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Bishop David Walker - 05/02/2024

Every picture tells a story. Not great news for those of us addicted to radio, but the image of Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, sat side by side, as the First and Deputy First Ministers of the newly resurrected Northern Ireland Assembly, struck me as a potent expression of the beginning of a fresh era. Numerically, men still outnumber women among the Executive, but the fact that none of them holds either of the two top positions heralds a significant shift. 

Closer to home for me, we’ve just passed the ninth anniversary of the first consecration of a woman as bishop in the Church of England. Alongside them we now have increasing numbers of bishops of diverse ethnic and educational backgrounds, and some who have held significant roles in society prior to being ordained. No longer does everyone look, and sound, a bit like me. Our conversations are, in my experience, enriched by these more diverse contributions. 

Diversity and Inclusion may have been compromised in later generations, but they lay at the heart of the assortment of women and men Jesus gathered around himself, and which became the first Christian Church: Matthew the tax collector and Peter the fisherman, learning alongside the two sisters from Bethany, practical Martha and pious Mary. That early diversity paved the path, for Peter and Paul to spearhead the spreading of Jesus’s message, well beyond the bounds of Israel. They met challenges, not least in determining how far Jewish customs were to be required of Christians, but they solved them more often by inclusion than exclusion. 

Diversity makes the job easier and the results better. I was taught that simple mantra years ago by one of the most senior black figures in English football. I served under him as chair on an Equality panel within UK policing. I hold firm to it today. Indeed, I’m blessed to lead teams in my diocese and beyond, that draw on the skills and wisdom of people diverse in gender, age, ethnicity and sexual identity. It makes us stronger. Yet my experience is that the most effective inclusion needs to go a step further. Just as the new Northern Ireland Executive has been required to include ministers drawn from four different political parties, so more generally, inclusive leadership is about people offering different ways of approaching a problem. 

A senior partner in a global accountancy practice summed it up for me a few years ago, “My company covers all the protected characteristics”, he said. “The trouble is, we all think like accountants”. In an age when social media bubbles heighten the risk of groupthink, it may be that diversity of thought is the true holy grail.

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