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.

One Thought on “Re-Reading the Green Report 2: God at the Centre

  1. Stephen Day on February 3, 2015 at 9:38 am said:

    These are interesting reflections and comparisons!

    For me you hit the nub of the problem when you say “Promoting ‘safe uncertainty’ means refusing a culture focused on success” – sadly the parts of the Green report which I found most dispiriting were those which referred to “performance” and “potential” (without defining what those terms mean in practice, or how to measure them) and the suggestion that if a participant in the “talent pool” didn’t measure up, they would be asked to leave.
    So if “fear of failure, the need to perform, the obsession with targets, all kill improvisation” then the Green report is improvisation’s executioner!

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