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What the Church of England's evangelical leaders have in common with Dad's Army

What the Church of England's evangelical leaders have in common with Dad's Army
Dad's Army, the BBC comedy about the Home Guard during World War Two(Photo: BBC)

By David Baker
26 October 2020

The classic character comedy 'Dad's Army' has been a staple of British TV screens now for about half a century.

The programmes -- filmed between 1968 and 1977 -- are still regularly repeated in the UK and are beloved of different generations. It is also shown around the world.

And while at first sight it might seem improbable, it would seem there are some striking parallels between some of the show's main characters and some styles of leadership that have been evident among some Church of England evangelicals in the past few years.

This is more than whimsy: evangelicals in the C of E -- including Bishops, the Church of England Evangelical Council, and others -- are about to face one of the sternest tests they have ever had to face in history. The publication of the forthcoming ethical document 'Living in Love and Faith' -- which seems set to offer a smorgasbord of moral positions -- could, in historical terms, make or break them and define the future of much of English Christianity.

Unfortunately some evangelical leadership up until this point has been characterised by what might be called the 'Sergeant Wilson' approach -- a kind of languid diffidence which seeks to fulfil the New Testament injunction to 'contend earnestly for the faith' (Jude 1v3) with an approach that seems to say, 'Well, really, you know this is all terribly difficult isn't it, and you know, if things aren't sorted out doctrinally, and brought into line, I mean really there may have to be some kind of real consequences, you know,' followed by a self-deprecating cough.

Then there's the 'Private Fraser' approach of rolling one's eyes and proclaiming, 'We're all doooomed....' over and over again (before any battles are actually fought) in a way that increases the chances of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. A step further along from Private Fraser on the trajectory towards negativity is the 'ARP Warden Hodges' style which consists of shouting at everyone and being very cross most of the time. Of course, it doesn't win friends and influence people. Nor does it win any battles.

At the other extreme is the 'Private Sponge' style of leadership. If you remember him at all, you may recall that in Dad's Army, Sponge scarcely ever says anything. Ever. Sadly there are some evangelicals including some high profile ones who have adopted the 'Sponge' approach of almost total silence in response to the pressing issues of sexual morality faced by the Church of England. But as Martin Luther said: 'If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ... Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.'

Meanwhile, also sad to say, there are those who have been subsumed by the 'Captain Mainwaring' approach -- or, as Wikipedia puts it, becoming a 'pompous, blustering figure with an overdeveloped sense of... importance'. I think of one person in an Anglican leadership position today whose ministry I experienced helpfully one summer decades ago as a teenager. In those days, he was lean (physically) and keen (spiritually). A while ago I bumped into him for the first time since and was shocked by how his former self-deprecation seemed to have been replaced by self-importance.

You may at this point wonder why we have not touched thus far on the actual vicar in Dad's Army -- Rev Timothy Farthing. To be candid, my research of the programme's fan webpages reveals that in addition to his better known characteristics (such as well-meaning ineffectuality and general hand-wringing), the good Rev Farthing was also someone who did a bit of journalism in his spare time (the splendidly named bell-ringing publication 'Ring-A-Ding Monthly') and had a fondness for whisky. Being myself a vicar who does some spare-time journalism and likes a glass of whisky I think I had best move swiftly on, except to mutter briefly, 'Lord, save me from myself...'

The serious point of all this is as follows: Church of England evangelicals now face a historic challenge to 'contend once for all for the faith delivered to the saints'. Ineffectual or half-hearted leadership will not suffice. If we are still, in line with Dad's Army, thinking of military metaphors, the New Testament tells all Christians to be soldiers of Christ.

So the sort of leadership we need -- and that many evangelical clergy are crying out for -- involves a clarion call to arms, a clear battle plan, an array of alternative plans if needed, efficient communication, visionary inspiration and blood-sweating perseverance. Now, which of our leaders will rise to the challenge?

David Baker is a Church of England minister, Contributing Editor at Christian Today, and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now www.e-n.org.uk

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