2016 the year of challenge: institutional leadership wisdom and, design

Could 2016 be remembered as the year of institutional splits?

Perhaps come 2066, ‘A’ level history students might be asked asked to answer the following questions:

‘Explain and critique the reasons for the irrevocable split in the Labour Party,’ or, ‘Explain how the referendum vote to leave the European Union led to the emergence of new political parties.’

Religious studies students might be asked to ‘Compare and contrast the importance of Luther’s ninety-five thesis and the letter from the gang of thirty two in shaping the relationship between the church and state.’

(The gang of thirty-two refers to the signatories to an open letter arguing that the C of E’s structured conversations on issues of human sexuality were not in themselves legitimate).

Just speculating! We can’t be in the early stages of another reformation; can we?

However, it is certainly true that something is happening in and to a range of ‘established’ institutions. The fact that institutions are being critiqued by different internal constituencies suggests, at least to me, that those self-same institutions need to start asking themselves some very hard questions about issues such as power, authority and, legitimacy.

The problem is that institutions, or at least ‘head office types’ seldom want to ask such questions; keeping the genie in the bottle, maintaining the illusion of managerial control is easier and more comfortable.

But history shows that the genie cannot be kept in the bottle and that managerial control is mere illusion.  History surely informs us that institutions tend to be really poor at adapting to their environment and, that change often comes from the periphery?

In politics and religion it is often those characters who seem peripheral who prove to be the real game-changers; not those placed in positions of power and authority by the institution.The philosopher John Cottingham makes precisely this point:

‘In the biblical narrative, a small seemingly insignificant Middle Eastern tribe becomes a special focus of divine action, and then in the Christian story, a particular, seemingly drab and undistinguished town, Nazareth, on the remote periphery of the Roman Empire, becomes the place where divine light appears.’

Light, whether divine or human, often comes into the centre from the periphery. But, as I have suggested the centre finds this difficult to accept. The ‘centre; doesn’t tend to cope well with arguments from Nazareth, Wittenberg,Tolpuddle  or Albany Georgia. The centre likes things to be done in its own way, in its own time. And of course, those of a conservative disposition and, especially those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, have a tendency to want to keep the periphery exactly where they belong: on the periphery. Is this what the ‘gang of thirty-two’ are up to?

So what should institutions do in the face of possible fragmentation? I suggest that they need to reflect on the following four questions. The ‘good news’ is that in many ways they are bog standard management questions:

  • Should we fight to retain status quo, both in terms of policy (doctrine) and practice?
  • Should we adopt a stoical attitude of resignation?  ‘Oh well, it’s simply in the nature of institutions to fragment over time.’
  • Could we re think where power and authority really lie and adapt accordingly?
  • Is it worth re-configuring the institution deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out?’

The Labour Party has to face these questions and, so does the Church of England. The Labour Party has to work out whether it is a membership organisation (like the Liberal Democratic Party) or a political party led by its MP’s.

The Church of England has to decide what it means, in the context we now find ourselves, to be ‘Episcopally led and Synodically governed?’ To answer this question it first needs to answer the questions posed above, and it needs to do so having considered whether change is something that can be managed centrally, or whether change inevitably comes from the periphery.

So what do I think?

I think we should start the discussion with one of our key source documents; the Book of Common Prayer! The preface to the BCP makes it clear the possibility for change is built into the C of E’s very DNA:

‘It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England since the compilation of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and too much easiness in admitting variation from it.’ The preface then goes on to suggest that changes may be, either, of ‘dangerous consequence,’ (it doesn’t say to who – but the inference must surely be to itself), or, ‘requisite or expedient.’ 

If we consider the current debates in the C of E regarding the institutional response to questions raised by the  LGBTI community and those who stand alongside it in solidarity, we can see that such questions should be regarded through the prism of ‘wisdom.’ The C of E’s response to the problems facing it, both doctrinally and structurally, should be above all else ‘wise.’ The problem is that wisdom is not clear-cut; it is frequently contested!

However, I would argue that wisdom demands seeing the environment as it really is; which may be very different to how an individual (leader) would like it to be. Seeing the environment as it really is, and understanding how various sets of actors within the environment are likely to respond is the beginning of institutional wisdom. The C of E needs, perhaps, above all ‘wise leaders.’ 

Wisdom is the quality the allows ‘leaders’ (Bishops) to respond to, shape and nurture the environment they find themselves operating in.

Without wisdom there can be no intelligent (institutional) design.

What else does wisdom teach us about institutions and institutional change?

First, as I have already suggested, the recognition that change frequently comes from the periphery, not from the centre, and this despite the centre’s preference for grand initiatives. Wise leaders should recognise this as an historic and contemporary norm.

Secondly the impossibility of keeping all of the people happy all of the time. Some folk will walk whatever. Wisdom and, de facto, wise leaders, knows its limitations. Wise leaders, returning to the Book of Common Prayer, understand the importance of pragmatism and, expediency. Wise leaders don’t need to decide on who’s in or who’s out instead recognizing that individuals (and congregations) will self select, with the majority deciding to remain. The institution should take confidence from the fact that most of her members are, when all has been said and done, both reasonable and pragmatic.

Reason and pragmatism are expressions of the C of E’s sense of self-identity. Of course for some, at either the conservative or progressive extremes of the Church of England, reason and pragmatism are an anathema, with discussions and outcomes being framed in the rhetoric of ‘all or nothing.’ The majority, even the silent majority, thank goodness, don’t think in such terms, regarding themselves as both orthodox and somewhat conservative or progressive. Ironically it is this group of ‘somewhats’ that arch conservatives and liberals alike tend to find hardest to cope with, regarding them, unfairly, as wishy-washy or uncommitted. But, perhaps, it is this group of ‘somewhats’ who provide us with our long-term stability? It is this group, after all , who are presumably most committed to walking together, seeking reconciliation and accepting difference. They are able to do so precisely because they are only somewhat committed and therefore flexible. As any engineer will tell you it is rigid structures that are most likely to crack and break.

Thirdly, the tendency of actors to act politically, to issue threats and write letters. Threats can of course be either explicit or implicit. Some of these actors will deliver on their threats, others won’t. Good and wise leaders sit lightly to threats.

Fourthly, and I think most crucially, maybe even controversially, the recognition that each and every group and faction sits extremely lightly to the notion of top down power, influence and authority. The world we all inhabit is characterized by instability, cynicism and innovation (and innovation rarely comes from the centre). Wise leaders recognise that real power comes from below and, that innovation and power are closely correlated.

When the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer was written it was assumed that leaders were both divinely appointed and largely infallible; this assumption no longer exists. In fact the reverse: leaders are regarded as highly fallible!

Paradoxically, the evidence for this can be found in the actions of those ‘conservative’ churches asking for alternative episcopal oversite! Bishops put simply can no longer take it as a given that those in their charge will submit to their doctrinal orientation. Real power comes from below, but, again paradoxically, continues to seek authority figures, for reasons of confidence, esteem and belonging. However, the notion that power and authority is vested in a particular ‘leader’ simply as a consequence of the position they hold has long gone. Better to wise up, recognise it and, adapt.

I would want to suggest that the wise leader of the future (also the present) is one who recognizes the realities of institutional life; one who welcomes thoughts and practices found on the periphery of institutional life, even when they may not concur with the leaders own cherished doctrines to which they should only be ‘somewhat committed’; one who sits lightly to any thoughts that they are the institutions real entrepreneurs or pioneers; one who accepts that we live in a bottom up rather than a top down world and, one understands that in a disjointed and  fragmented world subsidiarity (delegating decisions to the lowest effective point and, facilitating significant differences in practice) is the only real route to any form of sustainable long-term unity and, that those who can’t live with subsidiarity may ultimately walk, whatever.

It is only through accepting and embedding the principle of subsidiarity that the C of E can continue to be Episcopally led and Synodically governed.  I think…..

Uncomfortable as it seems to those who want to either take or be in charge, sustainability is provided by the ‘somewhats’ and change by the ‘peripherals;’ wisdom demands that its institutional leaders recognise this.












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