The leadership and ministry of fools (and other outsiders)

The Fool (1944) by Cecil Collins
The Fool features in much of Collins’s art. The Fool represents saint, artist and poet – the saviours of life, according to Collins. He always portrays the fool as an innocent figure who, although finding no place in the modern world, has the vision to find fulfilment and eventual reward. Here the Fool is carrying a heart (for love) and an owl (for wisdom and freedom)

When it comes to power and leadership in the church are we confused by worldly perceptions of power and success?

Recently I have heard about arguments amongst leaders about who sits in the “best seats” in the chancel, and there’s real power politics at play in ecclesiastical processions!

If we are entitled (Rev, Reader etc) what are we entitled to? Cases of abuse show how wrong some of us so entitled have been.

What are the qualifications for leadership? And what is our unconscious bias about those qualifications – and how much potential is wasted by those biases?

Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the case that our understandings of leadership are qualified and conditioned by Hollywood and the leadership of those on the “wild frontier” as portrayed by decades of “westerns”. (Donald Trump fits that well.) Lewis-Anthony talks about “the myth of leadership” and describes the way the myth is told.

Someone comes from the outside, into our failing community. He is a man of mystery, with a barely suppressed air of danger about him. At first he refuses to use his skills to save our community, until there is no alternative, and then righteous violence rains down. The community is rescued from peril, but in doing so the stranger is mortally wounded. He leaves, his sacrifice unnoticed by all.

This is the plot of Shane, Triumph of the Will, Saving Private Ryan and practically every western every made. It is the founding myth of our politics and our society. It tells us that violence works, and that leadership only comes from the imposition of a superman’s will upon the masses, and preferably those masses “out there”, not us.

The new archbishop of Canterbury should be a disciple rather than a leader in The Guardian, 4 February 2013

The Bible is very critical of worldly systems of power and leadership. Walter Brueggemann (in Truth Speaks to Power) makes the point that the pharoah is never named in Exodus, but that he is a metaphor representing “raw, absolute, worldly power”. He is never named “because he could have been any one of a number of candidates, or all of them. Because if you have seen one pharoah, you’ve seen them all. They all act in the same way in their greed, uncaring violent self-sufficiency.” Samuel is scathing about the Israelites’ insistence that they be led like the other nations. He knew (1 Samuel 8:11-17) that those sort of leaders are always on the take (sons, daughters, chariots, horses, fields and livestock – everything).

The ways of God are very different to the ways of preferment and career advancement. Paul is amazed when he surveys his fellow disciples. He wrote to the church of Corinth: “Consider your calling. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Similarly Jesus praised God that she had hidden the things of heaven from the seemingly well qualified. “Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Luke 10:21).

What difference would it make to our CVs if we focused on our foolishness and our weakness? Would it prompt us to realise that power and leadership is found in some very strange places and surprising people? What difference does it make when we recognise that leadership qualifications are the gift of God and that the leadership qualities are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) by which measures pharoahs look hopelessly unqualified.

I have recently had the privilege of reading The Bible and Disability edited by Sarah Melcher, Michael C Parsons and Amos Yong. I quickly realised how pervasive disability is and how important a lens it is to view Christian leadership. Under their prompt it is easy to see how “disabled” the people featured in scripture are. Moses was chosen in spite of his speech impediment. Jacob bore his limp with pride that he wrestled with God (and Israel takes its identity and name from that fight). Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate disability.

I asked the question on Twitter, “would it make a difference in leadership if we focused on disabilities and vulnerabilities rather than just abilities?” Friend Mark Bennett replied: “In Matthew’s gospel Jesus uses parables so that people hear, “see”, understand anew, overcoming disabilities of preconception, prejudice and fear.” Friend Jenny Bridgman replied: “”What are my blind spots?” is a tough but necessary #leadership question. Some more are: What can someone else do better that I can? How can I free them to do that well? Or even – how do my/our disabilities and vulnerabilities make my/our leadership more effective?”

I suspect that as long as we ignore these questions there will always be “us” and “them” – a few privileged by the powers-that-be working “for” (or even “against” as some sort of pharoah) rather than working and living “with” and in love with others.

PS. I didn’t include the title of Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book because it is so flippin’ long – It is You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a Heresy) .



I was intrigued by a throwaway line at a recent training session when Gail Robinson (our Lay Chaplain for Deaf and Disabled People) explained the origin of the word “handicap”. It dates back to the time before welfare when they would have to beg cap-in-hand. The plight of the “handicapped” has been politically corrected over the years as we have responded to the demands of people with disabilities to be recognised as people with particular challenges which need not be totally disabling.

Andy Capp statue
Photo of Andy by Stan Laundon

Andy Capp is a famous cartoon character whose name is a deliberate pun on the word “handicap” (please imagine a North-East Hartlepool accent). The creation of Reg Smythe, Andy Capp was always the (very politically incorrect) cartoon I turned to in the Mirror when growing up. Andy never had a job and his life seems hopeless and hapless. Rather than rejecting the caricature of people surviving on benefits and those who have to go cap in hand to anyone who might buy them a pint, the people of Hartlepool have taken Andy to heart by celebrating him as a hero for those who can’t (or won’t) work – or aren’t and don’t fit. His place in society is cemented by the statue in Hartlepool – pictured above. There’s more information from Stan Laundon here.

Political correction still has a way to go. Access issues remain. But many people are becoming more aware of their own situation of having a place on the different spectra – for example, autism, asperges, obsessive compulsive disorder and dyslexia. We are now able to diagnose different learning problems (and, as often as not, their compensating abilities), appreciate different personality types and celebrate different intelligences. But in a training room focusing on diversity and disability it is still the tendency to look outside the room towards disabled people, instead of recognising the different (dis)abilities within the group as various people showed themselves differently gifted at sign language, and not so cap-able when it came to coping with IT.

It was distressing to hear the apparent exclusion of people with learning difficulties from our churches and how stones often seem to matter more than people when churches are trying to improve access. But it was good to hear about the Causeway Prospects and other initiatives to include people who find it difficult to express themselves.

Henri Nouwen reflecting on his experience of ministry (back in ’89 when the word “handicapped” was still being politically corrected) within L’Arche writes in The Road to Daybreak

‘Handicapped people are not only poor, they reveal to us our own poverty. Their primal cry is an anguished cry: ”Do you love me?” And “Why have you forsaken me?” We hear this cry everywhere in our world: Jews, blacks, Palestinians, refugees and many others all cry out, “Why is there no place for us, why are we pushed away, why are we rejected?”.

>George’s difficult medicine

>Churches can be very exclusive. A mother of a young man with severe communicational difficulties has her story told by Swinton and Mowatt:

We have a lot of young people in our church … but I never see any of the young people getting alongside George. None of theem ever sit beside him in church … none of them have invited him roun to their homes … and as a parent carer I find that difficult. I see them maybe going off for lunch or whatever and george is going home with his mum and dad and I just think how he has missed out on social interaction in his teenage years. In fact I could tell a little story:

A couple of years back one of the teenage girls who was having her 16th birthday and after the church service all the young people were going back to her house for a birthday dinner and afternoon. You know we had sung happy birthday to her in the church and the word had got round that you know the party was on and so forth. But of course, George wasn’t invited and so as we drove off from the church we just felt saddened that it was just again another example of exclusion and just how painful that was to us. Not knowing how George felt about that. We came home. We had our usual Sunday lunch… I went through to his bedroom later on in the afternoon and he was cutting up bits of paper, and I said to him, “What’s this you’re doing George?” And he said “I’m making up tickets for the party”.

What a story! We perhaps try to be inclusive but finish up excluding. We don’t know how exclusive we are until we hear stories like this. Makes you think. Does it make you change?

>Assisted Dying

> The story of Dr Anne Turner was written up by Frank McGuinness and screened on BBC last night. It was an amazingly powerful piece of drama starring Julie Walters as Dr Anne Turner. It was timed to coincide with the anniversary of Dr Turner’s assisted dying – January 24th 2006 – not to coincide with the eve of a parliamentary debate on the subject.

Anne Turner was diagnosed with an incurable brain disease progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). The symptoms were her loss of control emotionally and physically – and we watched with horror as the symptoms developed – violent emotions, inability to swallow and we were allowed an insight into her decision making process in which she decided to end her life while she still had the power of speech to say “enough”.

An added dimension to the drama was the exploration of the effect it had on Anne’s three children who had already watched their father reduced to a shadow of himself through a similar degenerative disease. The children represented the opposition to “assisted dying” as a principle. They, and her friend Clare, called her decision “cruel” and “selfish” – and movingly we watched as Anne’s children embraced Anne and her decision with a compassion that knew the possible cost of prosecution.

In other contexts I assist with theological reflection on similar (though not so extreme) cases. I am often confronted with “thou shalt not kill” from the 10 Commandments as an automatic default position, but attention to Dr Turner’s predicament means such orthodoxy comes across as heartless. Many people have appalling degenerative disease. We would hope that all of them are assisted in their living and dying by first class care from medics and family. Anne Turner’s case is a painful reminder that for a very small number of people their situation is unbearable and that Dignitas and a Short Stay in Switzerland represents a small loophole of light. Leniency in prosecuting those like Anne’s children, Edward, Sophie and Jessica, who exploit that loophole is the right and compassionate response.

How should we respond to last night’s “case study”? It would seem that the general response should be to reassert the “sanctity of life” and renew our commitment to first class palliative care to improve the qulaity of life for sufferers and to make their situations “bearable”. It has to remain the case that our giving of life is good but our taking of life is wrong and that this is a rule which should not be undermined. But in the hard specifics of a case such as this orthodoxy seems to lose heart.

Dr Turner was advocating a change in law to help people like herself. Hers is just one voice amplified by BBC and Frank McGuinness. (As it should be!) But there are other voices like that of Jane Campbell who is Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Her take is that any change in the law in relation to disabled or terminally ill people would be open to abuse and would just reinforce the view that their lives are worth less than others.

“We are all subject to society’s views of disability and serious illness – that it’s terrible and negative – when actually the reality is our lives are no more tragic than a lot of people in society who for whatever reason don’t do so well in life,”

The prospect a change in law is resisted by doctors and faith leaders and within Parliament has resulted in the formation of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well which aims to “to work for the resources, information and levels of care which are necessary for everyone in this country to have a comfortable natural death, and which enable the process of dying to be undertaken with the dignity and respect that each individual deserves.”

“End-of-life decisions, which are taken every day by doctors, shouldn’t be confused with ending-life decisions, which are against the law” says palliative care physician Baroness Finlay.

>Mothering Sunday

>Highlighting Mothering Sunday was a brief encounter with a family I knew in a previous parish. I remember Victoria being born. She is very disabled. I have met her and her wonderful Mum Robina only a few times over the years. Victoria is wheelchair bound and uses sign language. She is so cheerful – yesterday admiring the beard. What an achievement for all the family – fought for not just day by day, but hour by hour for 27 years through I am sure tension, tiredness, anger and frustration. Robina gets my Mothering Sunday prize for “Mum of the Year”. Victoria gets the prize for being the “most cheerful”.

Otherwise friend Ron used Michelangelo’s Pieta when he was preaching about motherhood – the sculpture appealing to him because of mother and child being sculpted from the one piece of marble – which sounds a lot better than “a chip off the old block”.