Choosing a Leader

July 6, 2008

Zechariah 9, 9-12; Matt.11, 16-19 & 25-30

“Rejoice, daughter of Zion. Your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”( Zech 9.9 )


“For John came neither eating and drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; and the Son of Man comes eating and drinking and they say, ’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’.


Human beings find it very difficult to choose their leaders. At one time, of course, most people had little say in the matter. The most powerful person got the job. But now, in our more democratic age, people can influence the choice, and are free to say what they do and don’t what. But this hasn’t made life any easier, because different people want different things from those who lead.


The tendency is to ask for too much, for qualities that can’t possibly be met by once person. I once heard an Archdeacon say that every parish who prepared a profile of the new vicar they wanted, asked for the Angel Gabriel, but with a wife and 2.4 children. 


Our two readings today are both concerned with the characteristics of leaders.


The Zechariah passage comes from the time when the Jewish exiles had returned from Babylon, and were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. The royal line of David had disappeared – but there were still some people who hoped for a king who would lead them to military glory. Zechariah promises them a different kind of king – one who would triumph through negotiation and peacemaking; one who would end the need for arms and armies; one who would build community, and be the servant king, symbolized by the fact he would enter his capital on a donkey, not a war horse.


To some extent, the expectations of a king Messiah who would lead the Jewish nation to conventional victory persisted into New Testament Times. But other expectations, fed by meditation on the Scriptures, were also held. As the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us, there were hopes for a prophet Messiah and a priest Messiah, as well as a King Messiah.


Jesus, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, is  redefining all those expectations. He claims to know the mind of God, not as God’s  servant, but as closely as a child would know the mind of its parent. What his Father wants of us, he says, is that we should rely on God and rest on God; then we will find that the yoke of religion is light, not repressive, and will bring peace to our souls. Obeying God is not a matter of following a host of rules, but of being close to God and being true to what God made us to be.


At the moment, in this Diocese, we are in the process of choosing a leader, a new diocesan bishop. There are a host of opinions abount about what sort of a leader we need. Many of them are contradictory, for being diocesan bishop is a complicated job. At the same time, he is expected to be a national leader, perhaps eventually a member of the House of Lords, a legislator and one who comments on national and international issues – and a bishop for the diocese and a pastor for the people.  He is expected to be active in political matters, but also an educator and a  spiritual leader. He embodies the values of the Church of England, but must maintain friendly relations with the leaders of other Christian denominations, and now even other world faiths. He must be able to associate easily with everyone from the Queen to an ordinary parishioner in an inner city parish. He has to hold together a diocese of a Church of England which has deep differences over theology and church order. He is the ‘chief executive’ of an organisation with assets worth millions of pounds but one that has financial problems, and difficult decisions to make about fund raising, stewardship and the use of resources.


Although in theory the Queen appoints the bishop, she takes the advice of the Crown Appointments Commission, and this time they will submit only one name to her via the Prime MInister, since Gordon Brown has said he will not exercise the  right which previous Prime Ministers have had, to submit two names and so influence the decision.  The Crown Appointments Commission takes soundings from the Diocese,  and the Vacancy in See Committee has already held consultations and prepared a statement summarising the needs of the diocese, and the qualities they are hoping to find in the new bishop.


They ask for someone who can be a pastor, who can work with people from other Christian traditions and other world faiths, and who can hold together groups with differing views; someone who can inspire more realistic giving, reach out to people who don’t find their spiritual needs met in conventional churches, and encourage people to dream dreams and explore new ways of ‘being church’. Above all, they ask for a person of prayer.


Some people are looking for moral perfection in their religious leaders. But we are all fallible humans, and as Jesus said “No-one is good but God alone”.  Some people are looking for  a leader who will give us all the answers; but Jesus rarely set down rules and regulations, about beliefs or morality; more often he told a story and asked his listeners to draw their own conclusions.  Some people are looking for someone who will condemn those whose behaviour they disapprove of; but Jesus ate and drank with such people, and welcomed them into the company of his followers.


I want to suggest to you that the sort of leader that the church needs at the beginning of the 21st century is one who is, like the Messiah promised in Zechariah, humble and a person of peace. We need someone who sits light to authority, as Jesus describes himself as doing in the Gospel, and who does not impose too many conditions on those who seek to come to God through the Church of England.


Our modern religious leaders no longer need to be people who do everything themselves. Rather, they need to be enablers and encouragers of others. As priests and bishops, they will have their particular experience and training to offer to the church; but others, the lay members, will have experience and training which the clergy don’t have; in particular, the experience of living as a Christian in the world of work, and  training in current management and personnel practices.  A wise leader will value and make use of these, as well as other talents and skills which lay Christians offer.


At present, the bishop is chosen by a process that is very much part of the Establishment of this country, by a committee of the great and good, making recommendations to the Prime Minister and then to the Queen. The most difficult thing for a person appointed by this process is not to become part of the Establishment himself.


The new bishop will act as a focus for the Anglican Church in this diocese, but he will be a focus in a church which is increasingly diverse. If he attempts to impose his own views on the church, whatever they may be, he will fail. I believe, like the Vacancy in See Committee that the primary task of the new bishop will be to hold the diocese together, and to teach its many factions how to live with disagreement, and how to talk through their differences without splitting the body.


In the passage from Matthew, Jesus compares those who hear his word with two different groups of children. One group he compares unfavourably with children who complain when they can’t get their own way, and refuse to play. There are groups in the church who all too frequently act like that.  In recent times we have heard threats to leave from those who don’t want women bishops in the Church of England, and those who won’t accept  people in committed gay relationships in leadership positions.


 Jesus compares others to children who accept whatever is offered to them with enthusiasm, their minds untrammelled by prejudice or convention. This group gains his approval. It is in this frame of mind that I believe we should await the announcement of the identity of the new bishop.


Whoever is appointed, he will need our prayers, as he faces the enormous responsibility and the enormous opportunities of leading our part of the church into the future. Let us pray that he will find, as our Lord promised, that God’s yoke is easy and his burden light.

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