Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video
A story is told, anecdotal I’m sure, of an exam question for cadets passing out of Hendon Police College. "You are on patrol when an explosion occurs on the next street. As you arrive you note that a crowd of people are running about, flailing their hands in the air and screaming. Upon further investigation you find a large hole and an overturned van lying nearby. Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants, a man and a woman, are injured. You know he is an unlicensed driver and his passenger is the wife of your chief inspector. A motorist stops to offer assistance, and you recognize him as a felon wanted for armed robbery. Suddenly, another man runs out of a nearby house shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has brought the birth imminent. At that moment, you hear someone crying for help, having been blown into an adjacent canal by the explosion. He cannot swim. Bearing in mind the provisions of the mental health act, describe in a few words what you would do."
Allegedly one officer picked up his pen and wrote: "I would remove my uniform and mingle with the crowd.
I think on that parable often when confronted with the challenges of leadership! I suspect the current turmoil at the heart of government is probably amplified by bad choices by the chief protagonists. But anyone confronted with the sorts of intractable problems our government has to deal with would probably not be that different. Unfortunately, someone does have to do it. There are features of our culture that make this task even more challenging than dealing with the facts themselves. I think it was Churchill who said that changing one’s mind in the light of facts and fresh information was a virtue. In our day such changes are greeted with cries of screeching U-turn. Those in leadership then go into management mode to avoid losing face and avoid admissions of mistakes. Rather than mistakes providing an opportunity for learning, reflection and changed behaviour, obstinacy and antagonism is amplified. There is no synthesis emerging from debate on conflicting ideas merely more polarisation. It is a good thing that we take greater account of people’s feelings in decisions than we once did. But sometimes the right decision is not going to feel good and some will be negatively affected by it.
Changing circumstances require changing approaches and the church is not exempt from this. Its inevitable that because our culture and society has changed so dramatically in the last 50 years, the way we are as church is going to have to change too. We are charged to proclaim afresh the faith to each generation. The faith doesn’t change, but the way it expresses itself will. As a Bishop in Sussex I observed an unhelpful dynamic when some new clergy bought in important changes to the life of the Church. The changes were things that emerged from a period of consultation and were acknowledged in the parish profile on the persons appointment. Unfortunately, the mood music as the changes happened was not an affirmation of what had gone before, a recognition that change was not a reflection of failure in the past, nor that it reflected a need to be more effective in mission in a changing context. The message people heard was that their faith was sub-standard, that if only they got with the programme, got out of the way and abandoned things that had nourished them everything would be fine. Faithful Christians heard they were part of the problem that needed to be dealt with. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t end well. It demonstrated that it was possible to do the right thing in such a wrong way that it became the wrong thing.
To bring in change in a way that doesn’t acknowledge a grief about loss, nor constantly communicate affirmation of people’s sacrificial generosity and service, nor seek consensus wherever possible, is likely to be an uphill struggle. The need for all of these things has been in my mind as we have worked on our diocesan strategy over the last couple of years. The challenge of every church leader at whatever level – given that things are always going to be changing, is how to challenge and affirm, how to give thanks for the past but not let it be a straightjacket to the future, how to value the tradition but not be traditionalist.
God spoke to Isaiah saying, ‘See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’ It was anew thing that sprang from that which was already there. It couldn’t have happened without what had gone before. It steered them from the confusion of the wilderness of conflicting demands and ideas and in the end felt like life. Water brings growth to dry places. We trust in the same God to lead us through the challenges of today into the future he is preparing for us together.