Who will really lead Church of England evangelicals?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

There are many distinctly improbable things about Star Trek: Discovery – one of the latest incarnations of that great sci-fi franchise.

I mean, how does a "spore drive" work exactly? How is it different from "warp drive"? Why do the beds look so uncomfortable? And why is a toilet never featured? It brings a whole new meaning to the term "to boldly go".

These questions remain, but there was one incident in a recent episode that has very plausible resonances with many current situations. (And, be reassured, there are no plot spoilers about to come!)

At the end of Season Four, Episode 10, Discovery's Captain Burnham (played wonderfully by Sonequa Martin-Green) turns to inter-planetary Federation president, Laira Rilla, (played by the excellent Chelah Horsdal) as they discuss a looming crisis. (If you're not into all this kind of thing, dear reader, just "bear with" for a moment and go with it...)

Burnham then tells Rilla: "In times of crisis, people need to know that their leaders are not rattled by uncertainty or overwhelming odds. They need to know that there is a plan; that they'll be okay. You're their President – you can give them confidence, a sense of security."

And I thought: well, yes, indeed. This is what people do need. We might think of Ukraine's inspirational President, Volodymyr Zelensky – comic actor turned political leader – who, cometh the hour, has more than risen to the occasion. We might think likewise of Churchill during the Second World War.

Now please don't get me wrong. When I move on now to talk about the Church of England there is – of course – no comparison with the horrific suffering Ukraine is facing on a daily basis. But here too, albeit in a very different way, inspiring leadership is needed – and it is needed for the evangelical constituency as they face a situation of triple uncertainty.

Why "triple"? Well, first of all there is the ongoing fallout from the pandemic, with many congregations facing churn and all sorts of comings and goings in their congregations.

Then, secondly, there are the ongoing discussions about the Mission and Pastoral Measure due to come before the General Synod this July – a measure described by some campaigners as a "Church Closers' Charter" and which has provoked "exasperation verging on militancy".

Finally, of course, there is the ongoing debate around Living in Love and Faith (LLF) and whether or not the church should change some aspects of its teaching on sexual morality – an issue seen by both liberal and orthodox sides of the debate as being both fundamental and non-negotiable.

In that context I, as a Church of England minister, need to hear my leaders speak – to inspire, to encourage, to reassure, to set out plans inasmuch as it is wise to do so. I need to be receiving letters, emails or other sorts of message from those leading our constituency: messages which give me heart, put fire in my belly and inspire me. I need to hear the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Zelenskys and Churchills of this world leading from the front.

In Shakespeare's play Henry V, as the English are initially pushed back, the eponymous King exhorts his troops with the words: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more! Or close the wall up with our English dead!" And later on, he prays that God will "steel my soldiers' hearts" and encourages them, calling them "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

I'm not necessarily asking for Shakespearean or Churchillian oratory – but at the very least a sense of being led from the front, rather than from the back. It may be good and wise, for example, for the Church of England Evangelical Council (which is full of great people) to ask evangelical churches to "consider prayerfully how they would respond if significant change was brought into the Church of England," and no doubt they feel it appropriate to consult widely, which is commendable. It may equally be good for evangelical bishops to express concerns privately behind the scenes about various recent developments.

But at the end of the day it is for the generals, not the troops, to come up with a plan. It is for the military leaders, not the foot-soldiers, to publicly rally, exhort and encourage the battalion. And it is for the commanders to lead their men and women forward into battle – not the other way round. And certainly, for me right now, I must tell you candidly: that just ain't happening.

The words of Professor Don Carson are surely applicable within the context of the Church of England's evangelical constituency, just as they are in the local church context which was primarily in his mind when he wrote: "As important and central as is the ministry of the Word of God, the thoughtful pastor/elder/overseer will devote time and energy to casting a vision, figuring out the steps for getting there [and] building the teams and structures needed..."

Or as Charles Smith writes on the Gospel Coalition website in an article entitled Sixteen leadership lessons I learned the hard way: "Develop a clear vision, mission, and strategy—and convey it until you are blue in the face."

We evangelical clergy in the parishes are punch-drunk pandemic weary, unsettled by talk of parish mergers, wondering whether the LLF debate will force us out of the Church of England. I wouldn't presume to speak for everyone, but I am sure I speak for some at least when I say: we are weary. And we are waiting for leadership. So please, as another famous Star Trek captain, Jean-Luc Picard, always said: "Make it so!"

David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now www.e-n.org.uk in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.