A focus of unity? Really?

Recently the notion that a bishop must, above all, be a ‘focus for unity’ has been restated.

The issue that has given rise to the reassertion of this ‘leadership norm’ is of course human sexuality. I am not going to discuss human sexuality per se in this reflection; enough people are already doing this is facilitated conversations, TV debates, synods and so forth up and down the land (and recently ‘in Rome.’)

But I do think that it is worth holding the phrase ‘focus of unity’ under the spotlight.

What does this much used phrase mean, precisely?

Does history show that ‘senior leaders’ have been ‘focuses for unity?’

Is it realistic, or even desirable to regard bishops as agents of unity?

What assumptions are being made when it is suggested that bishops can indeed be unifiers par excellence?  

If I am honest, I suspect that the phrase is one most church folk would assent to in a polite Church of England sort of way, but without really understanding what the term means in concrete reality.

I think history, or at least ‘modern history’ indicates that most ‘successful’ leaders have not been agents of unity. The idea that they have been is, perhaps, a fertile fallacy?

Were either George Carey or Rowan Williams unifiers?

Turning to the world of politics what of Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron? You may have noticed that I missed out John Major, solely because many have suggested that, unlike the others, he was not a ‘strong leader.’

In sport what of Sir Clive Woodward or Jose the Chelsea manager, or even Sir Alec Ferguson?

Or, what of Jack Welch the erstwhile C.E.O. of General Electric (which under his watch became the largest company quoted on any stock market).

None of these successful and strong leaders were agents of, or even focal points for, unity.

In fact leaving ++Carey and Williams aside, ‘intolerance’ and the propensity to  identify, eradicate – in the name of unity – and then, ironically,  foster disunity, were characteristic of their leadership!

In the early days identifying, and being purposefully intolerant towards, those who disagreed with their ‘world view’ was a hallmark of their leadership strength and sense of ideological purpose. Paradoxically, in the latter days of their leadership it was their inability to ‘kill off’ those who disagreed with them that led to their demise (accepting that in the cases of Ferguson and Welch the dissenting voice came to prominence after their resignations).

The dissenting voice may be silenced for a time but it always tends to rise again, often with increased vigor, energized by the resentment of having been silenced or sidelined. 

Our bishops have a demanding task, one that modern organisational history shows is entirely beyond the means of mere mortals.

So, when we talk of the bishop as a focus for unity are we, the Church, being entirely realistic?

‘Strong’ leaders have rarely been focuses for unity, and ‘weak’ leaders (John Major) perhaps don’t even get to enjoy a brief period where the ‘mythical we’  can pretend that unity rules?

I suspect that the idea of the bishop as a focus for unity is in some ways a nice churchy platitude but over the long term a bit lacking in real, substantive, content. Sorry bishops!

I also suspect that the notion of the bishop as a focus for unity is based on an assumption that ‘leaders’ possess particular traits denied to ordinary individuals, or followers. ‘Traits based leadership theories’ have been highly criticized in the management sciences.

Does the Church continue to hold on, uncritically, to such theories, or perhaps, ‘we’ hope that ordination to the episcopacy confers an ontological change leading to the newly ordained bishop being truly able to unify every disparate group within their sphere of influence?

So can bishops be a ‘focus of long-term unity?’

I don’t think so if unity means suppressing various voices, even if done so with a smile and, offering the guarantee that all voices will be heard.  Hearing what a particular group has to say and honouring the beliefs of a particular group may are not one and the same. To pretend they are is a real weakness.

Of course ‘senior’ church leaders, just like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, might choose to be deliberately intolerant of certain views ensuring that those who hold such views are either thrown out of the ‘party’ or sidelined, castigated as the voices of disunity, or a threat to the prevailing orthodoxy, which of course they might well be.

Or, ‘we’ could adopt a utilitarian model of leadership, leading on behalf of the majority (on the assumption the Church knows who the majority are and what theologies and priorities  they hold dear), but the problem with this is that  minorities are ignored and perceive themselves to be ill treated.

But, if the prize is long-term unity, perhaps the notion is not so ridiculous?

One of my worries about the idea that every senior leader needs to be a focus for current unity is that the Church is  getting unity and appeasement badly confused.

I think we now need bishops who stimulate rigorous debate, who are prepared to accept and even foster short-term disunity, so that in the medium to long-term real and lasting unity becomes a distinct possibility.

Without acknowledging and embracing a state of prior disunity  how can we talk about or move towards  salving, healing, reconciling unity? We need leaders who draw the sting of disunity and all that accompanies it. But, we also need followers who accept that they aren’t going to get everything their own way and who refute the idea that a strong, unifying,  leader is one who reflects each and all of their preferences, with charisma. We mustn’t make an idol out of ‘our’ leaders. Mature followers must accept that the leader exists for all.

We also need Bishops who understand that unity is frequently an illusion, that unity and uniformity are not one-in-the same, and who are comfortable with those in their charge disagreeing with them on substantive issues. We need leaders who know that strength often masquerades as weakness and, that weakness frequently cloths itself as strength. We need leaders who don’t just talk about diversity but who actively facilitate diversity. Even, where they are personally uncomfortable with various characteristics of diversity.

The last thing the Church needs is bishops who above all else favor ‘peace in our time,’ or who follow the Thatcher, Blair, Mourhino or Welch models of ‘strong and decisive leadership;’ for there in lies medium to long-term  catastrophe? 

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3 thoughts on “A focus of unity? Really?

  1. I think Rowan Williams was a tremendously unifying figure. He was immensely wise and immensely lovable. The extremes were never going to like him, but everyone else found him a safe pair of hands even if he didn’t always do what they wanted him to do.

  2. Thank you for this. Unity can so often become a god. Communion is something which is neither rooted in the ‘strong’ leadership of many political leaders or the wishy-washyness of being a ‘focus for unity’. It can be dark as well as light, conflicted as well as peaceful and sometimes battles have to be fought – at great cost. A read of the NT tells us this. Jesus prayed that we ‘may be one’, reflective the unity of the divine, and then went to the cross. True unity is rooted in the kenotic, and those who seek it sometimes will have to die. But there is always resurrection.

  3. I can’t help feeling that the unity being barked about has mainly to do with keeping conservatives happy by convincing gay people to put aside their own interests. I was tempted to add that it’s just another costume for “majority rules,” except that In this case, the majority of people in the church appear to be on the side of treating gay people as if their humanity counts–something conservatives have not yet been able to convince themselves is the case–most notably the archbishops.

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