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Oxford group challenges talent quest

08 May 2015


Convener: the Dean of Christ Church, Professor Percy

Convener: the Dean of Christ Church, Professor Percy

THE idea that future leaders of the Church of England should be talent-spotted and groomed came in for sustained criticism at a symposium in Oxford last Friday.

The title of the symposium was "Apostolic Leadership for an Apostolic Church". It had been convened by the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, in response to the "literally hundreds" of letters and emails he had received after his critique of the Green report, Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A new approach, was published in the Church Times (Comment, 12 December).

The report, composed by a group chaired by the former chairman of HSBC, Lord Green, set up MBA-style training for bishops and deans, and proposed the establishment of a small talent-pool for those deemed to be future leaders.

His correspondents, Dean Percy said, felt bereft, because of the lack of consultation, as though the head said to the rest of the limbs, "We don't need you." The method and process of enforcing the proposed changes had produced mistrust and demoralisation, he said.

The director of learning for discipleship and ministry in Salisbury diocese, Canon Jane Charman, agreed that there was a general unease across the Church. "I think it's highly significant that the Church has such an instinct."

The Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, the Revd Dr Sarah Coakley, identified three areas of concern triggered by both the Green report and one of its sister reports, Resourcing Ministerial Education (News, 23 January).

The three areas were: the lack of accountability behind the gestation and implementation of the Green report; the fact (she said) that Lord Green had adopted a business model that was out of date and discredited; and the questions raised by the two reports about the theology of ministerial formation.

Two speakers in particular criticised the business model proposed in the Green report, leading to a "mini-MBA"-style training for bishops and deans in partnership with a business school, at a cost of £2 million.

The author of Theonomics, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, who lectured in a business school for five years before being ordained, said: "There's no such thing as a 'mini-MBA," and, furthermore, MBAs had been devised to teach the functions of business. He quoted Henry Mintzberg: "Considered as education for management, MBA programs train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences."

The Green report was "shot through with one big and unchallenged assumption", he said, "[that] leaders can be readily identified, in the same way that success can be planned for. . . It's a fertile fallacy held as a matter of faith by those who have arrived at the top - one that erases the role of serendipity or Providence."

The Professor of Management at Cass Business School, Dr David Sims, warned against business-school short courses. They were often designed for executives with big egos, he said, who were given a number of case studies to make them feel busy, and plenty of positive feedback to make them feel important. He was sceptical about the value of a mini programme: "You do not, by scaling down an elephant, get a working mouse."

Not everyone was critical. The Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, said that the intention was to encourage talent and give people tools to deal with a world that was litigious and regulatory. And the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that the present system was "a shambles".

"The rot set in", he said, when the Church moved to competitive interviews for clerical posts. The virtue of the talent pool was that it represented a move back towards episcopal patronage, and away from self-promotion.

The Bishop of Southampton, Dr Jonathan Frost, reported that the new process was "bringing people to the table who weren't there before".

Professor Coakley, however, criticised the fundamental understanding of the Green report: "The very notion of 'leadership' is flawed when applied to the theological realm." And she described the idea of a talent pool as "deeply undermining to classic Anglicanism".

Canon Charman said that it would "fan the flames of envy and rivalry".

Dr Inge contributed to a discussion about apostolic leadership, where "apostolic" meant "to be sent". Thus, "Christian leadership should always be seen through the lens of service."

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, said that a Catholic understanding of ministry had "all but disappeared". He was critical of the way that the Green report was looking for leaders who could "reimagine and reconceive" ministry, "as if the ordained ministry were something merely functional, plastic, and adaptable. But we don't reimagine it: we inhabit it, and it forms us."

A distinction was made between training and formation. The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, said that, just as the Church was looking to business schools for a lead, business schools were looking to the church Fathers, such as St Benedict, who taught that the whole community was the school for the Lord's service. Formation happened within the gathered people of God. The idea of a messianic leader was "utterly destructive".

Contributors spoke about the speed at which the Reform and Renewal programme was being introduced. Canon Judith Maltby spoke of an "urgency", and the Dean of Bristol, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, detected "huge impatience".

Professor Coakley said that there was a "sense of panic" in the hierarchy, although, given the number of clergy due to retire, the number needed to evangelise the country, and the shortage of money, "it is not an unreasonable panic."

The Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward, another of the day's organisers, talked of "anxiety" that seemed to stem from a lack of confidence in God's grace.

The trouble with such pace was that it militated against consultation, Dean Percy suggested. Dissent was unwelcome, he said, because it slowed things down; what was needed was not destructive consent, but, rather, loyal and constructive dissent as part of a general conversation to strengthen the Church's efforts to reform its ministry.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison, Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge and the third of the day's organisers, expressed a desire to be forward-looking and helpful. They agreed about the ends, he said, but disagreed about the means.

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