Capel Lofft makes the case for why we need a new heroic age of Church leadership
It may be antiquated and romantic whimsy, but I cling to a notion of the ideal bishop as undaunted hero of the faith, providing, with lionlike courage and devotion to the causes of Christ and catholic teaching, a soaring example of visionary spiritual leadership.
Even arch-sceptic Edward Gibbon couldn’t help but be impressed by the epic story of St Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘The immortal name of Athanasius’, he observed, ‘will never be separated from the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and faculty of his being’. Despite being deprived of his See no fewer than five times, by four different Roman Emperors; despite becoming a desperate fugitive hunted high and low throughout the desert wilds of Egypt; despite persecution, exile and frequent brushes with death, Athanasius maintained his constant and unyielding hostility to the heresy of Arianism to the end, and helped ensure the victory of catholic orthodoxy against tremendous odds, against the massed ranks of ‘counts, praefects, tribunes, whole armies’ who hunted him down, against the unbridled hostility of the entire civil and military establishment of the Empire.
One cannot help but feel that this behaviour would probably be considered, within the sanitised corporate shell that is the administrative and disciplinary framework of the contemporary Church of England, more deserving of referral to a psychiatrist than of canonisation. Did Athanasius consider the safeguarding implications of seeking asylum in the ‘secret chamber’ of a 20-year old pious Alexandrian maiden, as Palladius of Galata asserts he did during his flight from the persecution of Constantius? Wouldn’t his energy have been better channelled towards drawing up a 5-year strategy and vision document outlining how the Nicaean definition of the nature of Christ’s divinity might co-exist alongside Arianism within a Jesus-shaped ‘mixed ecology’?
No doubt the higher-ups in the new parasitical anti-church that has sprouted within the bowels of our historic structures, devoted to the gospel of managerialism and techno-babble, would have had something to say about Christ’s own ministry. Was it wise to appoint lowly fishermen as his main outreach facilitation officers, not professional marketing and brand consultants? Wouldn’t a digital lab webinar have been more effective for missional communication than a sermon on a mountain? Was a proper cost-benefit analysis done to calculate whether the inputs to the Atonement – the scourging, the being nailed to a cross, the giving up the ghost – were commensurate to the output, which was, after all, only eternal redemption for the human race?
We do, of course, not live in an heroic age, one of burning faith, martyrdom and devotion. Rather we live in the great era of spiritual apathy and indifference, interspliced with mad bursts of quasi-religious progressive fanaticism; of mechanism, materialism and utilitarianism; within the church, of the meticulous, supine management of a decay and decline that is seen as inevitable. Given that, it should probably come as no surprise that the sort of bishops we produce are not quite of the nature of Athanasius, Chrysostom or Becket, and are rather more likely to remind us of the deputy regional manager of a supermarket chain. Perhaps in some respects that is a good thing: such formidable men were the products of ages more violent, more turbulent and a good deal less comfortable and ‘safe’ than our own. Personally, they were probably incredibly difficult and alarming individuals. If Chrysostom were transplanted to the 21st century, one struggles to see him being offered a column in the Church Times or becoming a regular on ‘Thought for the Day’. He might make us too uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, it is surely the case that in this kind of shuffling, pusillanimous era we need uncompromising messengers of Gospel truth and orthodoxy, heroic conveyors of inconvenient moral verities, and fiery prophetic voices of doom crying in the wilderness more than ever. Surrender to the secular languages of ‘change management’ and MBA-style jargon, attempting to adapt the spirit of Taylorism and HR departments to produce spiritual time-and-motion studies, will not make the Church more ‘effective’ or ‘productive’ (whatever that means) – it simply reduces its extraordinary, transcendental, urgent message to the level of the quotidian, the utilitarian, the banal. Not only that, but the grasping, instrumentalising spirit of technocracy and managerialism is actively contrary to the spirit of the gospel, which rejects every easy commercial assumption, every sophistical calculation of profit-and-loss, every piece of rationalisation. We should sell everything we own to possess one pearl – that of Heaven.
What we need are some bishops who defy this spirit, who refuse to conform to the Weberian spirit of the new church bureaucrats, who rattle against the iron cage that Welbyism creates. Bishops only emerge from their bureaucratic fortresses nowadays to issue vague, theologically undernourished moral pronouncements on subjects with here viewpoints for the approval of their liberal masters. This is not good enough. The message of Christianity – of sin, repentance, and humility; of resistance to the Flesh, the World, and the Devil; of the Incarnational necessity of sacraments and incorporation into the body of Christ – is countercultural. It’s inconvenient. It fundamentally rebels against the contemporary world’s embrace of the ‘be who you want to be-ethic’, of self-will and lust and rebellion, of shallow materialism and empty consumerism. We need our bishops to deliver this message with courage, defiance, love and a total indifference to the approval of the heathen world, rejecting totally and utterly every debased secular influence that has distracted us from this mission, no matter how hard or unlikely that sounds.