Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent (14 December 2014) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
In the second of a special series of sermons entitled Advent: a world turned upside-down, The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel discusses Investing in one another in a world of self-promotion
When a new Speaker of the House of Commons is elected, he or she is dragged to the Speaker’s chair in a show of diffidence that one so seemingly
unwilling for high office should presume to walk confidently and willingly towards his or her destiny.
It is, of course, a parliamentary tradition which belies the fact that few if any of the holders of that great office of state are anything other than delighted to assume the role – especially given the fact that they are no longer likely to be executed should they incur the wrath of the monarch at any point during the wielding of their new-found power and authority.
And so it is with this country’s Prime Minister who is not Prime Minister until such time as the Queen, to use the language of tradition, invites him to form a government – together with the now purely symbolic drive to Buckingham Palace as merely the newly-elected Member of Parliament for Witney to return as Her Majesty’s Prime Minister: all this, of course, belying the fact that David Cameron is one of the most powerful people in the world.
It sounds as if self-promotion isn’t going to get you very far in this country. Hmmm...
But, of course, it would be easy to dismiss these pieces of ritual as bits of pantomime which are rather amusing preludes to the reality of power and, in one sense, such an interpretation is absolutely correct. But the fact that they are now such humorous interludes to high octane politics misses the opportunity, at the very least, which they provide for demonstrations of that quaint and rather pathetic virtue of humility.
A more cogent demonstration of the problem that infects leadership in the world today was revealed by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, when he criticised the Government of which he was a member in the 1990s by saying, ‘We give the impression being in office but not in power.’
But the whole point about true and effective leadership is exactly that: that you are in office and not in power – certainly not if you operate in a true democracy. The only people with power in a country like this are the voters.
Do you remember when we used to be told that the Government was planning to do this, that or the other? Now it’s ‘David Cameron has announced...’, ‘George Osborne has pledged...’, ‘Teresa May will...’. Whatever happened to cabinet government?
Elsewhere, until recently, the leadership of the Church of England provided a paradigm for effective leadership. The Appointments Secretary at Downing Street, acting on behalf of the Crown, took risks with appointments to high office and nominated people who were visionary and prophetic.
The problem was that such people tended to be a bit edgy and mouthy, sometimes rather colourful and eccentric, certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, not very good at management and raising money but, boy, did people flock to sit at their feet and hear what they had to say. Those were the days when bishops used to be asked to appear on Question Time alongside cabinet ministers and elder statesmen. Those were the days when John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth might have been made bishops.
It is an incredible irony that now that the Church of England makes its own appointments, all of those people have gone and our churches continue to empty.
So, in order to help the process along, the Church of England is about to announce a new programme of talent management for potential future leaders of the Church. With an annual budget of £2 million, about 150 members of the clergy will be trained in contemporary approaches to executive management at university business schools. And, if you don’t cut the mustard, you’ll be asked to leave the programme and presumably won’t therefore be considered for any subsequent leadership role in the Church.
The problem is: I don’t expect my bishop to run the Church and I certainly don’t expect him to manage it. I expect him to inspire me and excite me and I expect him to appoint a team around him who can collectively do all the things that are necessary to run a diocese in the modern world.
I believe passionately in corporate governance where leadership is about being the first among equals and in which self-promotion is obsolete because there is nothing to which to promote oneself other than to serve the whole. In corporate governance, where responsibility is shared, there is room for characters and eccentrics as well as processors and managers – indeed they are all needed if the aims and objectives of the institution are to be achieved and, yes, that might sometimes mean disagreement! This is the body with many members each dependent on the other – each investing in one another.
The Church of England is a corporate body but its leadership is colourless and forgettable: something that could never have been said of it even thirty years ago, when an anonymous little man in Downing Street made all of the appointments...
In a world of self-promotion, we need to be counter cultural and call for a return to corporate governance at every level of society – starting with Government, cabinet government, in office and not in power. Truly great leaders are not self-promoters so we need to find them and drag them to the Speaker’s chair and to the bishop’s throne and to the chapter table.
The one who was not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals of the man who came among us as one to serve and not to be served is the focus of our Gospel today: how counter-cultural is that?: he was not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals of the man who came among us as one to serve and not to be served. I hope the Church of England’s management training programme doesn’t waste any of its £2 million on either of them!
These were John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth who turned the world upside down. Why is the Church trying to turn it the right way up again? One is tempted to recast the Pharisees’ question to John in this morning’s gospel lesson; ‘Why are you baptizing if you haven’t been on the Church of England’s leadership development programme?’
If the Church and the world could rediscover the essence of corporate governance in which self-promotion had no place, we could turn the world back upside down and make it all the more exciting, inspiring and Godly for that.