Today’s guest writer is Dr Chris Baker. He is Director of Research at the William Temple Foundation, an independent faith-based research institution working to advance the vision of William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44) in an ongoing search for a just and inclusive society. Tweet @DrChrisRBaker or @WTempleFdn
On New Year’s Eve, Radio 4’s Today programme featured a debate on the power of leadership to change entrenched thinking. New CEO of Barclays Bank, Anthony Jenkins, argued that leadership offers an alternative vision. Leadership works against a fatalistic sense that nothing can or should ever change. Jenkins claimed that only strong leadership could turn around the deep-seated culture of political and economic short-termism created by the financial crash.
Interviewed on the programme, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby supported this vision, stating that the Church of England was at its most effective when it had strong, creative leadership from local vicars. Unfortunately, he did not expand on what effective, local leadership might look like. Neither was there any mention of the role of laypeople in this regard. Yet the discussion highlights vital questions in the context of a much debased and cynical debate on localism. What does effective religious leadership look like at the local level? Is it simply about providing goods and minimising the impact of public service cuts? Is it simply a matter of church growth? Or can we aspire to a genuinely empowered form of localism that works to provide material goods as well as non-material ones (e.g. forgiveness, compassion, altruism)?
We can answer these questions by looking at examples of religious leadership with fresh and critical eyes, and seeing what they produce in terms of real political leverage. I refer for example, to the recent volume Working Faith – Faith-based organisations and urban social justice, edited not by theologians but human geographers, which looks at examples of innovative local faith-based leadership and community empowerment. These include drug addiction rehabilitation, national campaigns against poverty and debt, place making and community resilience, employment mentoring and social enterprise training for NEETS, community health care and mental health support, and so on.
Secular voices from the left are also discussing empowered localism, abandoning socialist purity and rediscovering ideals of devolution and enterprise to describe what they call ‘progressive localism’. It is not progressive in the sense of being liberal or elitist, but in the sense of being outward looking; i.e. engaging creatively with other local institutions, networks or individuals, across religious and ideological divides, to ‘do something about something’ for the community as a whole. This will not necessarily be a smooth and consensual process, and the right to agree to disagree whilst still working for a common outcome is essential. But progressive localism is a call for a more mature kind of politics and flexible but visionary leadership.
Finally, we can argue that the church has a pivotal role to play in a genuinely revitalised public space. Some suggest that this local leadership can only come about through disestablishment — freeing up the local church to be truly local. Yet what is needed is not an either/or vision of the Church of England, but one that is both/and; a hybrid model of church which creatively fuses local, outward-focussed practice with institutional wisdom, resources and political capital. The church is uniquely placed for local political leadership because it is trans-local. It is still directly engaged in the lives and fortunes of local communities but also has the political clout to relay that experience to a wider audience. The church needs to focus on and celebrate what it is already doing well, but it also needs to learn from, and work in partnership with others to explore pragmatic, but also ethical and transformative solutions to entrenched structural problems. In other words, the church could be shaping and showing what progressive localism looks like in practice.