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General Synod - Farewell to Sir Andreas Whittam Smith

Tuesday 14th February 2017

The Archbishop of York's Farewell to the First Church Estates Commissioner follows in full. (Item 8 - General Synod)

 

Sir Christopher Wren, John Wesley, Horatio Lord Nelson, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Theresa May…Sir Andreas Whittam Smith. As diverse a group of men and women as you could imagine, each in their time making a notable contribution to the life and character of this nation. And they have one thing in common: all spent their formative years as clergy children in Church of England parsonages.

Andreas Whittam Smith grew up during the Second World War in a tough and much bombed parish in Birkenhead where his father was the incumbent. Canon Whittam Smith’s churchmanship was, in Andreas’ admirable description, ‘on the Equator’, that is, in the very middle.

 Church life in Birkenhead seems to have had some of the characteristics of a grocer’s shop where each member of the family had to do their bit. In Andreas’ case that meant ringing the bells, singing in the choir, putting out the hymn books and- here’s the clue- counting the collection.

 After national service, spent in the ranks, Andreas went to Keble College Oxford. As a Guardian columnist once wrote, ‘being an Oxford graduate is like having a permanent source of emotional central heating. Whatever happens to you later in life, the fact that you were once at Oxford marks you out as someone who was destined for greatness- before accountancy beckoned.’

In Andreas’ case it was not accountancy but financial journalism that beckoned. By his own admission he carried with him from Oxford two important lessons. One, after an excessively relaxed time there, was the value of sheer hard work. The other was that cleverness was not the same as intelligence and wisdom. This latter truth had been brought home to him when he tried to impress a tutor with a clever fact only to receive the unforgettable put down, ‘true –but trivial.’

 Through hard work and exceptional ability Andreas rose to become City Editor first of the Guardian then of the Daily Telegraph as well as Editor of the Stock Exchange Gazette and Investors’ Chronicle. But for a restless risk-taker like Andreas these roles were not sufficient.

 In 1986 he became the founder and editor of what by then was that rarest of beasts, a new daily broadsheet newspaper. Within a few years the Independent was outselling the Times, until the latter embarked on a price cutting war. In 1987 Andreas won the Journalist of the Year award from the British Press Association and two years later the Granada Editor of the Year award, an unusual double.

When he was editor of the ‘Indie’, Private Eye always used to refer to him as ‘the saintly Andreas Whittam Strobes'. I am not sure about the ‘Strobes’ - but the relevance for our purposes is 'saintly'. 'Let your light so shine before men.'

Andreas stepped down from full time work in the newspaper industry in the 1990s and started to assemble an unlikely combination of new responsibilities. They ranged from the worthy- Chair of the Financial Ombudsman Service, Chair of the Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust- to the lurid- President of the British Board of Film Classification, or as it had been known in less squeamish times, The British Board of Film Censorship.

The worthy and the lurid, not a bad preparation for the life of the General Synod.

 It was in 2002 that Andreas accepted the Crown appointment of First Estates Commissioner. After their difficulties of the early 1990s the Commissioners had gradually rebuilt their strength under the determined and shrewd leadership of Sir Michael Colman. But Sir Michael’s successor had been able to serve for only two years. So, when Andreas arrived the jury was still out on whether the reforms of the 1990s would bear fruit.

 Those changes had included not only improved governance for the Commissioners and a sharper focus on their asset management responsibilities but the creation of the Archbishops’ Council of which the First Estates Commissioner was also a member.

Andreas’ early days were not without their dramas. An initial attempt at some radical thinking produced a memorable scene in the House of Bishops worthy of a Bateman cartoon and the subsequent denunciation of Andreas’ ideas in a Synod debate by the then Bishop of St Albans as ‘brutality with a smirk’. But this proved a mere momentary set-back and Andreas quickly recovered.

 He did so because he understands the importance of listening and of trying to get to the heart of the matter. Partial knowledge is dangerous. Good decisions require insight, intelligence and a determined focus on outcomes. It’s crucial to work out the right thing to do and then think about how to deliver it rather than simply clutching at a politically convenient solution. That is the ‘Andreas’ philosophy.

 He likes to quote, mischievously, the provocative classification that the former Chief of the German General Staff, General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, made of his officers into four groups, namely clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy.

 Some, he said, were clever and diligent -- their place was the General Staff. The General, like Andreas, was also not too hard on those who were clever and lazy, indeed he saw them as qualified for the highest leadership duties, because they possessed the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions.

 Then there were the stupid and lazy. According to the General, they made up 90 percent of every army and they too had their place; so long as they were given only routine duties. The really disastrous combination was stupidity and diligence since such people would always cause mischief!

 Well, in Andreas, we have for the past 15 years had the benefit of someone who is not only supremely clever and diligent, immensely knowledgeable of financial markets and above all robustly independent in his judgements. He has been loyal to the institutions he has served and to his colleagues. But he is no lover of conventional or convenient solutions.

As Chair of the Assets Committee he has stoutly defended the responsibility of that body to reach judgements that will maximise the financial return to the Church, subject always to the Commissioners’ ethical investment policies.

He has also had the courage to strengthen the Commissioners’ professional expertise at staff level and to do what’s necessary to secure people of the required quality.  The results, as we have seen each year, have been outstanding. When he arrived, the value of the Commissioners’ assets stood at three and a half billion pounds. Fifteen years on they stand at somewhere between seven and a half and eight billion. And that is after the Commissioners have spent, on the mission and ministry of the Church of England, some three billion pounds over the same period.

 The Commissioners’ exceptionally demanding target is to grow their fund over the long term by at least 5% more than the increase in the Retail Price Index. Over the past 30 years they have achieved RPI plus 6.3%.

 As Jesus reminded us in the parable of the talents, money is entrusted to us not as an end in itself but for a purpose: an asset for mission. As a Commissioner and member of the Archbishops’ Council he has been relentless in encouraging a sharper focus on church growth, building an evidence base and putting resources behind intentional diocesan plans. The disciplined yet far seeing way in which he opened up the debate about whether the Commissioners should make additional funding available for the Renewal and Reform programme was exemplary.

 This Synod has before it a report on lay leadership and we have in Andreas someone who, through vision, clarity of thought and expression, has modelled for us outstanding servant leadership. When he has given the Synod one of his masterly overviews of the world financial scene we have hung on his quietly spoken words. And when he has urged the Synod in response to a delaying amendment to [quote] ‘make a decision and stop fooling around’ we have heeded his advice.

 More than a decade ago he wrote this in a book: ‘I shall never desert Anglicanism even if I’m the last man standing on the bridge as the ship goes down- there’s nothing that would drive me out. There are three things I might be prepared to die for: I’d die for my Church, I’d die for my country and I’d die for my family.’

 We all hope, Andreas, that it will never come to that. We also hope that you won’t as you threatened in that book take to stacking supermarket shelves rather than stopping work! No just keep writing, enjoying music, praying and being Andreas. When you step down in June it will be for us, as for you, the end of an era. We are deeply grateful to you, to Valerie who has loaned you to us, and to Almighty God for all you have done.

The Church of England owes you a huge debt of gratitude. In the name of our Lord we thank you.

 

“For all that has been – THANKS:

For all that shall be – YES”

 

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