In his first Easter sermon, the new Archbishop of Canterbury warned against placing too high hopes upon any one individual – what he called ‘hero leader culture’ – for such hopes shall always end up being dashed. He set out some very sane and sensible principles for how to understand his term of office. Most especially, he said “Human sin means pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake, and assuming that any organisation is able to have such good systems that human failure will be eliminated is naïve.”
Why are we so keen to have such a ‘hero leader’? It seems unarguable that, as a society, we do look for such people. I believe that it is one of the symptoms of the collapse of our culture. Whereas in a society which was structured around Christianity there was a clear understanding of who the Messiah actually is – the resurrected one – in our society, which is filled with fragments of a Christian understanding, there is a constant jostling for that role. The desire for a Messiah remains, it is simply that all the candidates must, inevitably, come up short.
People still want to be saved – but saved from what? In different times and places that can be answered in diverse ways. The Jews at the time of Jesus wanted to be saved from Roman occupation, and so they were looking for a new King David who would kick out the foreign legions. In the Middle Ages, the issue was a corrupt church in which salvation could be purchased, and a ‘ hero leader’ emerged called Martin Luther, and millions died in the wars that followed. In our time the issues are different. I believe that what people most want to be saved from in our time is the burden of choice.
Choice, after all, is one of the principal organising values of our society. Ponder how far all the advertising in our society is predicated upon this particular value, and what influence that advertising taken as a whole has upon the population. For example, in the half-time period of a football match there will be a sequence of adverts on the television – for cars and beer, cleaning products and insurance, mobile phones or perfume. Every single one is saying ‘choose this’, and so, deeper than the diversity of options being presented there is a resoundingly loud drumbeat of propaganda shouting ‘You must choose!’ ‘You must choose!’ ‘You must choose!’
I think people are fed up with this. They want the noise to go away. The prospect of a hero leader offers up a psychological space wherein the power of choice is abandoned, and the burden of choosing is handed over to the leader to be exercised upon our behalf. The relief that we feel when the hero has arrived is immense. We no longer have to make a personal response to all the propaganda. It seems that we no longer have to carry the weight of the world upon our own shoulders. The hero will sort it out! Hence we have a particular news cycle – perpetuated by the media in order that newspapers will be sold and therefore they will be paid by the advertisers – wherein human beings are raised up only in order to be torn down, and then replaced by the next ‘hero’ from the production line. As Welby put it, “Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty.”
The irony is that the genuine Messiah died in order to set us free from such a cycle. It is because the Messiah has already come that a Christian can be set free from searching for another. We don’t need another hero. We simply need faithful discipleship. The paradox of following a Christian life is that, by taking on all the traditional disciplines, which seem to take away our freedom, we actually gain the spiritual space that we most hunger for. When a person colludes with the fantasy of ‘hero leader culture’ both leader and follower are setting themselves up for inevitable disappointment – and at that point, the hero worship turns into the scapegoating process and we end up binding the policeman into the Wicker Man as a sacrifice to the gods.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, understood this extremely well. I believe that he modelled a form of leadership that was genuinely Christian, and that was profoundly marked by a distancing from the ‘hero leader culture’ that so deforms the church. Of course, that was why so many people were disappointed in him. Why didn’t he stand up for this faction rather than another faction? Why didn’t he give a clear lead? He did not do so because he did not wish to short-circuit the necessary path of Christian growth for the church. The Church of England – indeed, the wider Anglican Communion – is torn apart by various divisions of greater and lesser seriousness. The way through such problems is not found by allowing one of the factions to win at the expense of another. On the contrary, the only genuinely Christian path through such conflict is to ‘hold the ring’ in such a way that a conversation between the warring parties can be continued. This is why Rowan’s Lambeth Conference featured the ‘indaba’ meetings, which had as their aim “an attempt to find a common mind or a common story that everyone is able to tell when they go away from it”. Christian unity is not through premature purity – that is what has led to the ten thousand denominations, each of which are convinced that they have the one true faith, but each of which is best characterised by the feeling of ‘at least we don’t have to put up with them any more’.
Archbishop Welby has absorbed this point well. In his Easter sermon he said this: “A joyful and celebratory church is based not in vain human optimism but in the certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us. As a result we know our fallibility and become merciful with each other, we know God’s call and never give up working for and expecting a new shape and life to the church.” In other words, if we can but recognise the true Messiah, we no longer have to seek and accept any inferior substitutes, and that will be a blessing for both leaders and led. Then, just maybe, we might be able to cooperate in building a better future for us all.
Those interested in the theology around this issue might like to look at this book.