by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford
Subverting the language of Leadership before it subverts the Church
A colleague who serves as a priest in the Church of Sweden recounts the deeply moving experience of attending an ordination at which the candidate being ordained deacon was a person with Downs Syndrome. It was clearly a powerful moment. In all the contemporary rhetoric about leadership, this ordination said something important and surprising about the kingdom of God.
Tolstoy tells a parallel story about three monks who were so forgetful that they couldn’t even remember the Lord’s Prayer, but so holy that they could walk on water. Tolstoy was no friend of organised (and organising) religion, and his story was partly another pot shot at the Russian Church. But the story but it raises the question in a pointed way of what qualities we might really need in our spiritual guides: holiness, or a good memory?
Whatever else, we clearly have a problem with language. It is very striking that the word “leader” is never used of a Christian minister in the New Testament or in Christian tradition until the latter part of the 20th century. From then on it becomes ubiquitous. This is an extraordinary phenomenon, and one that demands our critical engagement.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are clearly aspects of Christian ministry where we can learn from the language and study of leadership. Indeed, why wouldn’t we want to up our game, especially in the areas of good governance and proper accountability where churches have often come unstuck. I certainly need to learn from some of that wisdom to fulfil my role. But the absence of leadership language in the New Testament and Christian tradition – and Jesus’ own wholesale rejection of the language of power (Mark 10.43 and parallels) suggest that “leader” is at best a wholly inadequate word and at worst deeply misleading.
By contrast, when the early Christian community came to choose names for their “ordained elders” (the best phrase I have been able to come up with so far) they rejected the welter of Old Testament possibilities and the range of alternatives offered by Hellenistic culture. Instead they settled for three normal, secular, colourless words: supervisor, elder, and servant. Just a couple of generations after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Ignatius of Antioch points out it is the deacon who represents Christ, because it is all about service.
When the church became a respectable institution, the supervisor, elder, and servant found themselves transformed into clerical officials, acquiring the appropriate finery and exotic headgear, and rather forgetting Jesus words to his disciples when they started arguing about who was the greatest: “it is not so among you” (Mark 10.43). And as Christians in the west gradually stopped speaking Greek in church and started speaking Latin, the simple name for authorising ordained elders – “laying on of hands” – became the grand word “ordination” – a word used for the installation of Roman officials. Every time I put on the traditional vestments to celebrate the Eucharist I remind myself that these are not the distinctive robes of a Christian priest, but the uniform of a fourth century pagan magistrate. It is important to feel the irony.
Beyond the sheer negative impact of managerialism, the language of leadership has taken such a hold in the churches because it dislocates us from the problematic language of priesthood. Priest in English (arriving by way of medieval French) is simply a contraction of the word “presbyter” i.e. “elder”). The title of the Common Worship ordination service is bizarrely tautological: “priests, also known as presbyters”. Well, no. They are simply different translations of exactly the same word. In the Latin rite, it has always just been “presbyters”.
Our problem is that we use typically use the word “priest” to translate to translate two completely different biblical concepts. The “presbyter” word for an ordained minister, certainly. But we also use “priest” to translate a completely unrelated word meaning “the person who sacrifices.” Certainly this word is core to the Old Testament understanding of priesthood. But this word is never used of a Christian minster; only of Christ and of the corporate body of the church. It is for instance the word used in the phrase “royal priesthood” at 1 Peter 2.9. It has nothing to do with ministry and everything to do with all of us having equal access to God because of what Christ has done for us. We no longer need a sacrifice. That’s why Calvin said so emphatically “the priesthood is common to all. Not so the ministry”.
This ministry is never about power. Always about service. That has got lost somewhere in the language of leadership. When we have to qualify the word “leader” with the word “servant”, something has gone quite seriously astray. Servant leadership courses can easily become a way of double bluffing ourselves. As I’ve said in an earlier post on this site, whenever Christians start talking about service and vulnerability, there’s a good chance that they are really talking about power.
In Matthew 8, when Jesus says he will come and heal the pagan centurion’s servant, the centurion replies “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof”. The word translated “worthy” at 8.8 is the simple Greek word for “enough”, “sufficient”, “adequate”, “competent”.
That is my daily prayer, for myself and for the whole people of God: “Lord, I am not enough, sufficient, adequate, competent.” Subverting the language of leadership, and learning to speak the upside down language of the kingdom of God.