by Frances Young.
Back in the autumn I was asked to join a panel on the topic ‘Inspiring Service’, the audience being University students. As I reflected on what to offer, I found myself tackling a question both personal and vocational – why had I, a theologian and ordained minister, got involved in the governance and management of large public sector institutions?
I ended my presentation with some pretty standard statements:
The theological undergirding of public service is surely commitment to the fact that this is God’s world, despite the way things seem. Sin (meaning not simply sex, nor individual misdemeanours, but rather the way human affairs in general have gone somewhat pearshaped) – sin in that sense, it’s been said, is the only empirically grounded doctrine! Christian faith proclaims that God has taken action in Jesus Christ to put things to rights, and calls us to play our part in the process. That’s why commitment to making the world a better place lies at the heart of Christian service.
But if I’m honest, such statements were hardly what ‘inspired’ the course that my career took, nor my principal current retirement activity. So I began in a very different place, telling the story of my father, and my dawning recognition that it was his example of Christian commitment to public service which explains some of the odd decisions I made in the latter stages of my career:
Head of Department, Dean of Faculty, Pro-Vice-Chancellor? What were those years about? Was it just ambition, nothing to do with – perhaps indeed contrary to – my Christian commitment? It certainly was a response to the moral pressure of being the first woman to hold those positions: if one wasn’t prepared to do it, how would things ever change? But how did all this relate to ministry? In an overtly secular University how could Christian commitment be expressed? What was I doing struggling with the frustrations of University politics? Practically everything I managed to achieve back then has by now been overtaken … There’s no permanent legacy in running things day to day…
I was honest in articulating those recurring questions. I confessed that by tradition Methodists are activists, and I’ve spent much of my life feeling guilty that I’ve done so little good in world – I’ve not fed the hungry, healed the sick, welcomed the homeless, visited those in prison, etc. But now, I affirmed, I could reclaim the importance of public service to secular institutions, and grasp more of its theological grounding.
Reading the earliest Christian documents, both in and beyond the New Testament, what is striking is the claim of this little underground, sometimes persecuted, group that their God is the God of the whole created order, and that everybody is accountable to this God, who actually sees into the heart, knows the secrets of inner motivations, and expects everyone to do good, to be generous, to live honourable lives, accepting the authority of human institutions: the pagan Emperor himself was appointed by this one and only God to ensure justice and peace.
At this point in history such subservience appears highly problematical. But, for all our current individualism, we are social animals; we need each other, and society still requires well-run institutions to govern competing interests, to ensure peace and justice, to foster human flourishing in body, mind and spirit. And with right discernment you find that God is there ahead of you, and that service involves not top down control, but humility and counting others more worthy than oneself. We need people who are open to others to be the servants of all in our public life.
Now, in my retirement, my previous institutional experience is feeding into another such commitment. I’m an elected public Governor of the Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. The object is to be a constructive and critical friend, enabling responsiveness to patient needs, whilst also fulfilling statutory duties on behalf of the public and the taxpayer. Basically those duties are appointing the non-executive Directors, and then making sure they do their job. The Council of Governors, all unpaid volunteers, becomes the body to which the management Board is locally accountable. And yes – it’s frustratingly difficult to see what difference we make, and the endless papers and quantities of data and meetings to go to do not always thrill me. But the work of the Trust really matters – my own family has been, and doubtless will continue to be, beneficiaries of the services provided.