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Leader comment: Can bishops really be servant leaders?

08 September 2023

THE list of what we want in a bishop seems to have grown. Scholarly prowess, combined with years on the parish front line, visionary but humble leadership, pastoral sensitivity, a local and national perspective, and — a theme of recent appointments — a willingness to take tough decisions. It was notable that the statement of needs produced for Winchester sought someone with a “wise, warm and generous heart . . . open arms and a hospitable spirit”. He or she should have “the soul of a servant”, seeking to serve all with “tenderness and humility”. There are echoes here of Pope Francis’s description of the Church as a field hospital: “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” he observed in 2013. “It needs nearness, proximity.”

Certainly, Winchester has wounds that require tending. Yet the “painfully difficult financial decisions” mentioned by Dr Dakin in his resignation statement hang over many other dioceses. Senior staff across the Church are doing battle with the “four-headed beast” named in the diocese of Sheffield (Features, 10 September 2021): falling attendance, squeezed finances, the burden of building maintenance, and a heavy dependence on a doughty laity, declining in age and number. Dr Dakin’s successor, Bishop Mounstephen, arrives in Winchester from Truro, where the response to these challenges provoked vocal opposition among campaigners more than willing to engage the national media.

While a national “Vision and Strategy” has been set, there remains no agreed prescription. Each bishop must decide which medicine to administer, in the knowledge that it will taste bitter to many. One palliative is consultation, as bishops emphasise that their solution is local and “ground-up”. If, indeed, Dr Dakin “lost the dressing room”, as the Archbishop’s Episcopal Commissary put it, or in our metaphor, the operating theatre, his colleagues are working hard to keep up the team spirit, with videos, roadshows, and resource packs, all designed to avoid the accusation that cuts, if they have to come, are being imposed from above. Expect more poetry composition and Lego-play, as was reported by the diocese of Chester this week.

Perhaps what we need most from our bishops is honesty about the challenges that the Church faces. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently admitted to a sense of personal failure about numerical decline in the Church. This sentiment, to which all clergy are prey, implies that the burden of discerning the path ahead is not being shared. Leaders understandably wish to project confidence to their followers, but the leader/follower pattern is out of place in a Church where Christ spoke merely of brothers and sisters. A bishop with the soul of a servant should be able to express uncertainty about the way ahead, ask for help, and, as one Winchester layman put it, “find reverse gear” if necessary.

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