Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover

Today I interviewed Stephen Venner who is the Bishop of Dover and, thus, the Bishop in Canterbury. He welcomed me most warmly into his office at the Canterbury Cathedral and over cups of coffee we discussed virtue among many other things. He is an extremely honest man – both intellectually and emotionally and I found him brave and generous in what he told me of himself and the opinions he expressed. The Bishop wears many different leadership hats: nationally in the Church of England, in the diocese, in the local community, amongst organizations involved in the care of children, and in the business community where he works with business leaders on a range of commercial and non commercial issues.

It is not surprising that leadership, for the Bishop, is central to the challenge of embedding virtue in our society.

For the Bishop, virtue is “developing the gift of experiencing and bringing into reality all that is good in our hearts” where good means treating others with kindness and generosity: trying to make the lives of others a little easier at whatever cost to oneself. He believes that from birth all humans are pleasers who naturally seek to be in positive relationships with other people and do, therefore, at our core, seek to live in a virtuous way. The Bishop is no different and freely admits that behaving in a virtuous way, whilst it fulfils his genuine desire to please God and the people around him, also meets one of his fundamental emotional needs which is for recognition as a good person. He likes to be held up as a positive example, takes great pleasure in being told his words and/or deeds have a positive, lasting impact, is somewhat fearful of disappointing God and the people around him, and does think from time to time about what may be written about him in an obituary. Clearly, he is a very human Bishop!

Whilst other people may not actively seek to live virtuously (or would not necessarily give it that name) the Bishop returned to the point that we seek, as humans, to forge positive relationships and, to that end, we need to behave in a way that integrates others into our lives in a positive manner for all. It is this that makes us happy. He sees clearly that many people need to change in order to do this and believes that, with a tiny number of exceptions, we are in control of our behaviour and our choices. The trigger for creative introspection and, therefore the opportunity for behavioural change, is life events, most specifically endings (bereavements) of any kind. One potentially positive aspect of our celebrity culture, in his view, is that many people are avid followers of celebrities and have relationships of a sort with them through the pages of the tabloids and the celebrity magazines. Readers identify and empathise with the stars they admire and when something terrible happens (Jade Goody’s death came up in our conversation) the fans genuinely grieve and, in doing so, will contemplate their own behaviour and, ideally, choose to make changes for the good. In religious terms, in every generation people look for saints – people whom we admire, would like to be with, would want to be like.

Although the individual makes his/her own choices, the Bishop is clear that institutions must play a larger role in encouraging and embedding virtuous behaviours. An institution is a collection of individuals and, as such, is in a powerful position for good or for ill. Institutions, in his view, have a responsibility to look beyond the bottom line and to help nurture the people who belong to them. Leaders, therefore, must communicate the set of behaviours they would like to see embedded and then lead by example. The benefits will come as people’s experiences of the institution change for the better. The leader, however, must make the first step and must continue to stay ahead, enabling people to have something to admire and emulate. The leader must have faith in what seems, at first, so intangible. Like most things, this engagement has a double purpose: not only is it good for the human being involved, it is good for the organization itself.

On a practical level, the Bishop wishes people would be more “glass half full”. It is an attitude to life that can be learned with an appropriate personal discipline: actively to seek things, events and people to rejoice in and be thankful for. His experience tells him that if you stick at that it becomes like breathing and then virtuous behaviour, more positive relationships, and deep happiness at the knowledge that you are serving God and that even one life is better because of you, is never far away.