept a far-right government, so long as it’s dressed up in silliness and accompanied by a farting trombone.
The British political class does not understand how badly it has alienated its voter base. It does not understand the rage against a democratic system that has failed to provide any coherent, liveable alternatives to falling wages, rising rents and persistent unemployment. From within Westminster, it is impossible to comprehend how out-of touch politicians look, how much the expenses scandal meant, and continues to mean, for people who do not drink in the taxpayer-subsidised Commons bars.
In a recent survey of Evangelical Christians (mostly comfortably off. educated people who overwhelmingly value British democracy) only 6% said they think politicians can be trusted to keep their manifesto promises and half are less likely to believe what a politician says than they were five years ago. Above all they are looking for personal integrity. 93% say it is most or very important for the candidate to be honorable and not corrupt and two-thirds want politicians with clear and strong convictions.
Many Christians, concerned with the poverty they encounter in the food bank queues in their church halls, are longing for an alternative political narrative to any that is on offer from the main political parties. In this context the Bishop’s pastoral letter, Who is my Neighbour?”, seeking to articulate a political theology of the common good can be seen even by some politicians such as Jon Cruddas, (and Maurice Glasman who apparently was the ghost writer of his article) as a true act of leadership
Yet bishops and clergy are in many ways poor examples of leadership. They've come a long way since the days of the Borgia popes, yet all have their human frailties and besetting sins, some scandalously so. They are still overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the white, male privately educated establishment elites. The long drawn out and inward looking debates about gender equality and sexuality seem to have brought the church into disrepute, especially among the young. More significantly it is becoming less certain that leaders of religious institutions have any followers behind them, or much ability to provide the spiritual inspiration and role models that move their shrinking band of disciples to greater faith and effective mission. The Green report seems to advocate that they need training in the dark arts of corporate management, which were so evidently useful in the leadership of major banks such as HSBC. In Weber's typology of authority the bishops as leaders have moved from that of traditional unquestioned sacred hierarchy towards a rational bureaucratic mode of control.
Evangelical Christians and their churches, which are the exception that often proves the rule in building and sustaining thriving communities of followers often have an alternative approach to leadership, which more closely fits Weber's mode of "charismatic" and personal authority. Gifts of performance, in public speaking, music or the seemingly miraculous of prophecy or healing ministries are what qualify a person for church leadership. This, especially in an age of global mass media and celebrity culture has many downsides and can lead to a fetishism with leaders, and with the very concept of "leadership". The same techniques are sometimes not far removed from the politics that in other times and languages brought us leadership personified in the "Furher", Il Duce, or North Koreas "dear leader". At the extreme end of the church we have examples of shepherds fleecing their gullible flocks for private gain, and numerous others where such styles of leadership have proved hollow and ended in disgrace and tears.
The Biblical traditions suggest other models of healthy leadership. Moses for example was hesitant, asked God for a spin doctor to package his message to Pharaoh, and eventually understood the benefits of delegated and widely distributed leadership. When Kingship was established in Israel it seemed that God regretted it, and with few exceptions it proved disastrous. A balance of powers, involving prophets and priests in counterpoint with rulers was required. Some of the most notable political leaders in the Old Testament, Joseph, Daniel and Nehemiah were in charge not of their own people but slaves in exile or under foreign occupation. And it was into such a situation that the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth was born in humble circumstances and not in a palace. His alternative approach as a servant leader, yet speaking with authority, inspired many yet led him into conflict with, and death at the hands of the political and religious leaders of that age. One can read the story of the early church as understanding these principles, where authority, ministries and leadership was widely distributed among the brothers and sisters of each local congregation, with the "big name" travelling apostles and overseers being above all connectors and networkers between the churches.
In our culture which distrusts institutional authority, and in which open and flexible light touch networks are critical to the function of society these types of leadership, which Roger Haydon Mitchell describes as kenarchy are surely more appropriate. Or as Mother Teresa put it "Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person." It might be better to say "do it together".
So in developing public leadership in the UK today I doubt that the establishment coalition of bishops, large charities and benignly progressive political parties can articulate the solutions, let alone rebuild national institutions that are needed for the justice and welfare of all. Longing for celebrities or charismatic demagogues, in church or state to lead us out of the wilderness, is even more dangerous. Rather it is going to require a struggle from below, a careful building of alliances of democratic member led independent voluntary associations, community groups, progressive local authorities, parish churches, other congregations and faith communities.
And that is going to need hope, grace, humility, patience and time.