Leading in tumultuous times

Dear colleagues,

Life in Medieval Europe was probably pretty unpleasant. To be honest, it was probably pretty unpleasant everywhere, but as a society whose historical narrative is still very much Eurocentric in its bias, we continue to view so much through this distorted lens. I say probably because, despite the fact that we do have a lot of information about how our ancestors lived, at the same time so much still about the way of life of people even only a couple of centuries ago remains shrouded in a cloak of mystery, never mind those living over a thousand years ago, obscured by the passage of time and our inability to accept that even people from whom we are directly descended might just as well have lived on another planet when we compare their lived out experiences with our own.

Today we remember St Edward the Confessor, the last Saxon King of England whose death sparked a crisis of succession, quickly capitalised by the ruthless William the Conqueror, ending a long period of Danish and Saxon domination over Britain. People living in England at the time were probably fearful of many things. On the larger scale, we know that the Danes and Saxons had repeatedly invaded and pillaged much of Western Europe, and even crossed the Atlantic, and while the peasants in the fields probably had little awareness about a change in leadership, nevertheless every invasion brought with it fear, bloodshed, death, and misery. On a more everyday level, we know that hygiene, even for the wealthiest, was practically non-existent, people struggled to feed themselves and their families, and life expectancy was pretty brief. A disease which we’d now address with something we can buy over the counter in our local pharmacy would have wiped out entire villages, but with so much death and suffering all around, one wonders if the full impact of this had been neutralised so much that it barely registered on their consciousness.

From what we can gather, Edward was probably an unremarkable king. Historians are still divided as to just how effective he was, the more sympathetic recognising that he ruled over a period of relative stability and peace, while others feel he was a reclusive, bad-tempered, and irritable monarch who was mostly out of touch and expressed little interest in the kingdom beyond his own palaces. 

Edward died without issue, and he seems to have given little thought to his succession. While several staked their claim to the throne, eventually William’s Norman forces took advantage of the fragile political situation, defeating the short-lived reign of King Harald at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

As church leaders, the lives of the saints can provide us with guidance for how we can continue to navigate the ever-changing, yet seemingly never-ending, COVID-19 crisis. Edward does, on the one hand at least, provide an example of the value of dependable leadership, maintaining the status quo almost against all odds to provide whatever stability and peace is possible in troubled times. However, we now know that this crisis isn’t going away anytime soon, and even though there is hope that within the next year we might be returning to normal, if all we do is barricade ourselves inside our familiarity we will also be faced with the same crisis that Edward’s successors did when we re-emerge on the other side. We all need peace and quiet, predictability and dependability at the moment, but we also need the courage and conviction to take a stand as leaders. While we aren’t going into battle, there is no negotiating with COVID-19. It doesn’t matter how reasonable or sensible we think we are being, we need to have that strength of character to carry ourselves and those who depend upon us through the storm. As the appointed psalm for today states: ‘Though I walk in the midst of trouble, yet shalt thou refresh me : thou shalt stretch forth thy hand upon the furiousness of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.’

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Dr. Jonathan White, Director of Chapel, for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.