Eli – A study in leaders setting the culture

IMG_7742It’s easy to look at the news and think we are experiencing the worst political scandal of all time. But anyone with any knowledge of history knows that there is quite a track record of those in power thinking that they are above the law and that normal codes of behaviour do not apply to them. One of the reassuring signs of the current scandals being exposed in Westminster is that there is outrage and better is expected.

We don’t have to dig too far into our spiritual roots to find that these challenges have been around for as long as people have. At Morning Prayer during the week, we have started reading through the Book of Genesis and this last week we have had the fall, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and it won’t be long before we hit Noah and the attempt to reboot the story of humanity. 

Our readings this evening give us examples of those in power failing to live up to the standards expected of them. Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-20) is told, in that endearing story of the young boy Samuel hearing the voice of God and repeatedly interrupting Eli’s sleep, that because Eli has failed to create a culture of justice and righteousness, of wholesome living and behaving, he will pay a heavy price. Eli’s failure, for all his faithfulness, is one of failing to set the moral boundaries, to create a culture where various things just are not acceptable. 

At the very least, this is the charge against Boris Johnson. He may not have sent the email inviting 100 people and may not have been present at the party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, but no one thought this was an unacceptable thing to do and that is a window into a culture that needs to be changed. To set the context in the pandemic, at that time, we couldn’t even book an overnight stay to come and look at the Deanery for the first time and had to make the visit on the Monday as a day trip – a 400 miles round trip – the first day we were allowed to cross over into Wales.

Paul clearly faced similar challenges because he told the readers of his letter to the Ephesians (4:1-16) that they should live a life worthy of their calling, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Towards the end he tells them to stop being ‘children tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming’. But speaking the truth in love: they are to root themselves in the culture and grace of the good news of Jesus Christ. And being so rooted in it, this is how they are. Culture matters enormously for how we inhabit the grace we seek to represent and advance.

All of us can fall short in so many ways. Stress can make us grumpy, impatience can make us short with people, some temptations can speak to our own weaknesses, whatever those are, from the trivial to the more serious, so there are always glass houses around these things. Perhaps that is why Paul talks about humility and speaking truth in love. But it is the job of the person at the top to set the tone and shape the culture, and if we are being transparent, that also needs the reminder of wise people who can help us stay on track. A community that is rooted in the culture of faith is easier to lead than one that is not because there is a ground swell of expectation which is itself rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Every organisation, and that includes church communities, has its own background culture for good and ill. I find the pull up banner in the entrance porch at the west doors rather too wordy, but it makes a statement about being ‘a place that practices the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ, not a club, but a public space open to all people of good will’. I brought it out again last week, it was being damaged in the winds through the door and so got put away, but it fitted with my sermon last week and felt important to display it again. Perhaps a new version is needed. 

After a long list of those we might find here, in their rich diversity, there is an interesting admission, that “although we are not yet strong or vulnerable enough to show the unconditional love of God at all times, we hope we are moving in that direction”. The background culture that this banner displays, which was here when I arrived, is one that knows it has work to do, but is trying to get there. And that’s something I would recognise. We are all a work in progress. So the truth is told in love, because it is in love that we grow and learn to be strong and vulnerable enough to show the unconditional love of God at all times.

Trip hazards have existed for as long as there have been people and the challenge of leadership is the same – setting the tone and culture. But none of this can happen unless there is a desire to embrace the culture being advanced. And that comes through the daily drip feed that roots us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Integrity matters – in politics, in the church and in our daily living.

Sermon for Epiphany 2, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 16th January 2022


About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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