HUMILITY was the order of the day for a panel that explored “Trust in Religious Leadership”, at a meeting in London at the end of last month.
The Archbishop of Canterbury recalled the Church of England’s trial of heretics; the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvais, said that leaders incapable of apology were not fit for their purpose; and the Dean of Cambridge Muslim College, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter), warned that trust in leaders was being undermined by their co-option by the State.
The panel was the third in a series on trust convened by the Woolf Institute.
The Archbishop said that, while the “ideal” underpinning Christian leadership was Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet, the practice had too often been best illustrated by carvings at Lollard’s Tower, at Lambeth Palace, used as a prison in the 17th century, pleading “Pray for us poor followers of Wycliff” (tried there for heresy). There existed, he said a “collective mistrust of institutions”.
To build trust, he said, there must be “truth-telling and a willingess to engage”, including collective responsibility, as illustrated by the recent apology made by the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner (News, 22 October).
A religious leader incapable of making a “genuine” apology was not fit for the work, Rabbi Mirvais said. After speaking of sexual abuse, financial impropriety, and extremism, he concluded: “The way forward is to be rocks of trust, to apologise correctly, to act with transparency.”
He emphasised that the well-being of the individuals that religious leaders were called to serve must take precedence over the reputation of the institution.
Shaykh Murad gave a detailed account of the challenges facing the Muslim community in the UK, which was “relatively recently here, and poorly understood”.
Asked about whether the Muslim community might have a figurehead equivalent to the Chief Rabbi, he explained that communities were “not yet sufficiently mature to accept as a figurehead someone not doctrinally or ethnically of their background”. But it might be possible to train spokespeople who were alert to media tactics and the “self-explication” demanded in English discourse, he said.
In several countries, he continued, there was a “crisis of trust” in mosque leaders, who delivered “largely immaterial sermons” that left young people to turn to “hotheads” online, fuelling the growth of radicalism.
But in this country there remained a “high degree of trust in mosques and their leaders”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury defended the engagement of the Church’s leadership in politics. “When we look as though we we are taking the party-political line, we lose trust very quickly, and quite rightly,” he said. “When we seek to be deeply involved in seeking the good of the place in which we are set by God, then trust is improved.”