Church of England

Corbyn and charisma: where there is no vision, the people get no credit


There’s no denying that Jeremy Corbyn has a curiously charismatic air about him. If he had not scraped into the Labour leadership contest, would we have seen those tens of thousands paying £3 to cast their votes? Even after a conference speech which hardly set the world on fire, another 2,000 people joined the party within 24 hours.

This is a man who dresses down, borrows a tie when needed and is making every effort to turn the traditional form of adversarial politics on its head. Those who stand on the left wing of politics have found a new saviour, but even for the rest of us his unorthodox let’s-all-try-to-be-nice-and-get-along approach is a refreshing change if you are willing to suspend interrogation of his political philosophy and planned policies. He certainly pleased a good number of Christians last weekend when he chose to turn up at the church service to start the Labour conference, and then backing the campaign against changing Sunday trading laws.

We love an underdog with principles and a heart, and Corbyn fits the mould nicely. But when push comes to shove, we also want leaders who can win both hearts and minds. We want leaders who can sell us a vision and be trusted to make big decisions and follow them through, much more than we desire righteous idealists and activists who will speak up for a series of random, if just, causes.

Jeremy Corbyn’s honeymoon period is not over yet, but that will come to an end as they all do, and then we’ll see whether he has enough substance beneath the skin. The Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser, who supported Corbyn during his campaign, voiced his concerns in the Guardian yesterday that the Labour leader is missing what he describes as “the powerful poetry of vision”. If there is a promised land for Labour supporters, we’re not much clearer yet as to what it might look like than we were with Ed Miliband. “There is something missing with his beige-party-meets-socialism”, as Fraser puts it. Is Corbyn’s apparent charismatic allure more of a reaction against the establishment? Is that why so many want to be (or are being) caught in his gravitational pull?

Real charisma does more than just excite those who are already in agreement: it persuades and wins the unconverted. Fraser compares Corbyn to Martin Luther King and John Wesley, and finds him lacking. Perhaps that is unfair. These great men who changed the course of history were not constrained by party politics. They found a cause that they wholeheartedly gave themselves to and pursued it with every fibre of their beings. No matter how hard he tries, Corbyn (or Cameron, Osborne and Farron) will never match that passion or draw in crowds of tens of thousands. Politicians do their demotic politicking, but King and Wesley were unshackled; free to speak their minds without compromise, and then build a movement united by a single goal. What’s more, they had faith behind them, or within them. When your role model is Jesus and you have his life and words to inspire you, it is possible to believe that you can achieve anything: God is on your side.

Take the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Seeing the injustices in the system and the gross exploitation of the most vulnerable in society, he set out to take on the banks and compete Wonga and other payday lenders out of business. For one individual to attempt (or even suggest0 this seemed to be bordering on madness. But by persuading those who know about finance, and then raising of an army of ordinary Christians to administrate an alternative network, not only have the payday lenders been severely restricted in their activities through new legislation, but a new wave of credit unions are being developed.

Preaching at a commissioning service this week for 300 new ‘Credit Champions’ – volunteers trained to help churches take action to tackle issues to do with credit, debt and money in their local area – the Archbishop said:

It really is moving to see the ways the church has responded to the issues of the mastery of finance over so many human lives and its tyranny over so many human lives. It’s an extraordinary moment that the church rose to the challenge over the last many years, about six or seven years since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008/09 and has responded.

And here we are for the commissioning of the Credit Champions. It’s humbling to see that because it is a movement of God’s Spirit among us.

Those of you who are shortly going to be commissioned as Church Credit Champions have heard God’s call, as the whole church has in recent years, to be a church of the poor for the poor; to seek justice and the common good for all in our society.

Welby, like Corbyn, is a fairly unassuming individual, but then Jesus wasn’t a stunner either, at least according to Isaiah: ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ But get behind the face or beneath the skin and the Corbyn-Welby differences become evident. Neither speaks with the rousing grandeur of Martin Luther King, and neither bursts with the extrovert enthusiasm of an entertainer. But while Jeremy Corbyn has still to prove that he can win over more than a subset of his own party, Justin Welby has already refreshed the parts that other bishops could not reach.

Corbyn’s vision – if you can call it that – is piecemeal and lacking in coherence: he wants to make the world a better place, but he’ll find that taxing the rich and refusing to use the nuclear button won’t be enough. Welby’s vision – and you can call it that – is for peace and reconciliation based on practical ideas with applied and very personal effort. It’s more than just talking about hopes and dreams: he is making things happen. This is a form of charisma derived from the depths of experience and knowledge, with a foundation of unshakable faith. Let us not forget that in the Greek ‘charisma’ (χαρίσμα) denotes good gifts that flow from God’s love to humans. Real charisma is full of God’s Spirit. It is a divine gift that is given both to lead and serve. When Welby speaks, his words reach deeper than appeals to individual aspiration: he speaks with authority on behalf of a movement that is willing to invest rather more than £3 each to participate and transform society.

Corbynmania will, in time, run its course. And then, most likely, there will be plenty of people upset and frustrated that the man they pinned their hopes on has let them down because he failed to give them exactly what they wanted. Charisma without a spark of divinity becomes little more than box-office charm. It can wow millions, but will rarely change the world – at least not always for the better.

Wisdom, vision and the fear of the Lord are now rarely to be found in politics, perhaps because they’re rarely to be found in politicians. What’s the point of charisma if you’re not going to acknowledge the extraordinary mercy and grace of the charismata?