What we can learn from the government about taking responsibility in the church

As I am sat here watching the news, top billing goes to the long awaited Sue Gray report. There don’t seem to be many (other than a handful of cabinet ministers) who believe, or argue, the Prime Minister has not broken any of the rules. It seems only a handful of loyalists seem to think waiting for Sue Gray’s report is significant and seem to believe that we cannot prejudge anything until it comes out. That seems optimistic given all the evidence in the public domain already.

The new issue is not so much what the report says, but whether the Prime Minister will actually publish the report in full when it is available. Not only has the Prime Minister doubled down on his position, despite all the evidence suggesting he has broken rules, but the fear is that he will seek to cover over whatever the Gray report finds.

When asked by the Leader of the Opposition at PMQs whether he will publish the report in full, the Prime Minister replied, ‘of course, I will do as I say’. The problem with that assurance is the concerning number of times he has said one thing and done something else. Some are not so convinced there is any “of course” about it.

Leaving aside the specific issues of whether rules have actually been broken or whether there has been hypocrisy on display from rule-makers being rule-breakers, there are things we might learn from how this is being handled. I think the approach taken by the Prime Minister is a good example of how not to address matters in the church.

The concerns at play are two-fold. The secondary matter is one of transparency. Many feel the Prime Minister has been less than transparent about what has gone on and the drip-drip effect of various leaks adds to such suspicion. The evidence in the public domain does not all marry up neatly and there is fear that, for one’s own personal benefit, any report might not be published in full. The primary matter is one of whether the Prime Minister is willing to take responsibility for decisions he has taken, for the culture he has set and for the actions of those under his authority. Waiting until everything has been investigated – particularly as the police are now involved – does not scream willingness to take responsibility.

These two issues are often at play in the church. There is always the temptation to lack transparency in our decision-making and to not take responsibility for the decisions that we take. There are various ways this might play out, depending on your particular polity. But minimally it may mean not sharing full details in members meetings, potentially not even bringing matters up in members meetings or not being open about our decisions in front of the membership and engaging openly with them.

As an elder of the church, it is very easy to make decisions in elders meetings and to implement them in the church without any reference to the membership. It is easy to not raise decisions in members meetings and seek the views of members on them. If we find ourselves doing this, it suggests an unwillingness to be transparent and own the realities of our decisions. Similarly, if we are only willing to put our views in front of the membership but we are not interested in hearing their views, aren’t prepared to answer their questions and are generally unwilling to engage with people who may even express surprise or disquiet about we want to do, it similarly suggests we aren’t willing to wear the consequences of our decision-making nor to be fully transparent with the church about what we are doing and why.

Just as most of us wish the Prime Minister would be totally transparent and would own his own decisions and take responsibility for his actions, so in the church, the membership rightly want us to be transparent about our decisions and to take responsibility for them. Minimally, that means standing before them and explaining our reasons. It means taking responsibility for what we are asking the church to do and where we are asking them to go. It may even mean being willing to stand in front of those whom we know will not be happy about what we want to do and being prepared to hear them and accept the consequences of that decision.

Those of us who won’t do this may be doing one of several things. We may be suggesting that we don’t really believe what we are doing is right. If we did think it truly right, we would be prepared to defend it and we would take people’s questions and answer them honestly and frankly. We may be implying things about the members themselves. We maybe don’t trust them to offer opinions or to have the wherewithal to actually weigh our position sensibly. We may just be exhibiting cowardice, believing that people being upset is a reason to continue pushing through whatever we want to do but without being willing to let them hold us accountable. We may just be immature and unwilling to take responsibility for the positions we are taking. Whatever the reasons, they are not good things.

In the end, good leadership involves owning our decisions. It means standing before the members and being transparent. If we really believe in what we’re doing and that it is right, we will have no problem being open with our members about it. It also means taking responsibility for whatever it is we have decided. Whilst we recognise some will be won, some may be upset, others bemused, maturity and honesty demands that we take responsibility for the decisions we have taken and we do so by allowing members to ask us whatever they will.

The government are, at the moment, not doing these things. I really don’t know how far a report will actually make any difference given their current stance. But what it is doing is showing us how not to handle these things in the church. Responsibility and maturity demand it.