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Interview: Richard Burge, chief executive, Wilton Park

03 March 2010

Wilton Park was founded by Churchill to identify the future leaders of post-war Germany, and to forge its constitution and law and the way it was going to be run. Like a lot of British institutions, it’s developed a whole range of work, identifying problems in the world where Britain had a major interest in getting them resolved, and getting policy-makers and politicians and opinion-formers to quietly and discreetly resolve those issues in an atmosphere where the focus was on building personal relationships and trust.

When nations have to come together and agree things — and possibly in the process make compromises — it is very difficult to forge agreements when everyone’s on show. Doing that in the full glare of publicity is not the way to help people find a solution. We try to help the process by putting people together in a way that fosters agreement, and helps them see things from each other’s point of view.

Our role isn’t to promote British interests: the Foreign Office is there to do that. Our role is promote genuine dialogue and debate, and create an atmosphere of trust. Some are things where Britain is directly involved, and some are not.

It’s done largely through the skill of our programme directors — bringing people together and persuading them to discuss things. We hold talks round a table, where everyone is there as an equal, and everyone has simply their first and last names on their name tags, no matter who they are. The emphasis is on constructive, frank, and honest discussion.

The programme directors don’t have any authority to make people do anything. Their skills are in persuading people to talk, and their training is hard experience, largely, and also a deep and specialised knowledge of the issue. We have ten programme directors and about 60 staff who support them.

Wilton Park is an old Elizabethan country house, which functions much more like a home than a hotel. All the “break-out rooms” (as we might say) are comfortable rooms in the house, and in the summer a lot of the talks happen in the garden. Our gardener is a genius and has created areas where people can have discussions. And it also helps that it’s half an hour’s walk to the nearest village — and we’re quite pleased that mobile communications are pretty bad as well.

The way we relate to other countries is going to have to change dramatically. We’re no longer in a club of seven, but part of a league of 20 much more diverse nations, and it’s going to have a huge effect on how we as a society behave — our industry, commerce, mores and values, and the way we project these.

At the core of our nation there is an extraordinary understanding and tolerance. “We’re a force for good in an uncertain world,” as Kate Adie said. We genuinely seek concord. It’s one of the things we can deliver really well.

One of the things we’re reflecting on at Wilton Park is the role of faith in relationships between nations. It’s highly important, and needs a lot of thought and care. Because of our history, I think we can do this in a way most other countries would find difficult.

Our task is not to say: “We did that.” I know there are a number of things which have happened in the world which we started, or were stalled and we helped to restart.

People may laugh and say “Burge” and “humility” are not words that go together. But when I pray, I try to focus on what I need to be, and I constantly come back to those words of Micah: “What does God ask of us but that we do justice, protect the weak, and walk humbly with our God?” And, actually, that resonates with many faiths.

I was born in Hong Kong, where my father was serving in the army, and went to a boarding grammar school in Shropshire, where I met my wife. I studied Zoology at Durham and taught in Sri Lanka at Peradeniya University. I went to Cambridge, and then joined the British Council, doing a variety of jobs, but ended up as Head of Africa and Middle Eastern Operations, leading a big team overseeing aid work.

I ran the Zoological Society in London — that’s London and Whipsnade Zoos — and then became CE of the Countryside Alliance. I also worked with Paul van Vlissingen, who set up an organisation to bring economic recovery of the national parks in Africa.

I’m a very proud member of the Church of England, as I look at the struggles we go through. I’m not a Protestant; I’m a Catholic, but not a Roman Catholic. The Anglican Church was born out of the reality of the world and has reflected that.

I wouldn’t swap that for the world. I’ve been to churches where they seem to want to give people certainty, but John Pridmore — who has had an enormous influence on my life and faith — always taught me that certainty is the enemy of faith.

Out of the Gospels, the most powerful part for me is Matthew’s des­crip­­tion of Christ on the cross: Christ as a human being, going through human suffer­ing.

There’s such a joy in my daughter’s church in Streatham where the vicar and her curate are both women. I’m completely committed to women in priesthood, and I look forward with joy to seeing a woman bishop in the Church. I’ll be the first to get to Chichester Cathedral when she’s consecrated.

Someone said: “There’ll be no peace without faith, and no peace without peace between the faiths.” We need gentle leading and guidance from wise people, not a literal reading from their texts. Faith is an enormously powerful force, but it works not by conversion but by doing.

While our bishops are not the most perfect people, as a collective, we are very blessed in them. They represent a very wide range of people wrestling with difficulties, and together they seek faith and wisdom. Sadly, the wrestling produces divisions which some people think are irreconcilable. But there are no divisions that are irreconcilable, no pain that can’t be healed, no differences that can’t be bridged. None.

My wife and I have been married for 29 years. It’s not been without its moments, but it wouldn’t have been a real marriage if it hadn’t. We have two children: my daughter, who is a theatre director in London with one son, and my son, who is just finishing at Leeds University.

I think I’ve made some wrong decisions, but I tried to make the right ones at the time.

When I die, I’d love to be remem­bered by my family like I remember my dad — an ordinary guy who did ordinary things in a great way, who touched many people’s lives, in­cluding mine.

Not scrupulously — but Fairtrade tea-bags are a big feature in my life. And coffee. And bananas.

I don’t like most of the Bible. It’s not a good read. I find the Old Testament quite difficult, and I’m often confused by the Gospels and the New Testa­ment. There are things that really strike me — Micah, and Matthew’s description of Christ on the cross.

I like to go to places I haven’t been to — largely where I want to fly-fish. I need, need, to fly-fish on the South Island of New Zealand, and the Miramache in Canada, and in Bhutan. My wife is a very capable fisher­woman, but I tend to fish alone.

Everywhere I’ve been, I think: “This is where I want to be, and I’m enjoying it.” I’m happiest, curiously, when I’m with my children, now they are grown up: they are great company. And when I’m quietly alone in France with my wife, pottering in my garden with her.

I do pray, but I don’t pray for intervention. I think God intervenes through us, but not directly. I pray for two things for myself: patience and humility. And I think of people who matter to me.

I’d like to be locked in a church with John Pridmore. We’d have a lot to talk about.

Richard Burge was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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