Thought Leaders: Coleridge, the Clerisy, and Catalyst Live

It was a privilege to be a part of the ‘Catalyst Live’ event organised and sponsored by BMS World Mission a few weeks back. The vision, the mix of speakers, and the organisation, were each simply excellent; I got asked to give a couple of talks, but also to engage personally with Jürgen Moltmann. Hearing him tell his own story, of discovering the hope that is in Christ as he read the Bible whilst a prisoner of war in a camp in Kilmarnock, was profoundly moving; talking to him at some length as we planned the interview sessions – well; I have disagreed with aspects of his theology in public, and I stand by those points; but his personal graciousness, gentleness, and humility were utterly captivating and disarming. (At one point, as we shared a sandwich, I asked him who the up-and-coming theologians in Germany were; he responded, then looked at me with a smile and asked who ‘the other rising theologians in the UK’ might be…) I am enormously grateful to David Kerrigan, Mark Craig, and the rest of the BMS team who put it together and who asked me to be involved.

I have, I think, three reflections on being part of the event that might be aired publicly. The first concerns the vision of the event. It was cast as for ‘thought leaders,’ and I heard a number of people – all local pastors – express doubt as to whether the event was for them, because they were not ‘thought leaders’.

On the one hand, I talked enough to those who organised the event to know that, yes, if you are a local pastor, it was for you; on the other, I understand the hesitation and concern. This collision, I think, bears reflection.

In his brilliant, if deeply eccentric, text On the Constitution of the Church and the State, Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed that the ‘church’ is necessary to the proper functioning of the State, where ‘church’ is understood as ‘the body of educated people who understand and transmit the values/ethos of the nation.’ If the national church happens to be Christian, it is an inestimable boon, he believed, but he made the term ‘church’ broader than merely Christian groups.

He envisaged the ‘national church’ necessarily putting in place two individuals in every locality – think ‘parish’ or – perhaps better – ‘village’: the priest and the schoolmaster. The priest’s role is to remind and instruct the adult population of/in the broad beliefs of the culture; the schoolmaster’s role is to induct the children of the community into these broad beliefs.

Now, there are lots of questions to ask about this account: what, given that this is a post about an explicitly Baptist initiative, of nonconformity, of those communities that gather seriously but refuse state recognition? Where is the place for principled debate, for those whose calling is to challenge and develop the ethos of the nation? (To be fair to Coleridge, he had a place for this in his account of the national government, which is a synthesis of forces of ‘permanence’ and ‘progress’ – but it seems that at local level there only is space in his system for people who conform to national visions.) That said, he captured something important: every parish, every village, needs its clerisy, its thought leaders.

Coleridge was trying to set in stone a particular moment in English history; at this distance, and given his involvement in defining Romantic aesthetics, it is tempting to see this text, although presented as a (real and serious) protest against the Catholic Emancipation Bill, as an act of resistance against the urbanisation of the industrial revolution; of course, his attempts to command the tides of history were no more successful than Canute’s attempts to command less metaphorical tides, and the perfect English village he imagined has become a community-lite shell of weekend cottages or, if it is lucky, of commuter dormitories.

That said, locality still matters. Not exclusively – network society is a reality – but then locality was never exhaustive; the county set were not defined by their villages of residence in Coleridge’s ideal England, even. But locality still matters; in the community I live in, we have debates about re-siting the local secondary school, and about housing provision, and about HMO licences, about the changing use of a military base, and about a dozen other things, that in every case relate to national debates, but in evert case also have particular local contexts and shapes. If the role of Coleridge’s ‘clerisy’ – thought leaders – is to speak well into these debates, to show how they are shaped and informed and challenged by our shared ethical inheritance, then our thought leaders, our clerisy, need to be local. Not because they can speak better than national commentators and pundits, but because they can speak more exactly about the local debates that face us in our community. I do not suppose we are unique – it may not be a secondary school or a military base in your community, but the questions and issues will be there.

The world has changed from Coleridge’s day. When I teach students about preaching, I refer them to the great traditional texts on how to preach – but I also give them a warning. A century ago, the Baptist preacher in a given town could, if he was gifted/skilled, assume that his hearers had never heard a more gifted/able orator; his contemporary successor faces a different world, where her hearers can access (recordings of) a hundred sermons on whatever text she has preached on, and have also heard many truly great orators via electronic media (a very incomplete personal list, who have all moved me to tears with a speech: both Michelle and Barack Obama, Joyce Banda, Steve Jobs, Julia Gillard, Tony Blair, Viola Davis, …). Equally, where once Coleridge’s clerisy had the task and privilege of being the primary interpreters of national debate into their communities, now they – we – have to compete with print, broadcast, and electronic media.

But the local issues still matter. Someone who speaks powerfully into a local debate becomes because of this a trusted voice more widely (St Andrews elected its first ever Labour representative on any elected body in the most recent Fife Council elections; he had intervened on the question of the re-siting of our local secondary school; I happen to think he was wrong on that issue, but his intervention gained him enough credibility locally to take the seat). The local minister, who, not being partisan, of course, is nonetheless a respected voice of reason, calm, and useful suggestion on local issues can – will – become a privileged interpreter of national debates. (It works similarly even for career politicians; our local MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, is so well respected in the constituency that he will be returned strongly regardless of his party’s manifesto or national reputation for as long as he chooses to stand.)

Coleridge imagined his clerisy to be patrician leaders of their local communities, because their education and appointment gave them a privileged position. Appointment cannot now do that; education, short of (in the UK) an FBA or FRS, is similarly impotent; respect must be earned, and leadership will come behind it. But local thought leadership is still possible and necessary: on the issue of re-siting the school, the person who is able to think clearly, to mediate, to display integrity, to articulate the values and concerns of the community; this person is as or more necessary now than ever.

It may be that local pastors are not (always) thought leaders like this; a mission agency holding out a vision that they could and should be, and putting on an event to encourage those who are reaching towards this ideal, is acting well, and calling local pastors to be true to their vocation, or so it seems to me.

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