Fear: bishops, sex and rugby; a few thoughts.

Fear is one of the biggest biblical motifs. I am told that some derivation of the phrase ‘do not fear,’ appears 365 times in the bible; once for every day of the year. And, of course Jesus frequently introduced himself with the words ‘do not fear.’

But, it is interesting that Jesus’ audience seldom, if ever,admitted their fear,for fear rarely likes to self-disclose. Instead fear likes to wear different clothes, frequently masquerading as courage, bravado, authority and,control.

Psychologists have long posited that humans have two basic responses to fear: fight or flight.

Both are problematic as they fail to address the issue itself. Jesus, by contrast, in his pastoral encounters confronted fear head on, refusing to let fear have its corrosive way.

I understand something of the ‘fight’ response. When I played rugby there was always a moment in the dressing room, about ten minutes before kick off, when I suffered from something akin to stage fright.

Each Saturday between September and the end of April (I played rugby in the days when sports had defined seasons) at 2:50 pm I used to feel physically sick and start thinking ‘I can’t go through with this.’ 

The basic problem I was confronting is that I had no way of determing, despite all of the mental and physical preparation I had put into the game, of what was going to happen over the coming eighty minutes. I was afraid of what might happen.

Of course I always managed to get onto the pitch and, normally managed to survive a full eighty minutes. The bumps, bruises and scars that I so feared were transformed, in the bar, into badges of honour!

And, I developed a trick to get over my fear: I went looking for contact: could I impose myself in a tackle situation, ruck or maul? Could I dominate my opposite hooker in the first scrum?

These were unsophisticated and tribal fight strategies. They were also attempts to wrestle back some degree of control. They were all ‘courageous’  attempts to mitigate fear and, they sort of worked.

‘Sort of’ because they got me through the ensuing 80 minutes. ‘Sort of’ because the following Saturday the whole wretched cycle would start again.

Esther De Waal has painted a picture of the appeal and consequences of flight: ‘often it seems so much easier and more appealing to stop, to look back, to fossilize, to refuse to grow.’  Now flight, just like fight, will never admit to fear, it will instead use other terms, such as deliberation or maybe, controversially, discernment?

Over the last few months I have begun to wonder whether it is fear above all else that is driving decision making in the Church and, whether the Church (of England) is using classic fight and flight strategies in dealing with two of our current hot topics; episcopal leadership and same sex relationships? I might well be wrong, as I say I am only ‘wondering.’

If we look at the selection and training of Bishops it seems that ‘head office’ is determined to impose a set of solutions. Lines of communication have been shut down, no further dialogue is allowed. A set of unsophisticated responses have been accepted and imposed on the wider Church, many of whose members are tribally regarded as ‘the opposition.’

Could the response of those charged with producing the infamous Green Report be regarded as a classic fight response? Could the response be seen as an attempt to regain, and impose, some degree of control in the midst of ambiguity? Could it be that the chosen strategy ‘sort of’ works, until next time we, the Church, experience a sense of fear and foreboding?

If we turn to ‘our response’ to issues of human sexuality could it be that ‘head office’ has a real fear of engaging with the issue? Are our facilitated discussions in some measure a strategy designed to buy time and, appease the conservative voice? Is the process born out of fear of grasping the nettle lest ‘we’ get stung? And  could it be that endless rounds of talking simply cause the Church to ‘fossilize’ and reduces any chances of real growth?  Or am I being too harsh?

Maybe our leaders have an even deeper fear, namely loss of control and authority? I really, sincerely, think that this might be the case. There seems to be a real fear in ‘devolving decision making to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness,’ (this being the Bishops definition of subsidiarity in their pre election pastoral letter) and a preference for neat and tidy, top down, solutions.

Yet, our bishops know that neat and tidy institutionally sponsored, politicised, responses seldom work:

‘The desire for neatness and tidiness, as much as the desire for control, is how politicians tend to think – especially those in government or contemplating office. They are often backed up by bureaucrats which are allergic to messiness. But, human life and creativity  are inherently  messy and rebel against the uniformity that accompanies systematic constraints and universal solutions,’ (ibid).

Writing in today’s Times David Aaronovitch muses that ‘they (law makers and politicians) do not trust us to do the right thing. They are scared – as they almost always are – about the consequences of an extension of personal autonomy.’ Aaronovitch is writing about the right to die (which I am not sure about), but could it be that his thoughts could also apply to the Church’s current preoccupations with bishops and same sex relationships?

So here are just two musings of my own:

  • What would we – the Church – have to fear if we allowed all clergy and members of electoral roles to vote for their preferred candidate for their next diocesan bishop from a list of say five candidates  presented by ‘head office.’ What is the worst and best that might happen if the whole process were made more transparent and democratic?
  • Why shouldn’t the Church simply allow local communities of faith to decide how they want to respond to same sex couples seeking liturgical affirmation (I do accept the need for nationally endorsed liturgies) of their relationship? What would we – the Church – have to fear?

My suspicion is that we wouldn’t have much to fear at all. We could instead end up with far more creative solutions and ones which are locally owned. And, although this might render the Church ‘inherently messy,’ so what?

Method painters or mosaic builders: thoughts on episcopal leadership.

In considering how we might like to train and develop bishops and deans, it is necessary to create a picture of what Episcopal leadership might look like, whilst allowing for the fact that each bishop will exercise their ministry in their own unique way and, bringing their own distinctive idiosyncrasies to the bear on the way they lead, in situ. My hope is that Episcopal ministry will always be idiosyncratic and that personality will never be substituted for technique.

So what sort of bishop would I like to be lead by, or put another way what might we like to see in the individual pieces of clay that when put together form the mosaic entitled Episcopal Leadership?

First and foremost I would like my bishop to be someone who has been tested in a resource starved environment and who may at times have looked rather more like failure than success. Our bishops should be refined through fire, and not moulded in plastic. I would like those selecting bishops to accept that true leadership most frequently emerges over time; think of Churchill or even Pope Francis.

In business entrepreneurs, by contrast with corporate managers, often emerge from the periphery or margins and, the great thing about entrepreneurs is that they have transformational stories to tell. So should our bishops! Our bishops should, however, not only have interesting stories to tell, they should also be experts in the art story telling. They should be bards as well as pastors?

I would also like to suggest that bishops should sit lightly to their won aesthetic tastes and doctrinal extras. As guardians of catholicity and advocates for subsidiarity this must surely be an Episcopal pre-requisite? Recently our bishops, in their pre election letter, stressed the need for subsidiarity as a virtue in civic life, it therefore follows, less the church is to stand accused of hypocrisy, that subsidiarity should be a virtue animating the life of the Church.

When motifs such as catholicity, subsidiarity, marginality, and emergence are taken seriously we are able to build up a rich mosaic characterising the Church and therefore the type of leaders it requires.

So could the recommendations in the Green Report help create such a mosaic? I don’t think so, for the Green Report is underpinned by a significant, a very possibly incorrect, assumption: leadership, just like strategic business opportunities, is easily recognised and then developed. In making this assumption the authors have selected a business model championed by the ‘Planning School of Management,’ whose lead advocate is Michael Porter. Porter is also famous in business school land for being the ‘pioneer’ of generic strategies. And, this is one of my problems with the Green Report; it’s generic and off the shelf. It’s method painting as opposed to mosaic building.

I would fully endorse the idea that the Church should engage with the management sciences, but would argue that in doing so it should consider the widest range of theoretical options. I suspect that insights from the likes of J.B. Quinn who argued strongly in favour of ‘logical incrementalism,’ or Henry Minzberg, the doyen of ‘emergence theory,’ would provide a far more fruitful business-church fit.

Minztberg and Quinn both take the idea of marginality seriously; they both regard hinterlands as important and are able to do so because they have a keen sense of history and geography.  In rejecting the philosophy of ‘planning school’ and its methods, they promote a form of industrial catholicity and subsidiarity, because they recognise that breakthrough often takes place in unexpected places, achieved by the unlikeliest of people.

The Church, if it sticks with Green, rejects not only some of the best ideas from the management sciences, it simultaneously rejects insights from both theology and church history and that’s just plain odd, especially at a time when business is keen to learn from the Church’s treasure box of leadership wisdom!

If we carry on as proposed the Church runs the risk or producing a whole cadre of method painters, but few real artists. One of the unintended, yet significant, consequences of the Green Report may be for ‘like to select like,’ to create leaders in our own graven image, to perpetuate group think and, to become a Church where leadership, because it is generic, is unimaginative and sterile. The Church can and must to better.

So why has all conversation on this most cherished of reports been closed down?

On the buses; some thoughts about episcopacy.

Bishops are like buses!

You don’t encounter them very often (or at least I don’t) and then, you meet a whole company (as in bus company) of them in a very short period of time. At least that has been my experience recently. I have been to a symposium, a conference and, a consecration recently, all well attended by folk (men) dressed in purple! I of course was dressed in black!

Now buses are great places to pick up on the local gossip. People tend to be strangely unguarded ‘in transit.’ And, so here are just a few of the thoughts some of our fellow, episcopal bus travellers, have offered to those with ears to listen.

  • Being a bishop should be an incident in the life of a priest.
  • Bishops don’t have any real executive power.
  • There are any number of clergy in the diocese who could do my job.
  • The old system with over 600 people on the long list for preferment was seriously flawed; at least the new approach is more manageable.
  • I am really worried about the appointment of special interest bishops.

Oxford, my diocese, is currently interregnum; in the ‘bus stop‘ awaiting the arrival of a shiny new ‘non executive’ coach.  And, so the statement below is a synthesis of some of the comments made on-line and in public forums:

  • There was so much diversity in the Oxford selection panel that I am not surprised that a non appointment was the only decision they could get to.

So if we accept these offerings at face value, rather than as platitudes, what are we to make of them? Could they help us define what the Church wants from its bishops? Could these comments shed light into how we prepare bishops for office? And, finally what of the thorny issues of how ‘elect’ (for it is by election that bishops are appointed in spite of all our pious talk about calling and discerning the will of God) bishops?

Let’s start by considering the first two bullet points in combination and seeing if there maybe some positive implications we could draw out, through analogy, with the corporate world.

If Bishops don’t have any significant executive powers, it surely follows, that they are de facto, non executives? And, this seems to be a source of tension for bishops, or at least those seeking to identify and train our future cadre of leadership talent,for the Church seems determined to use executive style processes (badly) to identify and subsequently train bishops! What a bizarre paradox. Give executive training to ‘our’ executives: diocesan secretaries, finance officers, cathedral managers and, maybe even Archdeacons (the forgotten species) and, non executive training to Bishops.

In the corporate world non executives are often identified by a search committee and then appointed for an initial period, by the shareholders, and, subsequently invited to stand for re-election at the annual general meeting, for a further term of office.

Non executives are ‘fixed term’ appointments, ratified publicly by the widest possible constituency of self-interest; the shareholders. So why shouldn’t bishops be fixed term appointments? Why don’t we elect bishops for a period of say seven (or eight, nine or ten) years with the expectation that after their period of office they would return to some other form of priestly ministry? Their period as a bishop could therefore truly be regarded as ‘an incident in the life of a priest.’ 

Such an approach would also allow the Church to continue with a much longer list of episcopal candidates, for while I accept that the present long list system needs revising I also feel uncomfortable with the notion that there are only 150 potential senior ‘non executives’ out there; and so, apparently, do some of the bishops: ‘There are any number of clergy in the diocese who could do my job.’

If we were to move to a system of fixed term appointments it should be possible to promote any number of clergy, or at least a far larger number of clergy, into senior non executive positions. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: the main reason we need to limit the number of people designated for ‘senior positions,’ is because, due to the length of time bishops tend to remain in post, we have such low episcopal turnover. Only one variable – the post itself – has informed policy. Increase the number of variables and, hey presto, different possibilities emerge!

And, why don’t we change the way bishops are elected? The C.N.C. could continue to act as the Church’s ‘governance committee’ seeking out and, presenting candidates for election. But should we abandon the idea of diocesan committees and instead give all clergy and members of electoral rolls a vote in the election of proposed candidates? I can’t see why we shouldn’t, after all, corporates give all shareholders a vote and, all members of monastic communities are entitled to vote for their prospective abbots. If being a bishop is only an incident in the life of a priest, and if it is accepted that any number of clergy possess the pre-requisite attributes, we surely shouldn’t fear greater transparency?

But, I suspect we won’t even consider changing the process (or begin to conceive Bishops as akin to non executives)  because there is far too much vested interest in supporting the status quo. Special interest groups – clothing themselves under the guise of diversity –  can, and do, seek to block the will of the wider church and, who knows what might happen if the Church was to be truly democratized? (Well we do know – loss of power and a church shaped from the bottom up – and who wants that?)

Finally, what about special interest, headship and church planting, styles of Bishop? Again like some of my ‘senior colleagues’ , I am not entirely comfortable, but perhaps should be slightly more pragmatic?

I am more uncomfortable with the ‘headship’ bishop of Maidstone, for it appears that this was created to appease a small but voluble constituency of interest and appeasement, whilst providing a short-term solution, always comes back to haunt in the longer term? However………

I can think of two examples of special interest bishops, or bishops asked to serve distinct communities of interest: the Bishop to the Armed Forces and ‘Mitred Abbots.’ Interestingly neither category is given a see! The Bishop to the Armed Forces official designation is: “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Episcopal Representative to the Armed Forces”. A mitred abbot will be designated The Right Rev’d ………Abbott to the Community of……So we don’t need to give a see to special interest bishops. Special interest bishops could be designated the Right Rev’d whilst categorizing their episcopacy as purely representative?

So as I step off the bus here are my musings:

  • Bishops are non executive pastors.
  • Non executive positions should in the church, as in the corporate world, be fixed term appointments.
  • Moving to a fixed term episcopacy would broaden opportunities for a greater number of clergy.
  • The franchise responsible for electing bishops should be radically enlarged.
  • Special interest bishops should be designated the Right Rev’d, but should not be ‘awarded’ a see.

Will any of these proposals even be discussed? Of course not!

Questions over episcopal leadership post Green and RME.

It has been interesting watching how ‘head office’ is reacting to critics of the raft of reports recently issued on behalf of the Church of England.

For many it feels as though conversion about, and participation in, decision making processes are simply not welcome.

Critics are all too quickly rebuffed: William Fittall, writing in the Church Times last week (1st May) was keen to dismiss Alister McGrath’s analysis of Resourcing Ministerial Education and, the Green Report. Mark Hart’s analysis of From Anecdote to Evidence was, in the previous edition, given short shift by those ‘in the know.’ 

Now it could be that all the recent reports are spot on in their analysis and, that those who wish to critique or participate in wider discussion are overly worried.

But, this in itself should not be a reason to close down conversation, for the real issue has now become the style of leadership to which the church is  becoming accustomed. 

In observing the way that decisions are currently being made in the Church of England it is possible offer two explanations:

The ‘senior leadership’ has arrived at a good (as in potentially effective) set of strategic decisions, but has done so in an inappropriate manner. We could term this the hypothesis.

Or, the ‘senior leadership,’ has arrived at a  bad (as in potentially ineffective or undermining) set of decisions, and has done so in an inappropriate manner. This could be what statisticians refer to as the null hypothesis.

In posting the hypothesis and null hypothesis it is only the first half of the propositions that have been altered. Both propositions maintain the inappropriate nature of the manner in which decisions are being made and, leadership exercised.


In making my claim I would draw on two different disciplines: the management sciences and, the wisdom of the Christian leadership tradition.

And this leads us into the field of irony. It is ironic that in reaching out to the management sciences (in the Green Report) the senior leadership has done so in a way that could portray them as preferring autocratic, non trusting, forms of leadership. It is also ironic that the theologically trained leaders should dismiss the wisdom offered through sources such as the Rule of Benedict.

Management theorists Hershey and Blanchard offer a decision making model which provides leaders with four options: telling, selling, participating and, delegating. The approach a leader (or leadership team takes) will be influenced by a) the maturity of the leader and b) the perceived maturity of other stakeholders.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt developed a model which depicted leaders as operating on a spectrum from authoritarian to empowering. Again,their model is contextual and takes into account time-frame alongside the personal characteristics of the leader and, the maturity of those effected by the decision.

So if we accept the legitimacy of these two models what conclusions might we draw? I suggest four:

  • Our leaders have decided that the presenting issues are so critical, and the reports so good, that there really is no time for any form of consultation, (unlikely)
  • The senior leadership perceives  itself to be mature, but that the other stakeholders don’t possess the necessary skills and insights to make valid criticisms or offer alternative insights (possible).
  • Those accepting the reports (uncritically) don’t possess sufficient self awareness to see the need to consult whist also believing that other stakeholders are likely to undermine their preferred options either wittingly or unwittingly (possible).
  • Our senior leaders haven’t really thought about how they should lead, in spite of the fact that leadership is their current pre-occupation (probable, ironic and paradoxical).

Yet, in spite of the above could it be that following the advice of St. Benedict might get those advocating the various reports out of the leadership mire many believe them to be in.

St. Benedict offers the following leadership wisdom:

When any business of importance is to be considered in the monastery, the abbot or abbess should summon the whole community together and personally explain to them the agenda that lies before them………..we have insisted that all the community should be summoned because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger members…………when questions of lesser importance arise in the concerns of the monastery, the abbot or abbess should consult with seniors alone. Such is the appropriate way to conform to that precept of Scripture: If you act always after hearing the counsel of others, you will avoid the need to repent of your decision afterwards (Sirach 32, 34).

So if we were to critique the unreserved acceptance of the various reports and,the lack of consultation against the standards laid down by Benedict what suggestions might we make?

  1. That the ‘senior leadership’ regard these reports as matters of ‘lesser importance,’ (unlikely).
  2. That there is a lack of trust in ‘younger members’ and, the role of the Holy Spirit in communicating through the voice of inexperience (likely).
  3. That the law of unintended consequences might mean that our leaders will need to ‘repent of their decisions afterwards’ (unfortunate)

If Church is is in some form of leadership mire, arrived at through the process of ‘non consultation’ where might we go from here?

I would like to see a period of grace -or a moratorium –  of six months to a year, during which all decisions regarding these reports are put on hold and no money is spent; all that I would ask for is a period of deep and honest self reflection and, listening to constructive criticism, then lets take stock.

Is it time that our leaders started a deliberate process of listening rather than telling? I for one think so!