Column: Lessons from The West Wing

Rt Rev Geoff Pearson, Bishop of Lancaster
Rt Rev Geoff Pearson, Bishop of Lancaster
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Last Sunday morning I was interviewed on BBC Radio Lancashire about the forthcoming election.

What I didn’t tell the presenter Joe Wilson was how much I love the widely celebrated political drama ‘The West Wing’.

It is about a fictional US Democratic President (played by Martin Sheen) and his administration. Quite possibly I see in it many parallels with a bishop and his diocesan staff.

Across seven seasons the programme charts many political battles, as well as some personal ones, which lead President Josiah Bartlet to compromise and sacrificially re-evaluate some of his ideals and principles.

I was greatly helped by one of the very first episodes which highlighted four or five scenarios where those in power could throw all the resources of the richest nation at a problem and still not solve it. It somehow made me feel a bit more comfortable about some of the problems on my desk that seemed so difficult. Bishops can’t solve everything.

Another episode highlighted the difference it makes when you meet people face-to-face. Decisions that had been made in a high-powered meeting were re-evaluated when encounters with real people who might be affected by the decisions threw those decisions into question.

It maybe that some of our politicians are now finding that out as they meet the ordinary man and woman on the doorstep in the lead up to the General Election.

Anger also reared its ugly head sometimes on ‘The West Wing’, as it does with Bishops when sinful behaviour causes such harm and distress. It was interesting to see how different members of the team dealt with that.

Leaders can put their spouses through the mill too, as well as their colleagues, as they wrestle with ethical dilemmas and there are times when the best action is to do nothing. As I move towards retirement this summer I am mindful to look again at the episodes towards the end of its seven-season run which highlighted the importance of making the most of the last days in office.

At the weekend The Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a pastoral letter to all Anglican churches about the General Election.

They stated we are called upon, among others things, to renounce cynicism, to get involved and to be grateful for those committed to public service.

That message comes through clearly in ‘The West Wing’ - not least because of the integrity of the main characters.