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Why the Church Needs to Abandon Christian Values

By Thomas Plant

Europeans like me are more or less squatters in the ruins of Christendom. Scraping around in the detritus like barbarian archaeologists, we occasionally stumble on some potsherd we vaguely recognize. These fragments we call Christian values. For all we grunt and gesture at them and wield them like talismans, we lack the imagination to perceive the whole vessel of which they are just shattered and isolated parts. But it is with the whole that we ought to be concerned.

“Ethical Leadership” has recently become something of a watchword in British education, and every pupil at Lichfield Cathedral School, which I serve as chaplain, is automatically enrolled onto our Ethical Leadership Programme. This phrase, influenced by Aristotelian virtue ethics, means the practice of leadership not only for personal gain but with a view toward the common good: a welcome shift from the shopping list of pick-and-mix values to the recognition of qualities of character that are eternal and abide.

In our school, we use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s one-year cycle of readings from the Gospels for all our chapel worship. Annual repetition of the readings has the pedagogical advantage of better retention. They stick in the mind better than the modern three-year cycle of most churches allows. Teaching staff also value the prayer book’s literary merit and importance in the development of the English language: heritage becomes a back door for stealth catechesis. On top of all this, the one-year lectionary makes it easier to synthesise core virtues of the Ethical Leadership Programme with those that emerge from the Gospels. We can integrate Bible study into our Ethical Leadership programme in a way that pupils can engage with, whatever the level of their personal commitment to the Christian faith.

The story of the Good Shepherd, written in the Gospel of the Second Sunday after Easter, makes a good case study. Jesus compares himself, the Good Shepherd, with a hireling. The hireling leads the flock only because he is paid to do so.

Now, there are worse things: St. Augustine comments on this passage, saying that even if priests and bishops are in positions of leadership in the Church for the wrong reason, even if they end up abandoning their flock and fleeing like the disciples did from the Cross, the voice of the true Shepherd can still be heard through them. But clearly this is not the ideal. However good a hireling, his loyalty is bought, and it can be sold to a higher bidder. Those whose loyalty consists only in buying into the firm’s values, or the school’s, or the Church’s, can just as easily be bought out of them. Their heart is not set on the sheep but on the reward.

There is another way. Many laptop keys have been eroded in recent years over Jesus’ leadership style. You might think that a man apparently indifferent to money, whose greatest triumph was to lead his closest associates to death by martyrdom, may not provide the most compelling model for modern commercial or political success. But if we want our churches, our schools, and yes, even our businesses, to be anything more than ad hoc bands of self-interested individuals — more, that is, than hirelings — then surely there is something to be learnt from Jesus’ “ensample of godly life,” as the prayer book Collect puts it.

Jesus defines the Good Shepherd in two ways: first, he knows his sheep and they know him, and second, he will lay his life down for them.

The first principle here is applicable in part to any leadership models, whether ethical or otherwise. When I undertook leadership training as an Army Officer Cadet 20 years ago, we were told that you need to know the character, the strengths, and the weaknesses of the soldiers under your command. You can then exploit your “resources” to their highest potential.

But Jesus is saying more than this. Not only does he know his sheep as well as he knows his Father, but they know him in return. This is something that the segregation of military mess life takes care to avoid, but Jesus’ leadership model for his flock is not one of social separation. We are most fully ourselves only when we exist in community, living for one another. So, first, Jesus calls leaders to make organisations into communities.

We might say that this gives us a common good to which any leader might aspire, regardless of religious commitments. One does not, for example, need to believe in the Trinity to believe in community. It is in Jesus’ second point that the uniquely Christian understanding of the Good comes in.

Laying down one’s life for the sheep was, for Jesus, not a metaphor. He did this. Even for only one lost sheep, however far that sheep may have erred and strayed from the path, Jesus would give everything to save it. This is what Jesus means when he summarises the Law as loving God and loving neighbour: not a feeling of love, or a theory of love, or love in some general sense, but the action of love as a life lived for others — regardless of how worthy they are of it.

When St. John writes that God is love, precisely this is the kind of love he means. God, the heart and source of all reality, is none other than the self-giving love revealed in Christ crucified. The ethical question a Christian leader needs to ask is this: Am I prepared to give my all for those in my charge?

Even if the answer is yes, the Christian leader will fail. This is to be expected. After all, didn’t St. Peter himself fail, most miserably of all, with his threefold denial? Yet it was to the same Peter that Jesus returned and said, three times again, “feed my sheep.”

Our inability to forge a utopia where we can feed the world and save it by our own endeavour is, in the end, a cause for rejoicing. For in recognising our limitations, we turn all the more to Christ, who alone can save, through baptism into his death: and who alone continues to feed us for eternity, with his very self, body and blood, in the Holy Eucharist.

And in what vessel are these sacred gifts borne? Almost incredibly, the Church: that community the Good Shepherd has stamped with his image and sealed with his Spirit. However cracked the image this vessel bears, it is greater by far than the sum of its half-buried shards. No array of fragmentary values can equate to the character of Christ, and no human effort to the work of God in the sacraments.

It’s time the Church left the world scrabbling around for values, and let herself instead be conformed to the virtues of Christ. By this alone can the vessel’s cracks be sealed, and its image restored to full and visible glory.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Plant is chaplain to Lichfield Cathedral School and visiting lecturer at Newman University, Birmingham. His book, The Catholic Jesus, is available on Amazon.


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