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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

What Makes a Good Leader? Sermon at the Mayor's Civic Service

In an age with a love-hate attitude to celebrity, leadership has never been more demanding than it is today. My imminent departure from Durham has exercised my own mind on what I think I have tried to be and to do as a spiritual leader in the last twelve years; my colleagues are asking the question, what is needed in the next Dean of Durham? Today, our thoughts are focused on a new Mayor of Durham who steps into this role as Chair of the County Council. I am sure I speak for all of you when I say at the outset that our prayers and good wishes are with Jan as she begins her mayoral year. We shall all want to support her mayoralty in every way we can.

On the 9th September, we shall mark the day when The Queen becomes the longest reigning English monarch, overtaking her predecessor Queen Victoria. We shall honour this remarkable achievement at a special evensong that day. I have been looking at her Coronation Service to see what hopes and expectations surrounded her when she was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Here are some of the prayers from that day.

Strengthen her, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost the Comforter; Confirm and stablish her with thy free and princely Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and government, the Spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill her, O Lord, with the Spirit of thy holy fear.
The Lord your God endue you with knowledge and wisdom, with majesty and with power from on high; the Lord clothe you with the robe of righteousness, and with the garments of salvation. May wisdom and knowledge be the stability of your times, and the fear of the Lord your treasure.
The Coronation rite asks many things for the Sovereign: peace in her times; stability so that her realms may flourish, a fruitful reign, the capacity to serve well and to oversee the administration of justice. These are all good aspirations for the exercise of every kind of power, prayers we can all echo for those who undertake public roles on behalf of other people. But if ask what was uppermost in the minds of those who, centuries ago, composed the coronation service, I think we would have to say: wisdom. It is a theme that runs through so many of the prayers for a young sovereign on her coronation day, because it is the secret of sound leadership, as Solomon knew when he prayed for the gift to govern his people wisely. There is nothing that so adorns a leader as his or her embrace of wisdom, or as we might say, insight and awareness, discernment, understanding, and sound judgment. These are the qualities that inculcate a sense of trust and confidence: you believe that those who possess them are in it not for themselves, not acting out of self-interest or aggrandisement, but for the sake of others. And there is nothing that so corrupts leadership and discredits it as the lack of those hard-won qualities.
By coincidence, in this year that we reach a milestone in the history of the monarchy, we also celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Last Monday, I was in that sunny meadow at Runnymede with thousands of others to witness the ceremony that commemorated this event. Her Majesty was there, lineal successor of King John; and the Archbishop of Canterbury too, the spiritual successor of the great Archbishop Stephen Langton who, we believe, contributed to the drafting of the text. I wondered whether The Queen was thinking about her 63 years on the throne, and the nature of our constitutional monarchy whose carefully defined relationships with Parliament and the body politic go back ultimately to Magna Carta. For the checks and balances that discipline leaders, so signally lacking when an autocratic sovereign collided with recalcitrant barons, are essential to the good ordering of a modern state. It took many centuries to get there: 1215 was the start of a long journey. But we now take them for granted, not only in the monarchy but in every other aspect of public life. It comes down to the fundamental principle of our freedoms, that all of us are equal under the law, and no-one is privileged, however ancient their office or exalted their powers.
We might think these constraints, these limitations on power make it easier to lead. On the contrary. They make leadership an extraordinarily subtle art that calls for the kind of wisdom I have been speaking about: the insight and discernment that enable us to understand the gears that synchronise our roles with the complex and intricate systems and processes of our public institutions.  This is true of leaders in government; it is true of leaders in the church (take my word for it), and of leaders in every other sector of society. You, Madam, are a constitutional mayor. I am a constitutional dean. In our more sinful moments we may wish we had more power than we do. In our better hours and days, we are profoundly grateful that it is as it is. And so I come to my fundamental question. Where does it come from, this gift to be wise?
Our Old Testament reading speaks about wisdom as the gift of the Spirit, ‘a breath of the power of God, an emanation of the glory of the Almighty’. ‘She is more beautiful than the sun; against wisdom, evil does not prevail.’ The Wisdom of Solomon is one of a number of texts written to instruct those who being prepared for leadership. Wisdom in the Old Testament means many things: a shrewd knowledge of the world, the capacity to read human life and behaviour, the ability to manage oneself well and order the affairs of the institutions we are responsible for, a moral compass that is orientated towards what is good and right, and more than anything else, a reverence for God who alone is wise, in whose name we mortals exercise leadership. All this is part of wisdom’s ‘admonition to rulers’. You could sum it up like this: know your role; know what you are responsible for; know your place in how the world is ordered; know your people; know yourself. If we want to clothe wisdom in contemporary dress, the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life that people in public life sign up to nowadays do a good job: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
But there is one more dimension that we who lead must always remember. Our New Testament reading spells it out in a marvellous paradox. ‘Where is the one who is wise?’ asks St Paul, ‘has not god made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ So it depends on what kind of wisdom we cultivate. He tells us that it is not human wisdom or intelligence in itself that we should aspire to, nor the crude coercive force of naked power that we find so seductive. Rather it is to trace both power and wisdom back to their God-given source. Where do we find this? It is ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’.
Which is why we hold this service at the start of the each mayoral year. It is to worship and acknowledge our dependence on God from whom all good things come, among them the best gifts and virtues we aspire to. And it is to pray for our Mayor and all who lead that they may be equipped with everything they need to inhabit their office with the wisdom and justice, the compassion and humanity that will serve and build up the common good. In one of the psalms, a blessing on the city goes like this: ‘May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, no cry of distress in our streets. Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall. Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.’ Indeed so, God only wise in all places and in this place, our beloved city and county, this northern land of saints.

Durham Cathedral
At the annual civic service, 21 June 2015
Wisdom 7.22b-8.1; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25

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