Our greatest gift to the world – showing love despite disagreement

Sharing God’s love and being a visible presence of God in her community is at the heart of leadership and ministry for the newly appointed Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Guli Francis-Dehqani.

Born in Iran, Bishop Guli’s family left the country in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1980, when she was 13 years old, and to date she has been unable to return. She is now a bishop in the Church of England, in a very large diocese made up of the whole of the county of Essex and areas of East London.

Bishop Guli talked to the Lambeth team about what leadership means to her and her top priorities as a leader.

“I’m always struck when I think about leadership that there’s a little bit of tension for us. I don’t think leadership is a particularly Christian concept. It’s not really present as a word in the New Testament, and it’s a concept that has become quite popular today. When I think about leadership from a Christian perspective, I think about things like service. It’s really another word for the ministry and I play out my ministry through my role as a leader. So, it’s things like service, faithfulness, being an enabling presence, and operating in a way that’s collegiate. In terms of my priorities, it’s to try to be a visible presence and a sign of God’s love and care for every individual, and to try and enable our clergy and lay leaders in our parishes to live out that same message in their own context and for their own communities.”

What do you think are the most critical issues facing our world? And where do you feel the voice of the Church is most needed?

“There are so many large challenges for both the church and wider society, and probably the biggest challenge for us is the environmental one, how we’re going to ensure that we become better and more responsible stewards of the earth. The particularly tragic thing about the environmental crisis is that it impacts those who are already financially the poorest amongst us, and those who are the most marginalised and oppressed, right across the world. This is the single biggest challenge that that we all face as human beings and as a church.

“As a church, we want to play our part by becoming better stewards of the resources that we have. And the General Synod of the Church of England has committed to be net carbon zero by 2030. I know the diocese I serve and all the other dioceses in the Church of England are trying to find ways of achieving that in our churches through how we manage our properties and how we live our lives in a more sustainable and responsible way.”

“The other significant challenge, I would describe is an increased polarisation in public debates and in the way we express our different views, from the very extreme, which is around acts of terrorism. I’m speaking just days after a Member of Parliament (MP) was murdered in the diocese that I serve in, which has obviously shocked and rocked our community. And so that’s the extreme of it, but at the other end is how we manage our differences and disagreements, which have become so polarised, partly through the blunt tool of social media, which doesn’t really allow any space for subtlety and nuance. I think we get pushed into binary positions. That’s corroding our life, both in wider society, but sometimes in the Church as well. Perhaps our greatest gift to the world could be a demonstration of how we can show our love for one another, show our respect for one another, even when we differ and disagree.”

What does leadership look like for you in terms of trying to provide hope to the community in difficult times?

“In the aftermath of the murder of Sir David Amess, who was an MP in the diocese I serve, leadership has really been about getting alongside people and listening. We often put so much emphasis on what leaders or public figures have to say, but in the face of an event like we’ve just faced, really all I’ve been able to do is listen. I’ve been to the constituency that he served. I’ve stood alongside people. I’ve visited the church where he was murdered. I’ve met with members of our clergy, and I’ve just listened to their stories and to their experiences, as a demonstration that we’re alongside them in this. We’re all in this together. I don’t have all the answers. I think it’s really important for us as Christian leaders to acknowledge we don’t have all the answers. What we do know is Christ Jesus, who we serve, and who followed the way of suffering himself. So, in some kind of mysterious way, it’s at our moments of greatest suffering that we are drawn more closely to the heart of God. It’s not to say that suffering is good in and of itself, but there is something mysterious about how it can draw us deeper in our faith and closer to the way of the cross. Essentially, in situations like this, leadership is really about listening and spending time with people.”

What excites you about the role of the Anglican Communion and how can it be a force for good in the decade ahead?

“I think the genius of Anglicanism has always been the way in which it’s been able to hold together in tension, disparate views on a whole number of areas. So, it’s a very expansive expression of Christianity. It’s naturally very inclusive. It will try to find a space for everyone, depending on where they are. I honestly think that has the potential to be our greatest gift to the world. If we can find a way of holding that in love, which means listening deeply to one another and always being open to the possibility of change ourselves. That’s how transformation ultimately comes about, not with me going into the argument absolutely determined to win my case and make my point. But rather to be open to listening first, and possibly even changing my view, or at least creating a little bit of space within me for a view that I didn’t fully understand or wasn’t expecting to be able to take on board. If we can live that out as members of the Anglican Communion across all our diverse cultures, experiences, languages, and contexts, then we have a really potent gift to offer the world.”

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