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Compassionate Leadership for the Church

‘Brexit. Is it worth it?’ is one of the placard slogans displayed by ‘remain’ protesters. But short questions beg short answers, and short answers often only serve to exacerbate the anxiety and confusion which give rise to the question in the first place.

If we were to apply the same question to the life of the Church of England, and of its sister provinces in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, a short answer would also beg a great many further questions relating to its spiritual, moral and financial viability: So, the institutional Church: Is it worth it? Is it truly viable – or is it too late to think about this question? Many would say that it is.

To ask this question of the institutional Church is to ask whether it conveys life, the kind of life which connects with people, whether or not they are church-goers, and which gives and sustains hope. Many of those who have little to do with the Church are asking themselves if the Church is worth it, if there is any point to it. They will be looking first to its leaders to furnish an answer, if an answer is what is really required. I would be willing to hazard a guess that the reason for Pope Francis’s popularity, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is that he does not furnish answers or issue imperatives. Instead, he enters into the pain and fear of those he serves and, by doing so, speaks hope.

Drawing on the example set by Pope Francis, we could say that deeply compassionate leadership defines the viability of the Church. The question which needs to be asked of the Church of England, therefore, and of its sister provinces in the UK, pertains to how its leaders are to be equipped to speak compassionate hope, first to their own clergy and people, and through these to society, but leaders will not be able to speak compassionate hope into the life of the Church without having first known it themselves. They will know it as we all do, as something which binds us to God and to other people when friends are there for us in our humanity. Leaders need to be cared for in their humanity so that they can care for those they serve in the same way.

It seems that the hierarchical structures which exist to maintain the current system of governance and leadership, and which define the Church, no longer act as conduits of compassionate hope, the kind of hope which ought to sustain the Church’s life, or viability. As a result, the institutional Church is perceived by many to be largely irrelevant and to pertain to another age. Its power structure conveys constraint and introversion mediated through an arcane authority code which has something of the imperial about it, purple being traditionally the colour of emperors, rather than of repentance.

Revelations of clerical abuse suggests that at present, the way of leadership needs to speak first of repentance, as Pope Francis demonstrated on his recent visit to Ireland. Leaders demonstrate repentance in such a way as to allow the whole Church to take responsibility for the past, including our collective responsibility for the world and for our own society. But the Church cannot take responsibility for the suffering of others until it has known what it is to be forgiven, to be held and embraced by those it has wronged, irrespective of who they are and of the nature of the offence committed. In terms of the functional life of the Church, this embracing might begin with a complete re-ordering of the structures which make forgiveness and embrace impossible. While this may involve a purely functional re-ordering, it is more likely that it will call for the kind of breaking down of hierarchical barriers which would return us all to our full humanity, allowing us to perceive one another as fellow persons with different gifts and callings, but equal in the eyes of God.

Episcopal authority is derived in some measure from a monastic tradition of obedience but in the life of the institutional Church, it often seems to lack the genuine affection on which monastic authority depends for its credibility. For those on the outside, the structures which are propping up an ageing Church, and which sustain a culture of deference and clericalism, appear to be maintained by pragmatism worked out through a managerial mindset which distances leaders from those they are there to serve.  As a result, financial viability, rather than the preaching of the good news of compassion and hope, becomes an end in itself.

Notwithstanding the importance given to mission, what, and where, is the vision? Good management is necessary for any organisation to thrive and grow but it needs to have a vision to support it and to this end, it needs to care for its own people, including those at the top.

The constraints imposed by a still patriarchal and hierarchical system of governance have created an all-pervading atmosphere of distrust and constraint which dehumanises the Church and makes forgiveness and compassionate leadership difficult. The system demands too much of its leaders and of those it is supposed to serve and support, with the result that power games, status envy and the politics of exclusion increasingly dominate the Church’s life.

It is the leaders who pay the first and perhaps the greatest price. Fear and distrust lead to isolation and loneliness and can also lead to serious mental health problems. Similarly, the administrative and organisational demands placed on those in positions of leadership in the context of the diocese or parish leave little time or mental space for deep prayer, the kind of centered stillness which requires hours rather than minutes. Out of this centered stillness comes clarity of vision, as prayerful leaders in the past have demonstrated. It also builds the inner strength which makes deep compassion not only possible but lifegiving, both for the leaders who pray and for those they serve.

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