Sermon preached at the 72nd Service of the United Guilds of the City of London (4 April 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

Today at the Cathedral View More
12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at the 72nd Service of the United Guilds of the City of London (4 April 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

How do you choose your Master, Prime Warden or Upper Bailiff? Or your Lord Mayor? And how much does it matter who gets chosen? Is it simply about seniority and willingness, and ability to wear gorgeous robes and big hats with dignity? Or is our capacity to lead, our ability to enable others, at the heart of the office which we hold?

And may I say I’m very aware of how these questions apply to the Church’s leadership too, with its pretty arcane ways of actually choosing its leadership locally and nationally, especially with some recent statements made with an eye to women bishops about the pond of male leadership being over-fished – a perspective which comes in my view from having too narrow a view of what leadership is about.

In the livery, in the City, in the Church, in the country, whatever the organisation, there’s a dynamic relationship between leadership and followership. At home I have one of those fridge magnets which poses the existential question as to whether you want to talk to the man in charge or the woman who knows what’s happening.

Indeed, sometimes in my own experience as well as observation, the person in charge of a meeting isn’t the person in the chair but the clerk whose advice as to what should happen when, is essential to good order and achieving the business of the meeting.

But we do often get the leaders we deserve, because of the way that we in our popular culture shape the expectations we have of others.

We aren’t willing to follow those who look different from what we expect.

Many of you may have had the experience of bringing much-needed change to an organisation and being rebuffed because people didn’t want it. I remember sitting down with the congregation of a church in East Greenwich many years ago, which consisted of five elderly ladies, and asking them how they’d like to change and grow, and receiving the answer that they were quite happy thank you and no they didn’t want any change. That church closed shortly afterwards – and then they had to change.

When we’re followers who sign up for things as they are, we may find change difficult or threatening, and prefer leaders who don’t rock the boat. As leaders, we may have a different perspective. And it raises the question as to how far the institutions we serve are structured by us, corporately, to keep things as they are rather than to continue to adapt in a fast-changing world, in order to continue to express the good and important values for which we were founded so long ago.

I say all this, not because the Church is especially good at change by leaders and followers, but because God keeps reminding us all that leadership is surprising, that what really matters isn’t what we think or expect.

Take the reading from the Jewish Scriptures about the selection of King David. King Saul has blown it, and betrayed the trust of God and his people. So although Saul is still king, the prophet Samuel sets out on a secret mission to find and anoint Saul’s successor (I don’t know if this is how your livery company does it). He knows it’s one of the sons of a man called Jesse who lives in Bethlehem. So he goes along assuming that it’s the eldest son who will be the heir and king: but of course the story tells us that it’s the youngest, the last of eight sons, the one who’s out doing the menial chores, that God has chosen. And why? ‘Because the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’

This story is typical of the way in which God keeps upsetting the established social order in the Bible. It’s the eldest son, the tallest person (which Saul was), who is the man, whom the Israelites keep choosing as their leader: but God will keep going off piste and choosing the youngest – not just David, but Abel and Jacob and Joseph and many of the prophets too, not to mention women in leadership like Deborah or Bathsheba. God upsets our traditions – not for the sake of it, but to recall us to the vision of what God has called us to be.

Likewise the New Testament reading from John’s Gospel begins with words of Jesus which echo the words which God says to Samuel: ‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement’.

In the context where Jesus says this, there are people angry with him because he healed a paralyzed man on the Sabbath day, an act which was against the religious law. And the reading goes on to articulate the inner tension between the followers who say that Jesus can’t be the looked-for Messiah, the great religious leader, because he doesn’t fulfil our expectations, and others who prefer their common sense and look at the evidence of what Jesus has already said and done…

Last year at this service, the preacher Bishop Stephen Cotterell pointed out in his rather direct sort of way (as an Essex man like me) that many of us do appear somewhat unusually dressed. And this could pose the question for us that Samuel and Jesus engaged with: how do we see? How do we look at others? Are we impressed by the outward appearance, or by what is inside someone’s heart? Do we judge with right judgement?

For example: sitting today with the Pattenmakers in the North Transept are Robert and Barbara. Can I ask you to stand please and give me a wave? Don’t they look lovely? Maybe not as vividly dressed as some, and not sitting in the grand seats at the front. But – Robert and Barbara, you bring a different dimension to this service: today is your Golden Wedding anniversary, and we give thanks for and with you for your commitment and witness to the enduring power of committed love. Thank you, and we hope you have a lovely day – God bless you both. (And a footnote: be careful what you write to the Dean about…)

And there will be many other such stories here today, hidden in the hearts of those of you here – there to be found when we look on the heart and not the wardrobe.

Whether we’ve been chosen as, and dressed in the manner of, Lord Mayor or Dean, Master, Warden, Bailiff, Canon or Prebendary or something else, or not chosen at all; whether we’re leaders or followers, or both at different times and in different contexts:

we face the call and the challenge to lead and to follow with wisdom, to look not on the presenting person or issue but on the heart:

to get to the heart of things and of people, and to enable our City of London, our churches and our communities, and our companies whether in commerce or of the livery, to be people and places where justice and generosity, truth and reality thrive;

to have the courage to take risks and to upset settled expectations, for the sake of others and of what we believe in, together.

‘The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.