For political and church leaders alike these are strange and difficult times. It feels to me that in both the political and religious spheres (at least within Anglican ‘Communion’ and, the Church of England) nothing is settled yet nothing has really changed. We are living through a real world limbo. Limbo is, of course, deeply unsettling. It is also, through its very nature, characterized by rancor. Limbo is, for many, perhaps even most, the strangest of lands. It is neither one thing or the other. It offers neither the sure-footedness of a mythical past nor the excitement of a progressive future. Limbo is a place that’s a bit this and a bit that. For those who don’t like ambiguity limbo is a living hell. Those suffering from acute limbo phobia will either, depending on their pre limbo orientation, wish to drive the nation, or institution, back towards a ‘better future,’ thus ‘taking back control,’ or forwards towards a supposed ‘new Jerusalem.’
Leadership in such times is an interesting subject. In fact with my cynical hat on I would suggest that the pre-occupation with leadership is indicative of turbulence and an underlying sense of fear. What we, apparently, need to deliver us safely through limbo is ‘strong and stable,’ leadership. But, is there a misfit between our notions of leadership and, the environment? Limbo, you see, is not stable. It is elastic and, fluid. Limbo stretches every pre-conception to breaking point. That is the reality that faces some of our most prominent leaders such as Mrs. May and Archbishop Justin. The institutions they lead are literally at breaking point, the notions that they ‘are in communion’ and ‘walking together’ are fanciful at best.
The further reality is that strong and stable, decisive and charismatic leadership models are not fit for purpose in Limbo-Land. There is simply, for too many people, too much at stake. In Limbo-Land the strongest of actors like to drive their ‘leader’ fast and hard from behind. Threats are issued, orthodoxy appealed to, sanctions imposed, vetoes used, red lines drawn; at least by those whose gears have been slammed into reverse. For progressives authority is deemed to be excessive, subsidiarity claimed and taken and, the demands of justice promoted.
Where and how does leadership help in Limbo-Land, an environment where nothing can really be planned for, nothing imposed and, where top down generic management and leadership approaches are of no value despite their seductive appeal? In Limbo-Land what is required is a very different set of leadership skills; skills which are not taught on a full or a mini MBA program of study.
How does leadership work in a world where no one wants to eat carrots and no one is frightened of the stick? That is the question facing Mrs. May and Archbishop Justin alike. The temptation facing all leaders is to pretend that we aren’t really in Limbo-Land. But, to pretend otherwise is to occupy Lala Land.
So can anyone actually lead in Limbo-Land? How can Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin and his successors) lead in Limbo-Land? I suspect, as with all good questions, the answer is ‘it depends.’ It depends on the mind-set. If ‘leaders’ believe all parties can be appeased, that ‘in all manner of things all will be well’ then, no, they can’t lead their people through Limbo-Land. If they believe that the institution they lead will ever be the same again, or commit to it being so, then no they can’t lead their people through Limbo-Land, for ultimately they can only then be an agent of discord and disunity; and that is not the job for someone who is called to be a focus of unity.
If they believe that the tent is so broad that it really can contain the widest possible spectrum of beliefs and behaviours then again, no they can’t lead their people through Limbo-Land. And, if their guiding emotion is fear (as Heidi Alexander suggested to the Prime Minister this week) then they absolutely will not be able to lead their people through Limbo-Land.
‘Fear not,’ is the phrase our leaders, and especially our religious leaders, need to take to heart. If size is confused with strength and unity, then there is no chance of a successful journey through Limbo-Land. Limbo-Land leaders need to be courageous leaders. They also need to be vulnerable leaders, or wounded leaders. They need to accept the real (theo) politic which is that nothing is ever going to be the same again, and they need to say so. They need to acknowledge that the institution is on a long and unpredictable journey. Limbo-Land leaders, if they are to be regarded by history as ‘leaders,’ need to be clear that the institution is going through a period, not (sorry Gavin Ashenden et al) of reformation, but of reconfiguration. The job of the ‘leader’ is then to lead then people through this painful and unpredictable period. Leading for reconfiguration is, sadly, bound to attract criticism and even ridicule. Leading for reconfiguration is an exercise in vulnerability and rejection. Not everyone is going to be delighted with either the journey of reconfiguration or the resulting new configuration. At some stage various people might choose to leave ‘according to the word’ as they perceive and understand it. The hope, but not the guarantee, must be that they will ‘depart in peace.’
Reconfiguration leaders cannot be overly doctrinal, neither can they work from a paradigm that insists that it is the leader’s own theologies, or ideologies, that are of primary importance. Reconfiguration leaders encourage diversity of views and a form of teaching that encourages reflective learning. They do not insist on their view being the right, traditional or even orthodox view. Reconfiguration leaders offer multiple perspectives – just like any good teacher. They encourage new perspectives and, synthesis of perspectives. Creativity and flexibility rank alongside vulnerability as their guiding virtues. None of this means that boundaries aren’t set. Reconfiguration isn’t an exercise in non bounded relativity. But, reconfiguration leaders need to be skilled and adept cartographers.
So in the Limbo-Land that is the Anglican Communion and the Church of England where might some initial boundaries be drawn. I say initial because in the process of reconfiguration it surely must be accepted that boundaries aren’t fixed and that they are flexible and porous? The journey of reconfiguration is a long journey.
I would suggest that, and I am going to annoy my progressive friends here, that full marriage equality isn’t in the C of E and across the majority of the Anglican Communion on the cards. The cartographers pen simply cannot draw this boundary. The reconfiguration leader should be focused on the art of the possible and not the impossible. There needs to be a degree of healthy pragmatism in the process of reconfigurative leadership. Yes, the boundary might move over time, but not in the short-term. That is just the real domestic and international theo-politic of the situation. This does not, of course, mean that some churches in the ‘communion’ will cease to amend their canons, or that their amendments will not form a necessary part of an overall long-term reconfiguration. Substantive change, after all, frequently, perhaps even normatively, comes from the margins or periphery much to the irritation of head office types. Again this is simply part of the real theo-politic. Its messy but mess is characteristic of Limbo Land. Part of the reconfiguration leader’s burden is the acceptance that for fast-moving progressives they will be regarded as an agent of frustration.
And now I am going to annoy those who wish to see no change. For no change also simply isn’t going to happen. That again is part of the real theo-politic in the journey of reconfiguration. It isn’t as yet possible to say where a new, and initial, boundary might be drawn but to pretend that it isn’t going to be drawn is, as previously suggested, to inhabit LaLa land. Stasis is not characteristic of reconfiguration. ‘Progressive’ churches both at the provincial and local levels have drawn their boundaries in different places. The S.E.C. & T.E.C. have opted for full marriage equality, the Church in Wales has written liturgies of affirmation. Various churches in the C of E have written their own liturgies (mostly with their bishop’s knowledge). What should be clear is that the ‘leadership’ of the church is not in control of the cartographers pencil. I think it also clear that the cartographer in chief isn’t going to wrestle it back. The reconfiguration leader will frustrate, challenge and unsettle strong and alpha types because he, or she, will unveil the weakness in traditional, top down and patriarchal modes of leadership. The reconfiguration leader will take courage in both hands and dare to stress that these cherished models of leadership are no longer fit for purpose. That is why the reconfigurative leader can only ever be a wounded-leader; sometimes a severely wounded leader.
I don’t think that the leadership of the Church of England is as yet in a position to say where the boundary line is going to be drawn, but surely it is time to say that a new boundary line is inevitably going to be drawn. The only real question is ‘who is doing the drawing?’ I would want to suggest that the Archbishops and Bishops need to be the lead cartographers. If they aren’t then we might as well give up on the idea of being an episcopal church.
Now is the time to set some limits and, to draw, liturgically, these limits. Maybe the limit in the Church of England will be a form of blessing as suggested by Pilling, maybe it will be a Welsh style liturgy of affirmation, but a boundary needs to be drawn and, it needs to be drawn liturgically. Liturgical leadership is an essential component of reconfiguration leadership. Liturgy is after all our epistemology.
There can be no change in ‘tone and culture,’ separate from an accretion to the liturgy. We are a liturgical church and we need to constantly remind ourselves of this, our most traditional and orthodox, fact. Liturgy verifies our beliefs, boundaries and sense of being ‘in communion.’
There are no quick fixes to the Anglican Communion’s and Church of England’s problems. Limbo is a slow-moving and ambiguous place. It is an ill content place, a place that needs to be reconfigured. It is place that requires flexible, innovative and courageous leaders. It is a place of vulnerability that asks both its leaders and its inhabitants to remain for the long haul but accepts that it will simply be too painful for some; some will depart and sadly not in peace. The ‘noble’ army of departees will of course blame the leader. This will be a sad and tragic truism for both conservative and progressive leavers alike. Part of the reconfiguration leaders sad lot is to be a scapegoat.
The vulnerable and wounded leader names the pain. The reconfiguration leader works with and through the pain, in the full and certain knowledge that he or she is going to be rejected, ridiculed and labelled as weak by those regard themselves as strong (isn’t this the lot of religious leaders in the biblical tradition; wasn’t the post resurrection Jesus the ultimate wounded leader?). But, the reconfiguration leader also works with the knowledge, or at least hope, that something new, and something better, will emerge.
The Anglican Communion and the Church of England, just like the country are in new and uncharted territory. We are in Limbo-Land, we need to make sure that we avoid descending yet further into LaLa Land and for that we need a new style of leader: the reconfiguration leader, or if you prefer the wounded-leader.