When George HW Bush was hoping to succeed Ronald Reagan as President of the United States he was urged to give more time to considering what he actually wanted to do if he attained office.
In August 1988, watching his campaign in action, Tom Collins of the American paper Newsday opined that it lacked ‘a soul, an ideal, or what George Bush unpoetically calls “the vision thing”.’
He succeeded Reagan of course, but four years later, when he lost to Bill Clinton, Robert Hawkins of the San Francisco Chronicle commented: ‘In the end, the “vision thing” was Bush’s Achilles heel. Rather than be a visionary, the president chose to be a steward … A visionary stakes the future on a plan for action. A steward takes a more passive and reactive approach to leadership.’
Similarly, an academic study of Gordon Brown’s time as UK Prime Minister concluded: ‘One way or the other, it became a big problem that he did not have a clear vision.’ It stated: ‘He was criticized for his lack of clarity, for having an incoherent policy agenda and for having no strategy … at all.’
I sometimes ponder these things when thinking about the Church of England and the possible futures for evangelicals that lie ahead. Thinking ahead, it is clear (and scarcely needs to be stated) that the established church faces huge challenges. There are the issues of finance (not enough of it), of widely differing views about sex, gender and morality (
Living in Love and Faith etc), and of aging congregations and old buildings.
How evangelicals respond to these challenges will depend on how they are led. And leadership needs a vision which then brings into birth a strategy which helps everyone get there.
There have been some encouraging signs recently, but as an ordinary parish minister I still feel concerned. One encouraging sign is that there is clearly a commendably well-organised and well thought-out strategy for this year’s upcoming General Synod elections, with a lot going on behind the scenes. Also, there have been some good resources coming out in relation to the Living in Love and Faith process from both the Church of England Evangelical Council and Church Society. These are great.
But let us run our mind’s eye ahead, say, 18 months. A new General Synod has been elected. Overall, after a discussion and series of votes, Biblical orthodoxy has been maintained – at least on paper. But not everything has gone the way evangelicals hoped: some aspects of what has been agreed appear to allow some room for ambiguity, and perhaps for local creativity in relation to issues of same-sex marriage and gender. Most evangelicals think that on balance they have achieved a good result. Others feel unsettled. Quite a few are thinking they may have to resign or leave.
In your mind’s eye, what happens the very next day after that vote in this (not implausible) scenario? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? It depends not on me writing this, or on most of you as readers – it depends, to a fairly considerable extent – on what evangelical bishops say or do; on what the Church of England Evangelical Council says or does; on what organisations like Church Society and ReNew say or do.
And in order to offer leadership in that crucial, absolutely critical moment, they all need to be well-prepared. In their mind’s eyes, they have to have run through these and other likely scenarios over and over again, discussing them, praying them through, talking with one another about them, chewing them over. And when they have done that, they can then see what vision they will want to offer and how they are going to communicate it effectively on that precise day.
It might be, for example, that they know that if the Synod acts along roughly the lines sketched out above, they will have in place three bishops (English, or from elsewhere?) who will immediately offer alternative episcopal oversight to clergy who feel things have gone too far. It might be that they have a bigger group of bishops, or of other leaders, who unilaterally declare a new Province of the Church of England in some way. It might be… well, all sorts of things…. We don’t of course actually need to know right now precisely what they would say (indeed it might well be unwise to let on); we just need to be confident that a plan is there – should it be needed.
The worst thing in the world would be confusion or silence from not having any plan at all. And it all comes back to the ‘vision thing’. After all, we know what happened to George HW Bush – he lost after just one term to Bill Clinton, who love him or loathe him (and polls showed that even after all his scandals he could have won a third term had he been able to run again) certainly knew how to lead. Indeed, the first thing he said after his election victory was this: ‘I want to talk with you about my hope for the future, my faith in the American people and my vision of the kind of country we can build.’ He concluded with words I can still remember watching him say live: ‘I still believe in a place called hope.’
When it comes to the Church of England, I too still believe in a place called hope. And as an ordinary parish minister, I’m looking for the leaders who will take me there.