4 min read

Why radical humility challenges personality politics

George Pitcher is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest, 

Amid the political party conferences, George Pitcher searches for the flickers of radical humility.
A cropped image of the face of RIshi Sunak with colours of a flag behind him
Rishi Sunak at a previous party conference.

As a glutton craves a fast, so might regular consumers of party political conferences, stuffed with a surfeit of arrogance, yearn for a display of a little humility. 

It would, admittedly, be a tough trick for a conference speaker to pull off, when the whole point is to achieve a standing ovation. Unlike his immediate predecessors, prime minister Rishi Sunak did try. Humility is an extra challenge for him, being a multi-millionaire former investment banker married to a billionaire heiress. 

But he raised his humble origins again, as he did in his party’s leadership contest, paying tribute to his immigrant parents, a GP and pharmacist in Southampton. Herein lies another problem: As the old saw has it, as soon as you claim humility, you lose it.      

So, one is left to wonder whether humility is a desirable quality in our politics at all, or even possible. Kenneth (now Lord) Clarke came close, in a number of Conservative ministerial positions, saying calmly and honestly what he thought. Labour’s Frank Field was another, possibly informed by his quietly devout Christian faith. 

Further back, Labour’s post-war prime minister Clement Attlee had a gentle and unassuming demeanour, which only led Winston Churchill to observe that he “had much to be modest about.” There’s the problem. Humility is seen as a sign of weakness.  

This is radical humility, a Cinderella quality to its ugly sister “radical honesty”.

But it can be found in politics. Baroness Cathy Ashton, whose many achievements include brokering an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, has written a memoir. 

She was a guest on The Rest is Politics, the podcast hosted by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, of both of whom a neuro-surgeon might observe that humility bypasses have been a complete success. But she is a perfect exemplar of what Stewart called, towards the end of the interview, “radical humility”. 

This, Stewart observed, counters the “Great Man” theory of history, the super-hero who saves his people – the character currently channelled by so many populist leaders, with Donald Trump as its apotheosis. 

Ashton herself said things like “we do our best”, that there’s a web of small, interconnected acts that reach a successful resolution and that the deals aren’t hers to make, but belong to the people making them. A lesson that could be taken from Kosovo to complex circumstances such as British transport infrastructure, the nature of our union, or local governance from Birmingham to Newcastle. 

This is radical humility, a Cinderella quality to its ugly sister “radical honesty”, the latter developed since the Nineties by the American psychotherapist Brad Blanton, which is really a licence for being rude. Radical humility, by contrast, puts its practitioner firmly at the service of those affected by a political situation and enables them to resolve it.  

Impressed as he was by the concept, Campbell neatly summarised the problem of deploying it as a political slogan: “What do we want? Radical humility! When do we want it? Now!” 

But radical humility should be a given for the way we manage the administrative organs of our faith, the Churches. Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster who never forgot he was foremost a Benedictine monk, springs to mind. 

As does Rowan Williams, whom I observed from the Daily Telegraph and then as his principal spin-doctor between 2008 and 2011, holding the complexity of the Anglican Communion together by empowering its components. 

The point about radical humility is that it subsumes personality into the lives of those it serves.

Their aim, in perhaps unconscious application of radical humility, was like Baroness Ashton to give those they convened room to tell their stories, to take ownership of them and become co-narrators. And that has a central gospel provenance. Jesus of Nazareth led by story-telling, the parables inviting listeners to reach their own conclusions – even and especially today. 

Radical humility doesn’t invite servant ministry. It is service ministry, precisely because it puts the governed in charge of their own story, which in a grander context could be called their destiny. 

Whether that kind of liberation could be applied to our secular politics is a tall order. As I’ve said, there are flickers of radical humility in Sunak, but when he claims to be proud to be the UK’s first Asian PM and “even prouder that it’s no big deal”, he paradoxically feels obliged to proceed to slam Labour for its lack of diversity. 

It was telling that home secretary Suella Braverman, in her somewhat incoherent speech this week, widely cast as a leadership bid, claimed that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer didn’t have the “personality” to be prime minister. 

The point about radical humility is that it subsumes personality into the lives of those it serves. It’s one reason, perhaps, why we know so little of the personality of the Nazarene. But the likes of Braverman and other populist politicians can’t see beyond personality. 

Maybe she, like other politicians, wouldn’t recognise radical humility. And it can’t be transformative unless it’s listened to.   

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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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