Readings: Acts12: 1-11, Matthew 16:13-19
“A puffed up reptile who has over eaten his fill of cocktail sausages” Sounds like an overheard remark at a clergy Conference. But it was some of the unparliamentary language, which was used in the election of a new Speaker for the House of Commons. What particularly interested me was the tradition, rooted in Christian liturgy somewhere, of two MP’s physically dragging the newly elected Speaker to the Chair. I was instantly reminded of two things- the great early Church leader Athanasius, who was dragged in chains to his consecration as Patriarch of Alexandria. I was also reminded, at this time of ordinations, of the ceremony of ordination in the Orthodox Church. You will know if you have been to an ordination in the Orthodox Church, that the candidate for ordination is held by both arms by two priests for much of the ceremony so that he cannot run away. Both these traditions tell us something about leadership in the Church and leadership in general. So its leadership I want to speak about today on the Feast of St Peter & Paul, when we honour these twin towers of the Church. What I would like to do is frame leadership in two phrases, which for me come out of the Gospel set for today. Jesus speaks to Peter and says to him “ You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” Apart from the fact that this a clever word play on the Aramaic Cipha, which means Rock or Boulder, Christ is saying two things. You are Ordinary, and you are Extraordinary.
First of all, you are Ordinary. Leadership as its raw material takes real human beings, fallible creatures of flesh and blood, and with feet of clay, to mix metaphors. If you want to realise the feet of clay of everybody, just become a priest, where warts and all are the daily reality of our interpersonal dealings. Far from making one cynical about humanity, this actually does the opposite. I am constantly amazed and moved that the things we achieve as human beings are done through this incredibly fragile and vulnerable frame, which is you and me. The dictum in Christian spirituality for how this works is sometimes referred to as “ the wounded healer” or “ physician, heal yourself”. In many ways, this is what Jesus was saying to Peter in his phrase “ You are Peter”. In other words, I know you. You are Peter who will betray me and run away from me, and you are Peter who is being dragged in chains to a position of leadership. Christ has no illusions about the sort of fallible human being Peter is. He knows him. He accepts him. He loves him. The same is true of all of us. Whatever we are called to, we believe, in faith, that we will be given the resources to carry it out. And by that, I mean the internal and spiritual resources. Of course, the converse is true, when self-knowledge will tell us when we need to walk away, and when we are a square peg in a round hole. To do this, we need self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-awareness. And it is undoubtedly the case that this self-knowledge in the Christian tradition comes from one source only- our realisation that any capacities we have do not come from us but from God. That’s the whole point of the story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles about the imprisonment of Peter. The Acts of the Apostles puts it like this “While Peter was kept in prison, the Church prayed fervently to God.” So this means realising that we are ordinary fallible human beings, and anything we are able to do can only come through God. That’s why leadership, in this sense, is the opposite of celebrity, which accepts none of these premises. That’s one of the tragedies of celebrity, played out on a global scene, which we have seen in many celebrity lives and deaths. You are ordinary. I know you. I accept and love you.
Now to the Extraordinary. The second premise of what I want to say is that ordinary men and women are called to do extraordinary things, when they are done in the realisation that we rely on God for anything we have or do. Leadership will undoubtedly go wrong when the opposite is true- whatever I am doing or achieving I am doing through my own amazing abilities. The institution and symbolism of Monarchy, especially in our English context is a good illustration of this. The ordinary, fallible, human being through the ritual of liturgy is presented for the solemn liturgical symbolism of anointing. Anointing is the symbol of protection and strength. And this where Monarchy is only a visible symbol of what everyone is called to do through their own anointing in baptism. This oil is the symbol of the protection and strength, which comes from our absolute reliance on God alone. Or take the example of the Apostle Paul, whom we also commemorate today. A small, irritable, misogynist bachelor, who loved nothing more than telling people off and denouncing individuals and communities for their depravity and wickedness. Not the sort of person you would want to be banged up with on any desert island, or anywhere in fact. Yet he, together with Peter, became the other twin tower on which the whole edifice of the early Church was built. From the surface, neither of these two ordinary men were expected to be the raw material out of which greatness could be made - yet, in the power of God, they became extraordinary.
So Peter & Paul as examples of the ordinary becoming the extraordinary through their reliance on the power of God, in whom the extraordinary becomes possible. They became leaders. And here we see the total difference between leadership and management, which is part of our political tragedy at the moment, in an almost total absence of leadership. Leadership involves personal cost, and calling things out when it is necessary. So now it is left to others to call out the slide into ultra-nationalism and fascism across Europe and in other places. Amy Buller did this in the 1930’s in her book Darkness over Germany, now republished as the times are alarmingly similar. Or this year Madeleine Allbright in her new book Fascism, a Warning. She writes this, “I fear a return to the international climate that prevailed in the 1920s and ’30s, when…countries everywhere pursued what they perceived to be their own interests without regard to larger and more enduring goals.” Or this from the novelist Will Self in a recent podcast, “anti-Semitism has come once more into the mainstream of our political life, in the increasingly xenophobic character of European politics.” Leadership, like Peter & Paul, will always involve personal cost and the ability to speak truth to power.
From the macro to the micro. For myself, I became a guinea pig for the Church of England about 10 years ago by taking part in something called the Windsor Leadership Trust. This Trust, based in Windsor Castle, brings together people from completely different walks of life who are at roughly similar levels of responsibility in their professional lives. This multidisciplinary approach always brings out the same sorts of issues about leadership, in whatever the field is. The sort of words which generally come out of that work are vision, courage, humility, service, emotional intelligence. This leadership model will move us from the ordinary to the extraordinary, both as individuals and as a community. As a Parish, we are involved right now in assigning the work in the year ahead through our Mission Action Plan to those who are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel, both financially in in terms of commitment. This too is leadership and will take us from being an ordinary community to an extraordinary one. As we celebrate Peter and Paul, are you ready to joins us? Because if you are, the church will be built on you.