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Faithful Improvisation? Theological reflections on church leadership, edited by Loveday Alexander and Mike Higton

02 February 2018

Colin Podmore on preparing people for senior positions in the Church of England

TO MANY Anglicans, Lord Green’s 2014 report, Talent Management for Future Leaders, was couched in an alien language from the Evan­gelical and business worlds. It made too little effort at translation, but much of the criticism that it aroused was hope­lessly oblivious of realities present and historical.

Did the Church of England not already have a “talent pool”, consist­ing of those on whom episcopal patronage has bestowed experience that qualifies them for preferment? Should a Church take no action to prepare those likely to hold senior appointments for the complexity that these involve? Will a managed, trans­parent system that must in­­clude clergy from minority groups not be preferable to the haphazard and ex­­clusive nepotism that too often characterised what went before?

This Faith and Order Commis­sion report, published with sup­­porting essays, is a high-quality resource for better-informed reflec­tion and debate on senior church leader­­ship.

Its deep engagement with scrip­ture is exemplary. The New Testa­ment’s conscious avoidance of the most obvious words for “leader” is signific­ant, but both word and con­­cept are present. Writers adopted and adapted secular models, but were well aware of the dangers in­­volved. Early Chris­tian history is one of continual ad­­aptation in the light of changing circumstances, involving negotiation between what is given and what is found in a particular setting.

Christians “sought to do justice to these different situations (locality) while remaining recognisable to those in other locales (catholicity) and faith­ful to what they had inherited (apos­tolicity) — and that required of them crea­tive and flex­ible improvisation”. This pithy sum­­­mary of each local Church’s task in balancing incultura­­tion with faith­ful­­ness is of much wider ap­­plication. A study of how to judge whether improvisation is faith­­fully Catholic and apostolic would be a helpful sequel.

The historical survey is similarly illuminating. It was in the 19th century that bishops became admin­­istrators and — despite traditional “paraphernalia” — much like leaders of voluntary organisations.

The Christian businesspeople who often lead modern Evangelical move­­­­ments are “more at home with the language and operating methods of business ‘leadership’”, and they some­­times display “a relatively un­­critical acceptance of secular hier­archy and power” — as “worldly” medieval bishops did. Suggestions that current developments conflict with a single, stable “inherited” model of leader­ship, or of “a simple opposi­tion between Christian and secular ideas of leadership”, are unsustain­able.

For the future, the report offers calm, spiritual wisdom. It points out that successful musical improvisa­tion “depends on a deep training
in the tradition”. Far from hinder­­­-ing innovation, immersion in tradi­tion is necessary if it is to succeed.

Perhaps the problem with many of the Church of England’s new cadre of leaders is not their willing­ness to innovate, but their unfamili­arity with the tradition that should resource their improvisation.


Dr Colin Podmore is the Director of Forward in Faith.


Faithful Improvisation? Theological reflections on church leadership
Loveday Alexander and Mike Higton, editors
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