Saturday, July 29, 2006


I know this seals my fate as a highly unoriginal person, but I might just have to say that Two Cathedrals, the final episode of Season 2 of The West Wing, is my all-time favourite piece of TV drama. This weekend saw the first screening of the final ever episode of The West Wing on UK television; also marked by back-to-back ‘best episodes’ all day today. I didn’t stay in (I may be highly unoriginal, but I have more of a life than some people might think); but I did catch at least part of Two Cathedrals

In Two Cathedrals, President Bartlet attends the funeral of his personal secretary, Mrs Landingham, who was killed in a car crash in the previous episode. During the service, his thoughts return to when they first met, many years earlier, when he was a senior boy at a privileged school and she was a secretary. In flashback, the viewer learns that – seeing his potential, and wanting him to realise it – she had sought to persuade him to take up the cause of the women teachers, who were paid less than the men. Eventually, she thanks him for agreeing to do so – a decision he denies having yet made. Yes you have, she replies: you just put your hands in your pockets, turned away and smiled. I just put my hands in my pockets, the young Bartlet protests! No; you put your hands in your pockets, turned away, and smiled. That’s what you do when you have decided that you are going to do something.

Back in the moment, today is also the day that it has been made public that Bartlet has been suffering from multiple sclerosis for eight years, and had deliberately kept this information secret when he ran for office. A major investigation will follow; but for now he must face a press conference, at which he will be asked whether he intends to run for a second term in office? As the episode – and second season – build to their climax, we cut back-and-forth between Bartlet, making his journey to the press conference through a tropical storm; and his press officer, who is fielding the assembled journalists until he arrives. Finally, Bartlet enters the auditorium and takes the podium; and is asked the inevitable question…he does not answer immediately, and we cut away to each of his senior staff; each waiting, unsure as to what he will answer, unsure as to what they want him to answer. And then the camera pans round behind the podium and we see Bartlet slip his hands into his pockets; then up, so that we see the slightest of smiles break on his lips. And that’s it: the screen goes black. The End. We don’t get to hear his answer; but we, the viewer, know…

I love the drama of this particular story-within-a-story. I find it inspirational. Everyone needs to be inspired. And I think everyone needs an inspirational leader. I’m not talking about a particular type of leadership; but a particular type of leader. Bartlet is inspirational, as a President; but it is clear that he has been profoundly inspired – throughout his life – by the woman who was ‘just’ his secretary…

As I look around, I see people exploring issues of church and mission and culture struggling with ideas of leaders and leadership. I see a rejection of the type of professional clerical leadership that dis-empowers congregations [though I don’t go along with the idea that clergy dis-empowers laity per se]; a rejection of the CEO-style of leadership modelled in ‘Baby-boomer’ churches; and an attempt to embrace a more level, more inclusive, leadership by the whole body. And that’s okay [with – as with any style or model – caveats]. But I want to be led by someone who inspires me; and I, in turn, want to be a leader who inspires others.

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