The Great Leadership Challenge of 2021 image

The Great Leadership Challenge of 2021

In a thought-provoking column for The Times last week, James Forsyth argued that the most lasting impact of Covid will be our diminished appetite for risk. He was talking about politicians in particular: "We’ve had a generation of politicians and officials who had grown used to the worst case scenario not happening, be it the millennium bug or bird flu ... Covid has changed all that, though. We now have a situation in which the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’, to use the government jargon, has happened. This will lead ministers and civil servants to err on the side of caution for the rest of their careers."

This is obviously not limited to the political class. This time last year, the government were astonished by how happy British people were to exchange freedom for safety. Polls continue to suggest they still are, and if the couple who glared at me in the woods the other day as I walked within ten feet of them are anything to go by, they’re right. Basic freedoms in a liberal democracy—the freedom to assemble, protest, worship, leave your home, hug your mother, meet someone for a coffee and a walk—have turned into privileges that the government may or may not continue to grant, depending on “the data” (which I put in scare quotes because its referent is continually morphing, from “preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed” to “protecting the vulnerable” to “reducing community transmission to near zero,” and on current trends may end up as “abolishing death”). The only people who seem to think any of this is a problem are a bunch of right-wing Brexiteers and (very, very belatedly) the Liberal Democrats.

In the end, it is not my job to convince people that they are wrong, that becoming a biosecurity state is a bad idea, or that liberty is almost always conceded to people who say that it is for our own good. I am a church pastor, not an activist or a policy wonk. But it certainly is my job—and that of many people reading this—to shepherd the people of God with courage, to guard against timidity, to stand firm in the perfect love that casts out fear, and to witness to a kingdom where people love not their lives even unto death. Which does not for a moment mean silliness, selfishness, disregarding the needs of vulnerable members, or encouraging the strong to flaunt their rights with no concern for their impact on the weak. (Our leadership team had an excellent conversation about exactly this just yesterday.) But it does mean being aware of the possibility that we, and our church members, risk being shaped by the last twelve months into “erring on the side of caution for the rest of our careers”—and doing what we can to stop that from happening.

That will take wisdom. It will need us to reflect on the nature of genuine Christian love (Romans 12), the relationship of the Church to the State (Romans 13), the obligations of the weak and the strong (Romans 14), and the dangers and sacrifices of Christian mission (Romans 15)—not to mention the familial affection that characterises the church (Romans 16). (I could give some discussion questions to get you started, but you already know what they are.) And it will also require courage, which comes from a spirit that is not fearful, but filled with power, love and self-control. That, I suspect, will be the great Christian leadership challenge of 2021.

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