Leading and following

The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, on politics, praise and prayer

A week into the administration of a new Prime Minister, it is increasingly clear that his cabinet is significantly different from the previous one. They have assumed high offices in which the responsibilities are great and the demands are unrelenting. These Members of Parliament represent us and at their best, they serve us.

Inevitably, we will not all always agree with the premier or his senior ministers. The less centrist the government, the more profound the possibility of diverging opinions. That’s politics and human nature, and they’d not always have our concurrence even if we were not immersed in the divisive business of Brexit. That said, I am disinclined only ever to criticise, belittle and condemn our politicians. Few of us seek the role they have, less still the opprobrium they so often attract. In a parliamentary democracy, isn’t the quality of the elected at least in part a reflection of the quality of the electorate? The electorate is, after all, ultimately responsible for who gets into the House of Commons, and we can also unseat them when the opportunity arises.

In all sorts of contexts, good leadership is made possible by good followership. In the workplace, a boss is often as good as their colleagues. In the Church, elders and ministers are only as effective as the partnerships of those they accompany. So it is in parliament. Those at the despatch box have many obligations to us. But I have long believed that those of us at the ballot box also have obligations – obligations not to abandon the elected as if our only role was to put them in office and then do our utmost to knock them from their pedestal. I believe the elected have a right to good quality followership, which is about so much more than either mindless support or endless criticism. As the Church claims a place in the nation’s life, what is the best followership we can model for our leaders in the Palace of Westminster? 

First, we are to hold our leaders to account. That means I am committed to praise where praise is due. It is not necessary to assess a performance as perfect before one offers words of encouragement. Is that not what spurs any of us on to greater effectiveness? If a government were to move in the right direction with attention to the ecological crisis, to relief of poverty at home or with international aid, or to supporting marginalised people, might we not do well to recognise that with affirmation and thanksgiving?

Holding our leaders to account also requires us to offer constructive criticism. We are not supportive and helpful if, believing there is a better way, we do not feed that into public discourse. Part of electing people is to share the wisdom of our Christian perspective with them passionately and persistently. The Church’s socio-political insight, just like its own Reformation, is always to be secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God). We do not speak simply out of our own ideas or inclinations. We are guided by Scripture, which takes us beyond our logic and our comfort zones, by calling us to go extra miles, to forgive 70 times seven, to make peace, to see the whole of humanity in all its diversity as made in the image of God, to be stewards not exploiters of creation. When the Church speaks such prophetic words into the public square, does it not offer that hope which has potential to migrate us forward into a better place – especially whenever we fear some of our politicians are taking us backwards in harmony and fairness?

Alongside holding to account those who lead, the Church’s good following also holds them in prayer. Sometimes we might praise, sometimes we might critique. But always, we must pray for those whom we elect to govern us – even when we did not vote for them ourselves. Sunday by Sunday, in public worship, there should be a place to intercede for those we elect, and in our own private prayers too. Moreover, when other words fail us, how about the prayer that Jesus taught his followers: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’? There is little more that we can wish for our nations at this time than that we be led into the ways of a righteousness that embodies God’s will. It’s what we see in Jesus Christ, whose purpose was to reconcile all things, and whose power was that self-emptying service which puts others first, and is content with none having too much until all have enough.

Lord’s Prayer in Arabic

The Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, as worked by an Egyptian needlecraft expert, and displayed in the offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio

Praise, critique and prayer – such is the followership which seeks to make more than to mock our leaders. In such times as these it is not an option but an imperative.

Nigel Uden, August 2019

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