Leadership

I have to apologise to you.  For a number of reasons it has been a tough week.  It has meant that I just didn’t have time to think about and then write a proper blog. I hope you will forgive me.  So I thought I could just share the sermon I’ve preached today at Southwark Cathedral. The only part of it that you won’t be able to participate in is the auction we held after the Choral Eucharist.  But you can still make a donation to the Robes Project if you haven’t yet had an opportunity to do so.  This is the link to my JustGiving page.

The readings for today were Isaiah 35.1-10, James 5.7-10 and Matthew 11.2-11.


We talk a great deal about leadership nowadays, and not just in relation to our political parties and their leaders! The church has become, let’s say, a little obsessed with models of leadership.  We deans are now sent off on leadership courses to hone those skills that will make us effective leaders – leaders of high functioning teams, as they’re called, leaders of communities, people who can give a reliable lead in good times or bad.  A few years ago, I was on a course that was being run in Cambridge by the Judge Business School, a very mini-MBA which had been designed to help us think about just such skills.

It was the week before Holy Week, Passion Week as we’d call it, and so at the back of all of our minds was what would be happening when we got back to our cathedrals from the Sunday onwards, the Palm Procession, Maundy Thursday, the Watch until midnight, the three hours around the cross on Good Friday, the stillness of Holy Saturday and then the joy at dawn of Easter Day.  It was all there, in our minds, as we then looked at various leadership styles.

Our lecturer told us how he was at one stage embedded with the Cambridge Blues – his word not mine; how he’d been observing how they worked in the Camp Bastion equivalent of the MASH military hospital tent; he showed us film of football coaching.  To be honest it all left me cold.  Not that there wasn’t great leadership going on, the cox getting everyone to row in unison, in the same direction, the triage going on in the emergency room, the motivation happening on the pitch.  I got all of that – but what about Jesus, what kind of leader was he?

southwark-may-10th-17-42-harvard-window

John and Jesus in the window of the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral

John is in prison.  Herod had had enough.  John was a thorn in his side, constantly pointing the finger, speaking too much truth to power.  As in so many regimes throughout history, especially those who imagine they have a mandate to do whatever they want to do, he didn’t want criticism, he didn’t like to hear the truth being spoken or have his decisions questioned. He particularly didn’t like his private life or his morals being scrutinised in the public arena.

John fell foul of all of this.  The gospels tell us nothing really of what went on. We know that John, this great Advent figure, was baptising by the Jordan and we know that the crowds headed out to hear his uncompromising preaching and we know that in those crowds it wasn’t just the poor who were hearing this prophet preach – that there were soldiers and lawyers and tax collectors in the crowd, a whole cross section of society that were being stirred up.

We then know that John was beheaded by Herod, at a party, and that Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife was a huge factor in all of this.  And we get this snippet when John sends his disciples, who’ve been visiting him in prison, to find out just who this Jesus is, whether or not he was the Messiah for whom everyone was looking.

They find Jesus and he tells them to simply look at what he’s doing.

The First Reading spoke about the coming of the kingdom of God and what a difference that would make – to everything.  Isaiah is giving us a vision of a world transformed and the things that are mentioned – the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing – are the very things that Jesus points out to the disciples of John.

‘If you want to know me’, Jesus is saying to them and to us, ‘if you really want to know me, look at what I’m doing, look at the effect I’m having in people’s lives, look and see who I am.’

Jesus was the fulfilment of everything that’d been prophesied, Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises of God, Jesus is the leader for humanity to follow.

Both John and Jesus played their roles, John as the prophet, the forth-teller and Jesus as – well it was still hard for people to know.

As John’s disciples leave, Jesus challenges those who were following him about their expectations as far as John was concerned.  What’d they been expecting when they went out into the desert to find him and listen to him?  A reed, a ruler – a weak figure easily swayed, a strong figure with the trappings of power?  They had huge expectations and John was not what they were expecting, but there were still none greater than he.

Thursday saw a seismic shift in our politics.  Outside of this city the political map has substantially changed and we have to recognise that fact.  There’s been plenty of analysis going on since that exit poll was announced.  To be honest I was gutted by the result and that is me simply being honest with you.  There are some big questions to be answered and not just by the leaders of the other parties who failed this nation so badly.  The style of the Prime Minister’s leadership is apparently just what so many people in the country were looking for and those who would not normally vote Tory have, in Mr Johnson’s words, ‘lent him’ their vote.  We now wait and see. I hope they are not disappointed.

For those of us who have a strong view on what the world should be like, those of us who hold to the vision of which Isaiah speaks and the Baptist proclaimed, those of us who believe that religion is not just about heaven, ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but realising that heaven on earth for all people, whoever, wherever they are, then the work for us has only just begun.

When John sent his friends to find Jesus he was still doing that work of vigilance even from a difficult place, even from the prison cell.  And they take back the report of what they see, what they see being done, what a difference is being made to people’s lives.  They take back the message that the poor are hearing good news.

So this is a call to us to be vigilant.  It’s hard for governments that have a big majority, almost as hard as those that have no majority.  We wait to see what kind of leader the Prime Minister really will be and whether the support that has been lent to him really will be recognised in policies and actions that will improve the lives of the many and not the few.  And we have to hold government at every level to that and keep on doing what we do and do so well.

We’ll be having an auction after this Eucharist.  It’s an auction of the prizes that we couldn’t auction before the sleepout for the Robes Project.  That sleepout was cancelled because of the second terrorist attack in this area.  But the work of Robes goes on because the needs of the homeless do not go away.  I know that you’ll support that auction and that work as generously as you’re able.  And our witness to the homeless and our witness to the glorious diversity of this city and our witness to reconciliation and peace and justice will go on.  We need to give leadership to that, all of us.

We do it, of course, because we follow a leader like no other.  What we didn’t talk about on that leadership course was what it means to be a leader who is also a follower and a follower of a leader who will take you to the cross on that royal road, of which Isaiah speaks, that royal road to the kingdom of God.  This is our leader, our wounded healer, our crucified king, despised, rejected of men, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, the bread in our hands, our resurrection and our life.

Who is he?  Look at what he does, look at what he does for us, look at what he does for you, what he does for me.  We follow him because in Jesus we have a leader who will never let us down.

Jesus,
may I follow
where you lead.
Amen.

Follow my leader

‘Musical chairs’, ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘Pass the parcel’ and, of course, ‘Follow my leader’ were all games that we played at all those children’s birthday parties that we used to be invited to. The sandwiches, jelly and cake consumed we then took to the rearranged sitting room, space having been made for the twenty or so children to run around (I can’t remember ever being outdoors at these parties). The principle behind ‘Follow my leader’ is a simple one – one person is leader the rest stand in a line behind the leader and copy whatever the leader does, If they fail to do this then they’re out of the game. It’s a variation on ‘Simon says’ of course.

'Out there ahead' leadership

‘Out there ahead’ leadership

Perhaps it picks up in a childlike way of something that Albert Schweitzer said

‘Example is leadership.’

There’s a lot of talk about leadership at the moment, in society and in the church. We are all witnessing the agonies that the Labour Party is going through at the moment as they grapple with the process of determining who will lead them in the next phase of their life. As with any leadership campaign, sometimes the issues seem to be around how old or young someone is, sometimes what they look like, what they sound like, how they will appear in the media. Then, thank goodness, we get to the more serious issues of what people believe in, what they stand for, where they will be taking us, whether they have any vision for the future. Often though the arguments about any potential leader is a mixture of the two – the trivial and the substantial – and we are left with the question we have to address – would I follow this person as my leader?

Who would you follow?

Who would you follow?

The Church of England is putting a great many resources into thinking about senior leadership and what it looks like in the church. As part of that Deans are being encouraged to attend a miniMBA course. I was fortunate enough to be part of the first tranch of those who did the course immediately before Holy Week this year. It was a great course, delivered expertly by those who teach as part of the Judge Business School in Cambridge. As well as spending time on accounts and stakeholders and marketing quite a few of the sessions were focused on this whole business of leadership and what that means for us, what style of leader we would be, what models of leadership are out there.

One of the things that we are looking forward to – because we didn’t have time to do this in Cambridge – is being able to relate that thinking to the gospel and to the leadership that we see modelled in Jesus. Whilst we were thinking about Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton and the models of leadership that they exhibited in their quest for the South Pole, we were getting ready to follow Jesus who On Palm Sunday arrived on a donkey in Jerusalem, who would be betrayed by one of his chosen band of followers, would be abandoned by the rest, would find himself alone, condemned and killed. It is a very particular model of leadership and yet this is the leader I have chosen to follow, a failure on many scales and indicators of leadership and yet the one who has brought us through death to life, from slavery to freedom.

What is also so apparent from looking at Jesus in terms of his leadership style is that he taught those with him that they were to follow him as a servant leader. In the charged atmosphere of the Upper Room, just before he was betrayed, just before he was abandoned, in that place of safety where he breaks bread, where he washes his disciples feet, Jesus says to them

‘Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’ (Luke 22.27)

In St John’s version of the same event we get the very clear instruction that we are to’ Follow my leader’, that example is leadership.

‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ (John 13.14)

The servant leader

The servant leader

A leadership that is based not on an authority of power but the authority of servanthood, a leadership that is not about having my way but serving your need, a leadership that means that, as in the words of John the Baptist of Jesus

‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ (John 3.30)

This is what it seems to me we are aiming at in the church, this is what truly authentic leadership looks like in the church. It is a challenge because I am often told that people need strong and visionary leadership and I understand what they mean. But the leadership that Jesus gives is neither weak nor uncertain nor aimless. It was just so counter-cultural and remains counter-cultural. And I believe that is what must be modelled by the church rather than swallowing business and political models of leadership, hook, line and sinker – because, to be honest, they don’t look that effective or that impressive and there must be another way.

So I will watch the Labour Party with real interest. It is vital that they get the right leader who can help give them a sense of direction, of purpose, of vision for the nation; but it is vital that the church has the confidence to develop an authentic style of leadership for ourselves and that the right kind of leaders are appointed.

Pope St Gregory I took to himself the title ‘Servant of the Servants of God’. Perhaps that is the most authentic description of what Christian leadership actually is, more authentic than any other.

Lord Jesus,
where you lead I follow,
and as you wash weary feet
may I have the humility
to kneel beside you
and learn from your example.
Amen.

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