Stephen Cottrell's latest interview: startling, puzzling – offensive?

Stephen Cottrell(Photo: Lambeth Palace)

What sort of qualities ought we to expect to find in a church leader?

The New Testament has some pretty clear stipulations about who is suitable and who is unsuitable. Of course, it is unreasonable to expect perfection, since we all fall short in many ways, and as a church leader myself I am only too aware of my own sins, and so am ever thankful day after day for the grace of God. Genuinely.

Nonetheless, the latest interview with the new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell – published in the Sunday Times – does leave those of us who strive both to emulate and uphold Biblical teaching on leadership asking serious questions. Perhaps Stephen Cottrell might even answer them!

For example, the New Testament is pretty clear that those in leadership should be able to control their tongues better than most. In a lengthy section on speech, the letter of James declares: 'Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.'

Therefore it is surprising to read in the Sunday Times that Cottrell 'peppers his talks to his clergy with phrases such as "what the bloody hell" and "who gives a toss?".' A peculiarly British term (apparently), 'bloody hell' is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as 'offensive', while Collins Idioms Dictionary explains (if we didn't know) that 'giving a toss' is a 'rude, slang word' relating to a sex act. Why use these words when there are more than 170,000 other ones in English to choose from? Cottrell needs to read Ephesians 4v29. This is no trivial thing.

In all honesty I would have a problem with a churchwarden or home group leader using such language routinely – and I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone for ordination who does. When I worked at a newspaper I heard language like this all the time of course; and it is easy to pick up (certainly in one's head). But I have never heard a Bishop use such language – nor any Christian leader with colleagues. Perhaps Cottrell thinks it makes him look cool, or one of the lads, or in touch with the general population. But this is an area where Christians are called to be noticeably different.

Another quality the Bible tells us to expect from a church leader is that they 'must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine' – and much of the New Testament warns against seemingly charming false teachers who end up bringing chaos and division to the Christian community. Not for nothing does the Church of England consecration service for Bishops state that they must be 'guardians of the faith of the apostles'. Those about to become Bishops are asked: 'Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on the entire faith that is entrusted to you?'

But how can Cottrell do that in relation to issues of sexual morality? Far from teaching the doctrine of Christ in this area as the Church of England believes it, and handing it on in its entirety, he only 'understands it and respects it' according to the interview. Indeed, as is well known, he wants to change it.

When it comes to all those who take a traditional, orthodox view on sexual morality he declares in this latest interview, 'I want them to be part of the church'. Well, how lovely! Oh how kind! How very sweetly generous! He would like all those who believe what most Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years, and those who are a majority in worldwide Anglicanism, (a belief shared by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and so on) to 'be part of the church'! Cottrell may believe he is being reassuring; however, his words are anything but that, and if he can't see why that is the case, I would humbly question whether he has really grasped the magnitude of this issue.

Much of the interview is uncontentious, of course. Perhaps his startling assertion that 'Jesus was a black man' is a metaphor for siding with the marginalised and excluded, rather than an assertion of fact about the predominant Jewish Middle Eastern skin tone. Nonetheless, it seems to have quite understandably annoyed British Jews – the comedian David Baddiel and journalist Nicole Lampert, to judge by their tweets, for example.

And his declaration that he wants to 'stand alongside and celebrate Black Lives Matter' is okay if he is referring to it as a movement rather than an organisation. But the actual organisation BLM UK has declared it wants to abolish the police, scrap all prisons and detention centres, and a few days ago was accused of peddling an 'antisemitic trope' in a tweet by the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. One wonders if he was aware of these things. And if he really wants to listen to black people more closely, will he be listening to the many Bishops and Archbishops in the Global South who have some things to say about issues such as sexuality and a white colonial mentality?

But let's finish with Cottrell's own reflections on leadership – something he says he has been doing recently. 'What sort of leaders do we want?' he asks, before answering his own question. 'Obviously,' he continues, 'in an ideal world, we would have people who never ever made a mistake. But since those people are not available, then I would hope for honest people, who are open about their mistakes and prepared to learn from them. Openness, transparency and accountability seem to me to be three important characteristics that we should expect from leaders in all walks of life.'

It all sounds very lovely, and very reasonable, until you ask: What about leadership in the church of God? Is there 'obviously' (to use his word) any room for New Testament teaching on leadership? On that, Bishop Cottrell, in this interview at least, remains silent.

David Baker is an Anglican minister and journalist @Baker_David_A

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