The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

Following on from my last post – which was sparked by a visit to Sudan and the reading of Walter Brueggemann (again) – it is important to move on from the phenomenon of how we face potential change to addressing the content of those changes. Objections to change often appear in two forms: (a) a natural, but false, comparison between the status quo (arrived at after years of development) and the potential birth of something new (which, by definition, can only be imagined or envisaged) arising from it; and (b) a natural and right caution that we should never engage in change for the mere sake of change itself.

Since coming to Bradford in May 2011 I have deliberately not instigated any great change. I might be wrong, but it seemed silly to initiate necessary change in some areas when a greater, more wholesale, change might be coming down the line with the Dioceses Commission proposals – if agreed in March 2013 – kicking in relatively soon. So, I have paid attention to structural clarity, missional encouragement and confidence building among clergy and lay people. I cannot be the judge of whether that policy has been effective or not. Nevertheless, the point is that I do not believe in wasting time changing things that do not need to be changed. I seriously resist that old recourse of fantasists or the fearful: to avoid the serious challenge by simply re-engineering or re-ordering the furniture. At the heart of any change worth doing lies the fundamental question of vision: what is the end that this means is intended to achieve?

So, objections to the scheme before us are not trivial and, indeed, are necessary if we are to effectively (but realistically) stress-test the proposals for an alternative way of being. That is to say, any proposals for change need to be poked, pulled, prodded and stretched in order to identify where they are sound, where they lack, or where they open up potential that cannot yet be measured. Yet, going back to the point of my last post on this, objection should always be on the basis of an imaginative engagement with the proposals and not simply a reactive resistance arising from pique or fear.

A number of objections to the Dioceses Scheme are obvious and I will look at some of them in turn here.

'Big is not always beautiful'

The objection is that a larger diocese must be remote, unwieldy and unfamiliar – a far cry from the 'family-like' nature of the existing three smaller dioceses. Well, yes, a large diocese does feel different and brings certain challenges (as well as opportunities) not faced by smaller ones. But, sometimes big is beautiful – in the sense that it provides a wider canvas on which to paint a bigger picture.

I think I am the only senior staff member of any of the three dioceses who has direct and long experience of such a large diocese working with an area system. I spent eleven years in the Diocese of Southwark, three as Archdeacon of Lambeth and eight as (area) Bishop of Croydon. I learned a huge amount about communication, coherence, 'brand identification', structural identity and effective use of resources. The particular model of an area system worked well, but was under constant review – as will any shape emerging, if approved, in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The suggestion that the current scheme should put in place a structure that must work completely on day one and be guaranteed to remain successfully intact for the next ten years is a complete nonsense: any shape devised will need to be re-thought as time goes by and as change happens around us. What we have to focus on is the potential of a larger diocese, broken down into an area system, to enable a larger vision for the resourcing and encouragement of parish mission and ministry, better development potential for clergy, a more coherent engagement with the area covered by the new diocese (civic, political, social, economic, etc.), and clear profiling of the Church of England in its unique vocation (working with ecumenical partners, who, incidentally, support this scheme).

Ecclesiology and area bishops

The scheme proposes a diocesan bishop (who would also be the Area Bishop of Leeds – a mistake, in my view) and four other area bishops (Bradford, Ripon, Wakefield and Huddersfield). How would the diocesan bishop know and be known by the people in his parishes?

Well, that is an interesting one. Of course, it begs the question how well known are the diocesan bishops by the parishes in the existing dioceses – and the judges of this should not be the diocesan bishops themselves! If I have 165 churches in around 130 parishes and aim to be in at least one of them every week,… work it out. Yet, we speak of 'knowing' and 'being known'. We need a bit of realism here: the diocesan bishop needs to 'order' the diocese in such a way that (a) clergy are properly appointed and pastorally resourced – and let's not romanticise the limitations of that, (b) communicate effectively with all parts of the diocese, using all the resources available judiciously and adventurously, (c) be out and about in the parishes and institutions – listening, learning, questioning, encouraging, challenging, articulating the good news and inspiring (which comes down to more than just role, office and structure). This involves systematic and realistic prioritising – nothing new there, then.

Currently, the diocesan bishop cannot be everywhere and, so, exercises his episkope through colleagues such as suffragan bishops (except in Bradford where I don't have one), archdeacons, area deans, diocesan secretaries, and so on. Indeed, the parish system assumes that a 'vicar' is exercising in the particular parish the ministry that belongs essentially to the bishop. So, how would the area system proposed be any different in kind?

In a larger diocese the ordering of these matters is done through having smaller episcopal areas, each led by an area bishop (who is as much a bishop as the diocesan bishop!) working with a cathedral dean/minster vicar and an archdeacon. If the right people are appointed to these posts (and the same question applies if we retain three dioceses), this offers clergy and parishes a strategic and pastoral leadership team that is closer to the ground, oversees a smaller territory and number, can apply itself to the particularities of that (more homogeneous) area, offer more accessible pastoral care of clergy, and inspire mission at a more local level. In practice, this means that one episcopal area might drive initiatives that would not be as applicable or effective in others… but would bring that experience and drive to the wider diocese. Such cross-fertilisation is challenging and inspiring when you work in such a context.

Of course, this allows a larger diocese to deploy people in areas who bring to the diocese as a whole their particular expertise – thus allowing the whole diocese to benefit from the particular spread of gifts and experience deployed in the areas.

There are two other elements of an area system that are worth mentioning: (a) area bishops are not automatically on the General Synod, are not in the House of Bishops, do not find themselves committed to work beyond the diocese in the same way as diocesan bishops, and, can, therefore, be more present in their area and diocese. In other words, the clergy and parishes get a better deal; (b) the bishops work as an episcopal team, ensuring both stronger mutual support/challenge and imposing a check on wild ideas, plans or judgements.

So, parishes and civic areas get two bishops: one local and one 'regional' who gain an intimate and informed understanding of life on the ground. One can be a check on the other.

Of course, as I keep saying, no structure of itself achieves anything; it all depends on how the structure is populated, led and exploited… and that comes down to the nature and abilities of the people you appoint to do it. Which, of course, is no different from the challenge we have if we remain as three separate dioceses.

Practicalities

That said, a large diocese (and before thinking this proposal is dangerously radical and untested, we need to look at the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Lichfield, Oxford… to name a few) means further to travel for diocesan meetings, and so on. Well, potentially, yes, of course it might. But this is hardly unique and is an odd objection. People are different – some won't travel more than to the next-door parish for a deanery meeting and others will travel further because they believe in the importance of what they are doing. There seems to be an assumption around that all diocesan meetings would be held in Leeds – but it is unclear where that assumption comes from. In other dioceses with area systems, 'central' meetings move around – partly in order to acquaint the decision-makers, both clergy and lay, of the nature of the parts of the whole diocese.

This of all other practical objections is the one that seems to me to be clutching at 'resistance straws'. How these things will work out will depend simply on the breadth of vision, sense of adventure, creative imagination and visionary energy of those who lead the new diocese. And that can't be laid down in detail before the thing comes to be.

Enough now. Change is inevitable. If the scheme does not go through, it will not be 'business as usual' in any of the three dioceses. And the (in some people's minds)'reserve option' of Bradford and Ripon& Leeds going ahead together without Wakefield is a non-starter – it does not answer in any way the question addressed by the Dioceses Commission in bringing their proposals in the first place. Going forward the questions will not go away and the need for change will not evaporate in a cloud of safety, imagined certainty or wishful thinking.

As I have kept saying, we either see ourselves as victims of change (compelled by the decisions of other people) or we shape our future by choosing change. And that means having the sort of courage to recognise that choosing anything new will bring problems, challenges, unforeseen difficulties and the perpetual pain of those people who look for opportunities to say “I told you so”. But, courageous leadership arising from vision has to be big enough to handle all that, bracket the personal stuff, press on, take responsibility… and take the incalculable risk of inspiring both church and society that we can do what Jesus always invited people to do: leave something behind in order to walk in a different direction in order to go somewhere unpredicted… and to do it all with some sense of adventure as well s attention to detail.

More anon.

Being in a place of scarcity and threat compels us to look through different eyes at our own situation and life. Gaining a first-hand acquaintance with the church in Sudan last week (as I had previously done for eleven years with the church in Zimbabwe) shone a different light not only on who we are as an Anglican church in West Yorkshire, but also how we are in our attempt to fulfil our unique calling.

Add to that a reading of Walter Brueggemann's excellent book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and the choice before the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield takes on a different (and more radical) complexion. On 2 March the three diocesan synods will vote on whether or not to choose dissolution and the creation of a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. During the last two years we have lived with uncertainty as, first, the initial proposals were debated; second, the amended draft scheme was debated; then, third, the final scheme was presented for acceptance or rejection.

So far, no problem. The whole world lives with uncertainty and sometimes the Church needs to grow up and get real when faced with challenges or bewilderments. Uncertainty is one of the facts of life and we, of all people, should learn to live confidently with it. However, how the process has been handled during the last two years raises some important questions that precede the detailed matters of the scheme's content: they have to do with identity, vocation and vision.

Identity

Who is the church? The church must take as its narrative the sweep of the biblical story, read in the light of its experience throughout history. What we learn is that the church's institutional shape must serve its vocation and not have its vocation shaped by its inherited institutional form(s). If the church aims “to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God” – and to do this by learning the (constantly changing, moving) 'languages' of a culture that never stands still, then it must constantly be willing to sacrifice its inheritance for the sake of its mission. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the creation by the Church of England of new dioceses in the twentieth century, aimed at re-shaping the church to serve new urban communities that hadn't really been there a century before.

The proposals for West Yorkshire do the same for the twenty first century, both responding to the changes in demography, culture and communications and anticipating further changes in the century to come. It would be interesting to see what arguments were used at the time when Wakefield and Bradford were established as separate dioceses by those who thought the change would be negative, retrograde, trendy, unnecessary, unmissional, and so on. I guess they would represent a re-run of some of the 'denial rhetoric' that is being articulated now.

However, these proposals invite the Church of England in West Yorkshire (and beyond – because this could still be put to the General Synod for acceptance even if one of our dioceses votes against it on 2 March), for the first time in several generations, to do what the Church of England used to do in re-shaping itself for the sake of its declared mission.

Vocation

Who is the church for? The church's vocation is a tough one: it essentially asks us to be 'prophetic', not only in word, but in action. By 'prophetic' I mean offering the world the possibility of a different way of seeing and being… even while the old world continues and appears dominant. This is the invitation of the Old Testament prophets: to see a new world whilst the current reality was exile under a powerful empire. Not only do the prophets speak truth about now, but they use language to fire a daring imagination about a different future… a future rooted in hope. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus poses the same challenge: you can't see how the pure God can come among you again while the unholy pagans (the Roman occupying forces) remain in your land, compromising your worship and blaspheming your faith; but, dare you 'repent' (literally, 'change your mind' – see through a re-ground lens) and begin to live now as if God were present, contaminating the unholy with grace rather than being afraid of being contaminated by the bad stuff? (This is what is going on in Mark's summary of Jesus's message, mission and ministry in Mark 1:14-15.)

Walter Brueggemann draws attention to this when he writes:

… prophetic preaching is the enactment of hope in contexts of loss and grief. It is the declaration that God can enact a novum in our very midst, even when we judge that to be impossible. (P.110)

More suggestively, perhaps, he goes on (p.130f) to expose the discrepancy between what we Christians say and sing, and how we then handle prophetic demands:

There is a tacit yearning in the church for the prophetic. And so the church sings about the prophetic with some vigor… The church sings that way with hope, all the while, in practice, mostly resisting anything prophetic and really wanting no more than a status quo pastorate or priesthood, mostly wanting apostolic faith that “tells” but does not summon too much.

In other words, we don't walk the talk. In relation to West Yorkshire all parties have agreed, articulated and rehearsed the view that change needs to happen and that we cannot just continue blindly into the future. Yet, when specific change is proposed – based on thorough consultation, research and testing alternatives – some of us resist even using our imagination to see how 'a different way' might potentially look, were we to have some courage as well as convictions. What lies before us is not simply a choice about specific proposals for a single diocese, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a challenge to the integrity of our vocation as a church. Given that so-called 'alternatives' have come too late in the process, been simple reactions to specific points that, once addressed and answered (see the 'threat' to funding three cathedrals, for example), are held onto regardless or quietly dismissed in the search for another objection.

Vision

I understand what lies behind the fear of change, loss and uncertainty. (After all, if this scheme goes through, I become the first diocesan bishop to be made redundant – a prospect I don't relish, but for which I am prepared.) But, this is what the church is called to model in every generation – for our rootedness is fundamentally not in our institutional shape (as if this were directly established by God in creation), but in our courageous and prophetic faithfulness to the mission God has entrusted to us.

I will come back again to some of the specifics involved in the proposals, but for now the big question has to do with something deeper, more integral to our identity and vocation, more theological and attitudinal. A new single diocese would bring huge challenges and opportunities. There will be errors, mismanagements and failures. Risk will be felt acutely. Structures – existing or potential – achieve nothing of themselves; all depends on how people lead, work them and creatively attend to their potential as media (parameters) for enabling the vocation to be fulfilled.

I think I am not alone in Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds in wanting our decision to be driven by courage, vision, creative commitment, vocational conviction and missional invitation. We must not fail the church and the wider world by being driven by denial, fear, resentment, protectionism or self-interest.

More anon.

Here is the text of my address (minus the opening stuff and greetings from the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I represent) to the opening plenary session of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana on Wednesday 30 May. Please note that it wasn’t delivered in a vacuum, but in a particular context and for a particular audience. This means it was using particular language to be heard by a wide range of people and, for many of them, through interpreters.

The importance of inter-religious dialogue grows by the day and does not diminish. We live in a a world of considerable challenge and complexity, one in which the euphoria of immediate freedom from tyranny soon becomes tempered by the realism of having to create a new polity and a new social contract. The so-called Arab Spring has been observed with serious interest and concern in a Europe that now finds itself under enormous economic, financial, political and social pressure. Africa boils – conflict erupting along too many religious and cultural-historical fault lines. The world does not stand still. It is easier to break down the old than to build up something new.

Yet, under all this lies a question that is all-too-easily ignored. What is the world view that informs the value systems and priorities of those who wield power in our world? There is a common assumption that ‘my’ assumptions about the world and human meaning are somehow neutral, whereas the assumptions of others are somehow ‘loaded’. This so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ is hard to displace or challenge – especially when represented in western media that assume religion to be a problem (an aberration) and not part of the solution.

Christians believe that every human being is made in the image of God – the imago Dei. All other arguments inevitably come back to this fundamental point – one that questions any world view that allows persecution, violence, oppression or killing as legitimate ways of exercising power over others. Any concept of justice or human dignity must be rooted in something more real than some simplistic notion of ‘reality’; for Christians the demand for justice is rooted in and derived from this basic understanding of every person having been made uniquely in God’s image and, therefore, having infinite value.

The corollary of this, of course, is that every human being becomes accountable – not only to God who has created us, but also to others who bear the imago Dei and are, therefore, in relationship with each other. And it is this common humanity that underlies any further consideration of religious identity, historical grievance, perception of religious truth or exercise of power.

To return for a moment to what I called the ‘myth of neutrality’, we cannot simply claim that human beings matter simply because they exist. As we know, a fundamental tenet of ethics is that ‘you can’t get an ought from an is’. And it is here – where one of the world’s deepest fault lines lies – that religious leaders have a unique responsibility: to challenge the uncritical prejudices and assumptions that drive some of those value systems and behaviours in ways that dehumanise other people and dress ‘power’ in the colours of unattributable ‘rights’ or selfish ‘freedoms’.

In other words, what is it that enables me to say that human beings matter… and are mutually accountable for their individual and social behaviour? And, to press the point, on what foundation is my (or our) demand for justice and freedom built?

At this Congress we will be listening to many voices. It will be important to dig beneath the surface of what is being said… in order that we might understand why it is being said. After all, the first rule of communication is this: it is not what you think you are saying that matters; rather, it is what is heard that matters more. (We should note that we are suing the same words to mean very different things around this table – for example, we speak of the rights of women, but mean very different things. We need to see through the lens and hear through the ears of those unlike us…)

Religious leaders have a profound responsibility to go beyond the rhetoric of their own community and listen to that rhetoric through the ears of those who come from somewhere else and see through a different lens. Taking seriously the injunction in all our faith communities that we must not misrepresent each other (“Do not bear false witness against your neighbour”, as the ninth Commandment puts it), this responsibility extends to (a) interpreting each other within our own faith communities, (b) exercising authority in articulating and exemplifying a rooted commitment to mutual respect and generous love, and (c) standing on the fault lines between communities that find generosity too demanding and resort too quickly to conflict and alienation.

This is not merely notional. This is why it has to be earthed in consideration of what this means for mutual sustainable development on an overcrowded small planet, how different cultures (grown from diverse histories) should co-exist on this small planet (multiculturalism), how we are to challenge the abuse of women across our societies (and allow women to speak for themselves), and how (and on what anthropological or theological basis) we enable our young people to shape today’s world which will be the world their children will inherit.

As religious leaders from all over the world, we have a unique opportunity not only to speak and listen to each other – making our points and vindicating our presence here – but also to offer the world a model of how good leaders need constantly to be learning. We need to be open to challenge and scrutiny, seeking to understand better why people see God and the world in the way they do, curious about how the world looks when seen through the eyes of someone different. This is not about becoming bland or uncritical; rather, it demands serious engagement with each other and not mere polite rhetoric.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this event – this complex conversation – and look forward to an informative, instructive and challenging Congress. I pray that we will return from here more strongly motivated to live differently, speak differently and lead differently in order that genuine peace might prevail and the image of God in every human being be taken seriously as a starting point for any rhetoric or behaviour.

 

I am in Berlin for today and tomorrow to speak at a conference of ‘middle managers’ in the German Church (EKD). I flew in this morning in time to hear a stimulating address by Dr Thies Gundlach which (to my ears, at least) focused on the need for fresh attention to be paid to spirituality (the Bible being a lens through which to see God, the world and us) and a need for the development of strategic competence in the outreach ministry of the church in a changing world.

I have met Thies a number of times and am impressed with the seriousness with which he engages – both personally and professionally – with these questions. He is also a very nice bloke.

My session was at the end of a heavy conference day for the punters and I feared I would send them to their early sleep. I was sharing the platform with a Dutchman who gave an interesting presentation about the challenges posed by the changing situation of the church in the Netherlands. The idea was that the two of us would be interviewed first by two comperes and then give a twenty-minute address each on the theme of the conference. I went second and addressed the question of ‘Leadership, Management and Inspiration’. I basically wanted to encourage the ‘middle management’ to be creative in leadership, to lose their fear of failure and enjoy the challenge of their ministry.

I was asked beforehand whether I was daunted by the challenge of moving from Croydon to Bradford. I was able answer immediately and without either delusion or hesitation: no! I am looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that this will bring. It is a fantasy that life is ever sorted; every day brings new challenges and there was never a ‘golden age’. So, if we are going to do this stuff, let’s at least try to enjoy the experience.

For the record, my line on ‘leadership, management and inspiration’ was basically that management of resources is important, but that leadership involves more than administration. Leadership demands from leaders the ability and freedom to inspire the led. I began with Liverpool Football Club…

Why can Kenny Dalglish get out of the same players who failed for Roy Hodgson more energy, commitment, flair, engagement, skill, optimism, determination and enjoyment? The same players on the same ground for the same club. Well, one answer is that King Kenny has restored confidence not only in the collective ambition of the team/club, but also confidence in the individual players’ creative ability. They look like they want to play and want to win.

Part of the distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ can be illustrated by the question I found myself asking as Archdeacon of Lambeth ten years ago. I can’t remember how or why, but I recall realising that there are two approaches to being an archdeacon (responsible for buildings, finance, law and ‘stuff’ in the Church of England): the first asks what the law allows us to do and goes from there; the second asks what we want to achieve (where do we want to get to) and then works out how the law might allow us to get there. In other words, leadership begins with a vision for which a strategy is then needed – but strategy without vision is meaningless. Poor management often sees the development of strategies without having first identified the vision that the strategies are meant to make happen.

Of course, this has to do with giving permission to leaders(at any level) to fail. Having identified clarity, confidence and communication as key to good leadership, I quoted Matthew 25:14-30. Here three blokes (they are always blokes…) are given money by their boss who was about to go away for a bit. Two blokes doubled the cash they were given, but one hid his away in order to preserve it from risk of loss. The first two were praised, the last was condemned. The church and the Gospel are to be risked – given away and possibly lost, perverted, misrepresented, twisted, half-remembered, etc – and not stuck in the ground where they can be kept pure, untarnished and ‘holy’.

We never really learn this, do we?

Anyway, as this isn’t a sermon, we went on to take questions form the floor – many of which began with the football allusion. One question made me think about the analogy between football matches and church services. I quickly thought and suggested that the liturgy of football involves (among other things):

  • a commonly owned and understood liturgy
  • that liturgy involves worship, praise, criticism, prayer (pleading for an outcome), complaint, questioning, singing, silence, emotion, reflection, critical appraisal
  • the experience is centred on a common goal (literally!)
  • everyone is a participant in the event – no one is a mere spectator.

Now, think about how church might take these elements on board – consciously – in the choice of medium, language, music, action, performance and articulated vision.

A question about the challenge of the so-called New Atheists led to the conclusion (among other things) that their major weaknesses are (a) their lack of humour, (b) their need to hold on to a caricature of religion in order for their critique to bear the weight they put on it, and (c) their ignorance of the fact that what they think of as ‘new’ is actually very old and didn’t hold much water even 200 years ago.

Anyway, that’s Berlin Tonight (to quote either Leonard Cohen or Bruce Cockburn).

There’s no escape. Tony Blair’s memoirs were published this morning and they have dominated the headlines all day. I’ve just been with my son for a curry at the best curry house in the world, the Mirch Masala in Norbury, and even there I could see a billboard with Blair on it.

Those who are convinced Blair is the devil incarnate will not have their view shifted, whatever he might say in his book. And those who think Brown was a disaster won’t have their view changed byanything that doesn’t confirm that judgement. Those to-be-pitied Americans on the telly yesterday who are convinced Obama is both a Muslim and a Communist are not alone in not letting inconvenient facts colour their view of reality.

What interests me about the Blair memoirs, as reported and quoted today, is not all the obvous stuff about Iraq or Gordon Brown or New Labour – was there really anything surprising there at all? – but the question of leadership. He had the chance to fire Gordon Brown some years ago, but, having weighed up the pros and cons for the party, decided  not to do so. It is easy in retrospect to say what a mistake that was – a bit like Gordon Brown’s hesitation over whether to call an election shortly after his accession while he was riding high in the polls. Retrospect is easy when you never had to make a decision under pressure in your life.

Anyone who has exercised leadership of any difficult institution or ‘body’ will know that some decisions cannot be taken after the moment has passed. The circumstances – as well as the phenomenological fact that the indecision or decision not to do something (like fire a key colleague) now becomes a factor in the equation and changes the criteria which now render at worst impossible and at best more difficult the action previously denied – mean that the moment has passed and cannot be reclaimed. This is usually obvious afterwards, but it is never absolutely clear at the time. We don’t know how damaging it might have been had Blair fired Brown early on in his premiership – we can only guess.

Leadership is difficult. Not least because many of the people who comment on your leadership have never led anything in their life, have no understanding of the human reality of the experience, and have no comprehension of the personal cost. Judgement is easy from a distance where the decision of a leader can be sneered at without a shred of understanding of how that decision was made. Any leader will affirm that decisions are often made under pressure, with limited information and limited criteria – often without certainty that the decision is the right one.

Blair is a reasonable target for scrutiny – after all, he was elected by people and should be held to account by the people to whom he is accountable. But he was not elected alone or in isolation for others who bear equal responsibility. Iraq was a disaster and based (at worst) on a fabrication. Blair should have fired Brown early on. Easy to say from here and now. As Blair acknowledges, a leader is held to account for decisions made, even if they were made for reasons rooted in integrity. But the judgements from outside should also be made with the reservation that knowledge of one’s own limitations brings. It’s not my job to defend Blair or Brown or anyone else; but, I am loathe to attack them on some grounds from the safety of my study. That would be like the armchair generals from a safe distance sending their troops blindly into battle .

History will tell, but it can’t be written with any confidence just yet.

That said, can anyone tell me why Cherie Blair has had to put up for years with the sheer sneery personal vilification at the hands of the press? And why, oh why, does William Hague have to broadcast the intimate details of his marriage as if it were a public consumer item? Do none of these shabby whisperers and commentators see this through the eyes of his wife? Or is that just too ‘human’? I feel shabby for being part of a culture that makes this sort of thing to be considered necessary.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is in Rome and will meet the Pope today for a private meeting. The impression given in some media is that this visit is a response to the Pope’s establishment of a Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans who want to join the Roman Catholic Church. But two things need to be said about this: (a) the visit was scheduled many, many months ago, so has been coloured by recent events, but not determined by them; (b) according to a RC bishop with whom I spoke recently, they do not want ‘disaffected’ Anglicans who would prefer to remain Anglican really, but only those who positively want to join the RC Church – in other words, those with positive and not negative motivation.

Now, that will be an interesting one for the RC authorities to work out when they engage in the discernment process in each individual case.

However, I was asked to do an interview with John Humphreys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning and the thrust of the question put to me was about ‘leadership’. Has Rowan Williams’ authority been undermined by the Pope’s offer and is his leadership (particularly in comparison with that of Pope Benedict) too equivocal to be effective?

My response was simple: leadership is not about shouting loudly what people want to hear… now. yet that is what many people think it is. If they don’t hear Rowan saying what they want to hear him saying, then he isn’t leading. What Rowan is doing is taking the long-term view. Well, what about the lack of ‘robustness’ in his leadership? I wasn’t being facetious when I noted that Jesus wasn’t being exactly ‘robust’ when he allowed himself to be nailed to a cross.

Isn’t it more ‘robust’ (and doesn’t it take more nerve) to resist the clamour for statements, simple clarity (where it may not exist) or irrevocable decisions before the time is right to give them? It could be argued that to stick to your course in the face of competing demands for statements shows not leadership but weak (and short-term) populism.

So, you may not agree with Rowan, but you have to give him some credit for not being pushed into a corner by the strident voices of competing factions or the comment-hungry media. His conversation with Benedict should be just that: a conversation with Benedict. Why can’t we learn to respect context, relationship and confidence and then see where the two leaders go from here?

The contrast with Benedict is an interesting one, however. It is illuminating to listen to Roman Catholics who are alarmed at the way the Pope has pushed this Apostolic Constitution through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and by-passed the appropriate body, the Pontifical Council for Ecumenical Dialogue. If this ‘leadership’ undermined the Archbishop of Canterbury, then what does it say about the leadership of the Archbishop of Westminster who was given the same notice of the Constitution as was Rowan? And does it undermine both Vatican process and the authority of the Roman Catholic bishops of England, given that they also had no notice of what was proposed than their Anglican counterparts?

It is often said that Rowan could sometimes be clearer in what he does say – given that even academic lectures will still get reported in popular media – but intellectual laziness should not excuse us from working at what he does say in order to get to the heart of how this holy man sees God, the world and us.

This morning the Times asks Rowan to by-pass the tanks parked on the lawn at Lambeth Palace and speak truth to the heart of Rome. The challenges he posed to Rome in his lecture yesterday are serious (and not simple) ones – as recognised by Cardinal Kasper and Bishop Brian Farrell. It will be interesting to see if and how Rome responds.