Look to the Fathers

14 September 2012

Read their own words, says John Binns

Leading God's People: Wisdom from the Early Church for
Christopher A. Beeley
Eerdmans £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT252 )

OUR society expects high standards and good service. Whether it concerns inquiries into the ethics of bankers; or the grading of schools in league tables of per­formance; or the selection of a plumber or builder whose work we can rely on - in all these situations, we consider it important that we can trust people and organisations in public life to serve us well. Churches need to satisfy the same expectations, and to do this they need leaders with expertise and wisdom.

This book suggests that the best place to look for guidance in leadership is the writings of the early Fathers of the Church, who developed the practice of pastoral leadership, rooted in the teachings of the New Testament. The author guides us through the thinking of six theologians who lived between the fourth and the sixth centuries - Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, John Cassian, and Gregory the Great.

We discover that their approach to leadership is based on a few essential principles. These are, first, their personal spirituality, without which any leadership lacks au­thority; then the pastoral discern-ment of the needs of the different people in their care; and, finally, teaching and preaching based on scripture.

This use of scripture is no narrow fundamentalism, but a wise, sen­sitive, and flexible re-sponse to minis­ter to various differing situ­ations. So we learn about the "cure of souls", a phrase used first by Gregory of Nazianzus, and recog­nise that the Church is a com­munity in which people can receive forgiveness of sins, grow in spiritual maturity, and gain salva­tion.

It may be a surprise to discover that there is no use made of any source later than AD 600, and, with the exception of a single endnote concerning a recent study on episcopacy, no reference to any secondary literature. Instead, there is careful presentation of the texts, with long extracts, which makes the thinking and practice of each Father vivid and approachable. Restricting the discussion to these works brings out their insights with clarity and power.

The simplicity of approach makes the book both encouraging, as it makes the resources of biblical leadership available, and also chal­lenging, as it sets out a commitment of faithfulness and wisdom. It leaves readers with the same task as that undertaken by the leaders discussed. They, too, bring the wisdom of scripture into their own situation to give life to the Church.

The Revd Dr John Binns is the Vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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