Daily Archives: February 2, 2015

You are browsing the site archives by date.

Re-Reading the Green Report 2: God at the Centre

This is the second of my posts on The Green Report.  The first can be found here.

Faithful Improvisation

The main body of the report starts (in §10) by repeating, in slightly fuller form, the quote from Justin Welby given at the start of the introduction (§1).  It is a quote from his first address to the General Synod as Archbishop of Canterbury, in July 2013.  He spoke of the members of the Church being ‘Custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals and societies….called by God to respond radically and imaginatively to new contexts.’  That word ‘custodian’ suggests that we hold faithfully to what we have received; the reference to imaginative and radical response suggests that this faithfulness will be expressed in new ways in new contexts.

The idea here is the same as one of the ideas at the core of the Faith and Order report: ‘faithful improvisation’, which the Green Report quotes in §14.  In the FAOC report, we said (§§12–13) that compelling answers to questions about the kind of senior leadership needed by the Church of England

are not developed in the pages of reports. They are developed in situ, hammered out in context by Christians drawing deeply on the Scriptures, engaging with the tradition, attending to their situations, questioning and challenging and encouraging one another, and discovering prayerfully over time what bears fruit and what does not.  In other words, good answers to this question are produced by faithful improvisation, in the never-ending diversity of contexts in which the church finds itself. By ‘improvisation’, we do not mean ‘making it up as we go along’ or ‘bodging something together from the materials available’. Rather, we are drawing on the way that ‘improvisation’ has been written about by a number of theologians in recent years, and are using the word in something like the sense it can have in musical performance. Musicians who are deeply trained in a particular tradition (who know its constraints and possibilities in their bones) draw on all the resources provided by that formation to respond creatively to new situations and to one another. Compelling and faithful answers to the church’s questions about leadership require something of the same deep formation and deep attentiveness in situ, and will be similarly diverse and creative.

Rooted in Prayer

Deep rootedness in the gospel underpins our improvisation, or our imaginative and radical responses to new contexts.  The central form that the Green report suggests this rootedness will take is prayer.  It talks about the importance of the leaders’ ‘life of prayer’ (§10), a substantial element of prayer is built into the proposed patterns of training  (§35), and the diagram of ‘Leadership Characteristics for Bishops and Deans’ (§32) has at its top this statement of ‘purpose’: ‘Develop a prayerful cadre of Bishops and Deans who are confident as leaders and evangelists who release an energy for mission and growth across the Church, as the urgent priority set by the Gospel’  (see also §10).  I’m going to come back to various aspects of this statement later, including that word ‘cadre’ and the idea of releasing energy for mission and growth.  For now, however, I want to keep the focus on prayer, and take the report at its word: the highest priority, the first element in its purpose, is a call for leaders to be ‘prayerful’.

The FAOC report (§174) speaks of

constant, prayerful, humble and attentive listening by the whole church, and especially by those who exercise leadership within it, to what the Spirit may be saying to God’s people. Wise improvisation in leadership will therefore only emerge from communities and individuals gathered by the Spirit in sustained prayer and worship, with the Son, before the Father.

All our action, including any action we call ‘leadership’, is a joining in, a participation in what God is doing.  As the FAOC report says elsewhere, ‘one’s action is a gift that one receives more than it is something that one achieves; [and] there can be no effectiveness without grace’ (§48).

Prayer is the starting point not simply because we need to seek guidance before acting, or to recharge batteries before expending energy.  It is the starting point because our agency – our determination, our endeavour, our action – is never primary.  Our vision of ministry, and of leadership within it, should not begin with any picture of heroic activity on the part of those who minister, but of deep and abiding receptivity and attentiveness.  To minister is to be acted upon by God, to be caught up in what God is doing in and through us.  Its centre is not labour (though there is almost certain to be labour involved), but our rest in God.  Prayer is therefore necessarily the centre of ministry, including of all those forms of ministry we call leadership.

The training programme promised by the Green Report has prayer and reflection as one of its major components.  To fulfil its promise, however, that needs to be more than simply a space for prayerful reflection on what has been learnt.  Rather, central to the substance of the training, there will need to be a focus upon developing the kinds of habit of prayer, the kinds of community of prayer, the kinds of rule of prayerful life, that can underpin the kinds of ministry envisaged.


When the report speaks of ‘confidence’ (as in ‘a prayerful cadre of Bishops and Deans who are confident as leaders and evangelists’), we should read this first of all not as self-confidence, but as confidence in God.  As §15 says, ‘This confidence is rooted entirely in the victory of Christ.’  It is the confidence that flows from prayer, and so from trust in God, from rest in God.  But God’s action and our action are not in competition, and to focus on God’s action does not mean that we have to deny our own.  God’s action enables, accompanies and directs our own, and a primary confidence in God is compatible with a secondary confidence in ourselves – what the Green report calls a ‘realistic confidence’ in our ability (§13) – a thankfulness for the gifts that God has given us, a practiced knowledge in their possibilities and limits, and a joy in their exercise.

Our confidence in ourselves is, however, bounded by our confidence in God.  Our self-confidence must never become a conviction that we are the centre of what is going on.  It has to be a self-confidence that remains attentive to what God is doing beyond us and without us, ready for surprises, and open to correction.  It has to be a self-confidence that does not let us take ourselves too seriously.  As the report says, ‘We want leaders so centred on God that they exhibit neither neurosis nor narcissism’  (§17) – and finding that balance in the context of a demanding ministry is a serious spiritual discipline – and, again, exploration of this will need to be en element of the training offered.

Do Not Fear

Our self-confidence should also never become a conviction that the future is ours to command.  The FAOC report says

The growth of God’s kingdom is in God’s hands. We must pray all we can, learn all we can and work all we can, but these are not handles that need only to be turned hard to guarantee success.  (§185)

Our future is in God’s hands.  That does not mean that we don’t need to act strenuously in the present, but it does mean that we need to act not out of anxiety and panic, but out of trust: wholehearted reliance upon God.

One aspect of the ‘culture change’ that the Green report speaks of (§8) is therefore a move away from a culture of anxiety.  On the one hand, that means a move away from a culture of communal anxiety about the future of the Church – as if everything depended upon us.  On the other hand, it means a move away from a culture of individual performance anxiety – as if the one thing needful is to make a success of ourselves, to demonstrate our worth by what we achieve.  Confidence in God is the root of a move away from such ecclesial Pelagianism – and it is the root of the joy, resilience, energy, and hope of which the Green Report speaks (§12).

The Green Report warns against the aversion to risk that can flow from the belief that we can manage risk away (§22).  Instead, the church needs ‘spaces of safe uncertainty in which creative and emotionally intelligent change can happen.’  A move away from a culture dominated by anxiety and control is necessary if faithful improvisation is going to flourish.  Micromanagement kills improvisation; insecurity kills improvisation; fear of failure, the need to perform, the obsession with targets, all kill improvisation.

Promoting ‘safe uncertainty’ means refusing a culture focused on success.  As we said in the FAOC report:

We therefore have to cultivate a culture that allows failure, that attends to it carefully and learns from it seriously, but that does not condemn it. In part, this is because we will certainly not encourage real improvisation and experimentation if we have generated an atmosphere of performance anxiety; improvisation is only made possible by trust. More seriously, however, it is because any understanding of Christian leadership that believes success to be firmly in the grasp of good leaders, rather than in the hands of God, has become a form of idolatry. The one true leader of the church is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and true success is in God’s hands alone.  (§186)

Releasing Energy

The statement of purpose at the top of the Report’s diagram of Leadership Characteristics (§32) speaks of leaders who ‘release an energy for mission and growth across the Church, as the urgent priority set by the Gospel’.  In the light of all I have been saying, we will read this not as the high-octane energy of the big leader, but as the energy that flows in each of us from a confident, trusting participation in what God is doing, grounded in prayer.

As that word ‘release’ might suggest, this is not an energy that some of us possess and then distribute to others.  Neither, however, is it simply an energy independently found in each of us.  Our relationships of trust and confidence in God are never simply about the individual and God.  We encourage one another, we build one another up, and we are involved in one another’s relation to God.  That is what it means to be a body.  The Spirit’s work in each of us is inseparable from the Spirit’s work in those around us, and we can therefore all be involved in the ‘release’ of energy of the Spirit in those around us.

The Green report does not simply talk about mutual encouragement, however.  It talks about a cadre of leaders who will be engaged in this work of encouragement.  If I am to take this project of retrieval and repair further, I need to tackle that next.

Re-Reading the Green Report 1: Suspicion, Retrieval and Repair

In December, the Green Report (more formally, the Report of the Lord Green Steering Group, or ‘Talent Management for Future Leaders and Leadership Development for Bishops and Deans: A New Approach’) was leaked, to the accompaniment of a fountain of criticism (and a splash or two of defence) in blogs, comment pieces, and letters pages.  (It has also now been published as a Synod paper, with an introductory summary.)

(See the initial Church Times report; see also the various collections of responses gathered by the Thinking Anglicans blog.)

My aim in writing now, as a latecomer to this party, is not to try to get that debate flowing again.  Instead, I want to try something a little different.  Rather than setting out yet another critique, I want to try for retrieval and repair.  This first post will try to explain what I mean.  I plan a few more posts, over the next few days, to try and put this retrieval and repair into practice.


All sorts of criticisms were levelled at the report after it was leaked, but most prominent among them were those which saw in it the triumph of corporate language over theology, or of business culture over the culture of the church, or of managerialism over Christian wisdom.

It is not hard to see where this criticism comes from.  The corporate language starts on the title-page – indeed, in the first two words on the title page: ‘Talent Management’.*  And when readers whose critical senses have been alerted by that title turned to the Introduction, it is not hard to see how their suspicions might have deepened.  The first paragraph is confidently, if briefly, theological.  It quotes Justin Welby speaking about our being ‘Custodians of the gospel’ and ‘called by God’.  That initial theological note immediately vanishes, however.  From the next sentence on, we are in the realm of ‘leadership development’, ‘talent management initiatives’, and the engagement (to develop detailed proposals for these initiatives) of the former ‘Head of Talent and Learning at BP’.  It was therefore inevitable (and entirely predictable) that, by the time they reached §8, the report’s claim that its recommendations ‘mark a culture change for the leadership of the Church’, most readers will have seen the change in question precisely as a takeover of the church by the habits and language of the corporate world.

This opening actively invites a suspicious reading of the report.  In fact, it does more than invite, it all but demands it.  The choice of title; the way the introduction has been put together; the brusque transition from §1 to §2 – it all says, as Martyn Percy said in his critique in the Church Times, that what is ‘on offer is a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish’.

By the time the reader reaches the body of the report, just over the page, the damage is already done.  That body contains strands of theological language and recognisably theological ideas woven in with strands of management language and borrowed corporate ideas.  Having reached it via the introduction, many readers will inevitably see the corporate strands as central, and see the theological strands as twisted around them – whether as decoration or disguise or inadequate amelioration.  In practice, that means that they will take the specific proposals (§§33–78) as bearing the main weight of the report, and see the discussion of ‘principles and context’ (§§10–29) as secondary – to be read, rather sceptically, in the light of the later proposals.

Retrieval and Repair

My claim is not that the suspicious reading is wrong. Much of the language and argument of the remainder of the report lends itself very well to being read in this suspicious way – and the suspicious reading is powerful, penetrating and worrying. I do not, however, think that the suspicious reading is the only thing that can be done with this report.  I have said that the report is woven from multiple strands, including ‘strands of theological language and recognisably theological ideas’.  I want, in my subsequent posts, to try the experiment of flipping the suspicious reading over, and seeing what happens when one takes the theological strands as central.  I’m not ignoring the critical readings – I have learnt a great deal from them – I am simply doing something different.  I am attempting a ‘retrieval’.

This retrieval also involves ‘repair’.  There are times, I will suggest, when the report resists being read around its theological strands.  There are indeed times when its managerial language pulls hard against the retrieval I am attempting.  There are moments when I am forced to say that if I want to re-read the report in the way I am suggesting, I will have to refuse some of the specific language it uses.  Just as the suspicious reading is forced to say of some of the theological material in the report that it is undermined or evacuated or denied by the corporate content, so I am forced to say from time to time that some of the corporate content is called seriously into question by the theological content.

I suggest, however, that this very task of repair is one that the report itself encourages.  Very close to the end, in §85 (far too late for the suspicious reading to take seriously), the report notes that it has used ‘corporate labels such as “talent management”, “leadership development programme”, “talent pool” and “alumni network”’, and acknowledges that ‘these should perhaps be replaced by terms meaningful to the Church’.

So, over the next several posts, in line with that last recommendation. I am going to attempt a retrieval and repair of the report.  I do not claim that, in so doing, I am identifying what the intentions of the reports’ authors really were, nor do I claim that I am running counter to their intentions.  I am simply not playing the kind of interpretive game that involves me in that task of excavating intentions.  I am, rather, exploring one way of receiving and responding to the report – a way of making something of it that I think it does make possible, even if it is not something that it demands.  So I don’t ask, ‘What were they really up to, the Lord Green Steering Group?  Rather I ask, ‘What should we be up to, now we have this report in front of us?  How can we best live with it?’

Full Disclosure

I’m on the Faith and Order Commission.  I’m therefore one of the co-authors of the report Senior Church Leadership: A Resource for Reflection, published in January, which tackles some of the same territory as Green, but from a very different angle and with a very different remit.  There was some discussion and consultation between members of the two groups, and the FAOC report is cited in the Green Report, but I wasn’t involved in the writing of the latter.  I’m not writing these thoughts on behalf of the Green group or anyone on it, nor on behalf of FAOC or anyone on it.  Of course, my thinking in this area has inevitably been shaped by the work we did in FAOC and the conversations we had with people involved in the Green group, but these are entirely my own personal ramblings, and nobody else bears responsibility for them.  You could however, plausibly take my proposal as an attempt to read the Green report in the light of the FAOC report.

* Of course, the word ‘talent’ travelled from referring to a particular weight of gold or silver, to meaning an divinely entrusted gift to be used wisely, and so to meaning a capacity for success in some sphere of endeavour, by way of Jesus’ parable in Mt 25:14–30.  In other words, we do owe the word ‘talent’ in the title of this report ultimately to the Bible.