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Godly Ambition?

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Posted by Andrew Atherstone, 26 Mar 2020

Andrew Atherstone reviews Emma Ineson's book, Ambition: What Jesus Said About Power, Success and Counting Stuff, (London: SPCK, 2019).

Ambition book cover

Like our wider culture, the Church of England is not only sex-obsessed but success-obsessed. Unless you’re content with an ecclesiastical backwater, targets for growth are now de rigueur. All our energies are absorbed by ‘renewal and reform’, ‘strategic development funding’, a ‘talent pool’ of superstar clergy on the upward trajectory to episcopal office, ‘value for money’ in theological education, diocesan league tables, streamlining and efficiency. Growth, growth, growth is the name of the game. In that context, Emma Ineson’s new book comes like a breath of much-needed fresh air. She, of course, is herself highly successful, one of the Church of England’s most prominent evangelical women leaders, Bishop of Penrith since February 2019 and no doubt set for higher office still. Out of her own personal wrestling with ambition comes this set of theological reflections – chatty, humorous, peppered with bon mots, autobiographical in places, but deeply thoughtful and challenging.

The Apostle Paul warns against ‘selfish ambition’ (Philippians 2:3), but what does ‘godly ambition’ look like? At heart, Ineson argues, it all hinges on our motivations, which are so often warped in an ungodly direction. Are we ‘approval junkies’ or living for an audience of One? Are our measurements of growth honestly driven by a desire to see God’s kingdom expanded, or ‘thinly veiled power trips by self-obsessed church leaders’? Paraphrasing Matthew 6, she observes: ‘Where your graphs are, there your heart is also.’

The central chapters ask to what extent we are motivated by Climbing, Counting, and Comparing. Climbing past others up the slippery pole of ecclesiastical preferment. Counting conversions or attendance figures or Twitter followers. Comparing obsessively with the neighbouring parish, and always glad to outdo our fellow ministers in the race to grow fastest or speak more widely or publish more brilliantly or be invited into the circle of power, as our career rises upwards. Of course, climbing, counting and comparing can also be good and important disciplines. Counting, for example, can be a sign of care (God counts the hairs on our head) or can reveal the seriousness of our predicament (think Covid-19 infection rates). But when the motivation is curved inwards these habits become highly destructive. As Ineson demonstrates, ‘numberitis’ is a contagion in the church, and one of its chief symptoms is ‘evangelasticity’ (the tendency to exaggerate to make ourselves look good). She goes so far as to liken surfing the glossy websites of other churches to pornography – you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t resist the temptation, you gaze longingly upon their beauties, and you feel bad afterwards. How radically different life and ministry would be if we learnt to view success through God’s eyes, where the cross of Christ is the model and the call. What would it require, Ineson urges, for the Church of England truly to live under the Pauline motto that ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9)?

Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford

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