Here beginneth the next lesson

September 29, 1995

Leadership is the Church of England's latest buzzword - insofar as it tolerates such trendy terms. Last week, the word was on every Right Reverend's lips after the Turnbull commission on ecclesiastical organisation recommended a dramatic structural shake-up designed to give the Church "stronger leadership". Soon the church will be getting further guidance on leadership from the tall, gentlemanly shape of Derek Burke, who retires this week as vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia.

Professor Burke is a chemist and a churchgoer, but denies the existence of any paradox: "Science only deals with the 'how' questions while religion deals with the 'why' questions." He has long been interested in ethical issues, especially since his experimental work on the cloning of the interferon gene in the 1970s.

He sits (and in retirement will continue to do so) on a host of ethical committees, including one established jointly by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.

Alongside this professional committee work, he has been involved - as a passionate layman - in ecclesiastical committee work, serving on a sub-group of the Church's board of social responsibility and on the influential archbishops' think tank. This work has prompted his retirement project, a book called Strategic Church Leadership, which will be written with Robin Gil, theology professor at the University of Kent, and published by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge.

It might seem presumptuous for a vice chancellor, however religiously inclined, to lecture the Church on leadership. Yet Professor Burke suggests that the Church is facing many of the problems which universities faced in the 1980s. "I think I can show them that it is possible to go through a crisis and come out the other side," he says. Certainly Professor Burke has the managerial skills.

By the time he arrived at UEA in 1987, he had become something of an advocate for the noisy business ethic in the quiet groves of academe. Back in the early 1970s, when he was pro-vice chancellor at Warwick, he countered the anti- business campaigning of E. P. Thompson, whom he now characterises as "hysterical". In the early 1980s, he left Warwick to set up Canada's largest biotechnology company, managing a budget of $100 million.

Returning to England to run UEA, he found a demoralised fellowship lacking strong leadership and facing a 16 per cent budget cut over three years. He set about writing a strategic plan - "the university's first", he says incredulously - and laid down a priority "to preserve strength wherever it was". That meant making sacrifices: the sociology department was slashed by three quarters, the education department by a third. But excellent departments like music, set up partly by Benjamin Britten yet earmarked for closure, were saved.

The Church, he says, could benefit from such experience. It too is facing financial hardship as a result of losing Pounds 800 million on property in the recession. It too is facing a demoralised group of workers who bear a striking resemblance to academics: "bright, independent, rather conservative, and consensual".

With the century fast running out, Professor Burke thinks it is time for the Church to establish its priorities - "preaching and teaching" - much as universities did in the 1980s. "The Church finds decision-making so hard, and there is a danger that it will use all its energies on important yet secondary issues like women priests and homosexuality. To the ordinary man in the street, this will make it look as if the Church is becoming more and more self-absorbed."

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