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Public leadership: Look back to go forward

Teaching Christian history is vital to public leadership, says Dr Sarah Williams

Public leadership can shape and transform society. In a time of social disunity and chaos we’re exploring the power of public leadership to influence change, taking a look back at evangelical change-makers throughout history, how the kingdom of God influences public leadership, and how our Christian identity shapes the way we lead.

Surely, it is the present that leaders need to understand not the past? But, what if we understood history as a vital matter of identity? What if history were a necessary part of generating a rich missional imagination for what public leaders might achieve today? 

For the last 2000 years Christians have been creative designers of cultures. They have been active agents of socio-cultural critique, bringing to light moral contradictions, sexual exploitation, and human degradation. They have pioneered solutions to intractable social problems and faced new missional challenges with remarkable ingenuity and courage. 

The names of public leaders such as William Wilberforce are well known to us, but less well known are the 11th century reformers who insisted that women should be allowed to give their consent to a marriage; or the early 3rd century martyrs such as Perpetua and Felicitas, who stood in a Roman amphitheatre side by side – elites and slaves together – modelling a new kind of community in which distinctions of rank and gender no longer defined the intrinsic value of the human person; or the quiet saints of the 4th and 5th centuries, such as Basil of Caesarea, who lived lives of prayer but at the same time built the first hospitals and attended to the physical needs of the sick and the dying. 

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Most us know that the Christian faith played a significant role in the formation of western civilization, but we have imbibed a seriously curtailed version of the story. The dignity of the rule of law, the cultivation of learning, the idea of the fundamental equality of all human beings, a respect for the physical body as part of the image-bearing quality of God’s creation, are, to name a few, separated out from the Christian tradition whilst the crusades and the corruptions of power take centre stage firmly wedded to Christianity. 

The fact is our historical imaginations have been filtered by an ideological grid dominated by the theory of secularisation. We have been taught to assume that modernity brings with it an inevitable diminution of religious belief – that Christianity is merely a force on the wane, a hang-over of a former pre-industrial age or, more insidiously, nothing more than a political tool wielded by elites to enforce and preserve their power and to limit human freedom. Most of us read the past through this lens, simply because we have no other lens to put in its place. 

This way of imagining the past is not benign. I believe it is damaging our missional imaginations and robbing us of hopeful leadership in society. This edited version of the past leaves the Christian community in the west shame-ridden. It strips us of our confidence, renders us defensive and fearful, and leaves us feeling caught in an inevitable process of decline with beliefs that are outmoded and irrelevant to society. It was novelist George Orwell who wrote, The quickest way to destroy a people is to obliterate their understanding of history.” 

This pervasive story of the past does another thing as well: it robs us of our belief in the power of human agency to affect change in our communities. Deep within the theory of secularisation is a view of the human person subject to external forces – macro socio-economic structures over which the individual has very little power. And yet, if Christian history teaches anything, it is the possibility of change – indeed the miracle of change – a tiny first-century community – persecuted, marginalised and in fear of their lives – becoming by the end of the medieval period the most elaborate and thoroughly integrated system that the world has ever known. For eight hundred years in Britain alone, the distinctive hallmark of the culture was, in the words of historian Donald Southern, the identification of the church with the whole of organised society”. Complex and contradictory though this story may be, it is an astonishing example of the possibility of transformation nonetheless. 

It is time for the church to recover her memory, to see the power of human and divine agency to affect lasting transformation in culture, and to understand our choices, insignificant though they may feel in the present moment, as actually and substantially altering the direction and shape of human history. 

But it is not only the content of our historical imaginations that need refurnishing; we also need a change in posture towards the past. To listen to the past requires laying aside our own 21st century assumptions and engaging faithfully with ways of thinking and being that are qualitatively different from our own. To impose our mentality on the past is an act of hubris. History requires that the past must be treated within its own terms of reference, recognising that past cultures thought and acted differently to us. 

As an approach, history challenges the idea that the present day is normative for all time. Humble listening is a spiritual practice – one that is rarely modelled by public leaders today. But in recognising real differences that exist between past and present, we are, at the same time, recognising the possibility of change in the future. History can, if we will let it, offer us a mobilising breath of hope and an invitation to lead into a new future with faith.

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc

About the author

Dr Sarah Williams is devoted to telling the story of the church to diverse audiences all over the world. She trained as an historian at the University of Oxford where she later taught British and European political and cultural history from 1685 to 1939 and supervised graduates working on 19th- and early-20th-century religion and culture in the British context.

In 2005 Sarah moved to Vancouver, Canada, where she taught the History of Christianity at Regent College. She has written and edited numerous articles and books, including the acclaimed monograph Religious Belief and Popular Culture 1880-1939 (OUP).

When Sarah is not writing, she is reading – history books and literature. She lives with her husband Paul in the Cotswolds. She is an active supporter of the pioneering Venn Foundation in New Zealand, and she returns regularly to teach at Regent College.

Sarah leads the ‘Tracing the narrative of Christian involvement with culture and society through history’ session on the Public Leader: England course.

See more from Dr Sarah Williams

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