Sunday, 29 June 2014

Peter: a model for leadership in the Church

Being on paternity leave gave me the perfect opportunity to put my feet up and read a good book (Nao's going to love me for saying that). So, I scoured my shelves through all those novels that have been sitting there gathering dust for years, and finally settled on an absolute thriller: a biography of Rowan Williams. An absolute page-turner!
Whatever the Archbishop's faults, he did ultimately manage to steer between the Scylla of foaming fundamentalists and the Charybdis of anarchistic liberals pretty deftly, in my view, and sailed the ship of the Church out into clear waters just about in one piece. He made unpopular decisions and didn't stick to a party line, and so every party picked on him. I can't agree with everything he did, but I do think his record, his lack of self-regard and his refusal to please the crowds are impressive.
Still, few would say that Dr Williams' leadership was an unqualified success. Perhaps his attitude to leadership gives us a clue as to why. He's basically suspicious of it. "Leadership," he says, is not really a biblical concept.
With due respect, I'm not so sure; and I think today, the feast of St Peter, the first leader of the Church after Jesus Himself, might be a good time to think about that; especially since we at St Peter's are thinking about what our new leader, our new rector, will be like. There are three things I want to look at. First, let's look at the good reasons why Rowan Williams is suspicious of leadership as we think of it nowadays. Then, second, let's see what kind of man and what kind of leader Peter was. And third, I'd like to think about what Jesus expected Peter to do, and what he expects the leaders of His Church to do still now.
So first of all, why the suspicion of leadership? Well, just look at Jesus. As we know, the Jews fully expected a strong leader, a military Messiah who would take back Jerusalem from the Roman occupiers by force. Even Jesus' disciples expected this right to the last, despite Our Lord's constant teaching that His Kingdom would not be of this world. This was why Judas betrayed Him, and this is why even Peter took up arms to defend Him when he was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The idea that Jesus would conquer the power of this world through yielding to it, that He would overcome death by dying, that He would triumph not by worldly might but in weakness, suffering, and self-sacrifice, was a point that Jesus' disciples just didn't get until it happened, on the Cross, or even after — and perhaps the one who failed to get it most spectacularly, maybe even more than Judas, was Peter.
That's because, to move onto my second point, of the sort of person Peter was. Maybe you'll remember the many times he argued with Jesus, about who should wash whose feet, or whether Jesus should go to His death. One of their tiffs ended with Jesus calling Peter "Satan," which is hardly a term of affection: and "get thee behind me!" is a probably a bit of a churchy euphemism for two rather more earthy Anglo-Saxon words. And of course, Peter most famously denied Christ at the crucial moment, denied having anything to with Him, disowned His Lord and friend. Peter the contrarian, Peter the sabre-rattler, Peter who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed: the contrast between him and Jesus could hardly be more clear. So surely we should be sceptical of Peter as a model of leadership for the Church?
Except — Jesus did choose Peter to be the leader of His Church. Jesus chose this headstrong man, for all his flaws and failures. And that is important. Jesus did not choose perfect specimens of humanity to be the leaders of His Church, and He doesn't choose them now (believe it or not). That's because they don't exist. There's no point in the make-believe that any of our past Rectors were perfect, and there's no Christian charity in badmouthing any of them because they weren't. We shouldn't expect them to be. In fact, if anything, we should expect them to be like Jesus' choice of leader: flawed, capable of gross error and failure. Not even always very nice. And we have to be ready to let this be true of our future Rector, too. After all, St Peter was good enough for Jesus.
So please, enough gossip about past Rectors, please, and no unrealistic expectations about the next one, either: because to move onto my third point, just as Peter was chosen by Jesus, they have been chosen for their task. And what a task! The commission that Jesus gave to Peter, and by extension to all bishops and priests of His Church, is pretty formidable. Even impossible, you might think. "Feed my sheep," he said, three times: but only Jesus could feed the three thousand. "What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" — we are called to forgive sins, but only Jesus' sacrifice on the cross can pay for the sins of the world. "Take the Keys of the Kingdom," open the doors to the divine, show the world the face of God: but only Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold, only Jesus is the true shepherd, only Jesus the Son can seen the face of the Father and yet live. Jesus calls His priests to do the impossible, and all Christian believers too — just look at the Beatitudes. But we can; or rather, God can, through us. We have to trust that God will work through our new Rector despite any imperfections.
You remember the story about Peter walking on water? He could do it because he was supported by the Lord, and as soon as he tried to do it on his own, he started sinking. But Jesus lifted him up again. Rowan Williams did not steer the ship through choppy straits on his own behalf or with his own strength. To lead in Christ's Church is to allow oneself to be led by Him, to serve Him in leading. We will all fail, and we must be gentle with one another when we do, please. Like Peter, we are all called to walk on water; but we can do so only by holding on firmly to the hand of the Lord, in the buoyancy of the Holy Spirit. That is how he lifts us up today.
So let's celebrate that we don't have to be perfect, let's celebrate that we are weak and flawed and vulnerable, but that Jesus chooses us anyway. A year ago today, he chose me for this particular task, and I ask you to keep praying that I may be worthy of it; and that the Holy Spirit lift up, like St Peter, the new leader of this church.

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