Deep conversations with Claire Foster-Gilbert

If you have never heard of The Westminster Abbey Institute, initially it will sound like the kind of place where the Church of England sends its vicars to retire gracefully. However, if ever there has been a part of the church, which is bucking the antiquated stereotype is is the Institute.

Claire Foster-Gilbert, the Director of the Westminster Abbey Institute, is in no small way responsible for creating this modern Institute in the middle of the most ancient part of the Abbey. To explain; the Institute “is a forum for lively truth-telling and provocative conversation on issues of morality, faith, politics, and policy-making.” In its own words, it is primarily a lecture and seminar series to “revitalize the moral and spiritual values” of our public servants.

These public talks may only attract audiences of a few hundred, but within that number are MPs, Peers, Senior Judges, and Officers in the Metropolitan Police force, and heads of the Civil Service. Drawing on the Abbey’s “unique geographical location” in Parliament Square, the Institute has taken up a mission to make public service a vocation, not just a job.

On first discovering the mission one might feel rather uncomfortable as all the worst images of Westminster bubble back room conversations might spring to mind. When an institution can list: Baroness Butler-Sloss, General Dannatt, Baroness D’Souza, MP Dominic Grieve, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Sir Bob Kerslake, Lord Saatchi, MP Jack Straw on its Council of Reference, accusations of cronyism may not far behind.

However, it is precisely this naïve view of public servants which Claire Foster-Gilbert created the Institute in 2013 to dispel.

“The Institute,” Claire claims “is the answer to the question: What’s the abbey doing for public service?” While the abbey has always done “big grand services for the public” to many it has simply become a great convener at big national moments. The perceived role the Abbey plays in public life is best exemplified by the recent bid to get the late Sir Terry Wogan a ceremony in the Abbey like his fellow broadcaster Sir David Frost.

When asked about the Wogan campaign Claire laughs and asks “Really?” As the Director of the Institute, she is not concerned with what the perception of the Abbey is to the everyman in general. In fact, she said as much.

“I’m not really interested in the general public. We don’t advertise to the general public.” Eighty percent of the audiences at the Institute’s talks are public servants. The Institute actually only sends its marketing material to civil servants, MPs, and Peers, Clerks in the Houses of Parliament, the Judiciary, senior officers in Met.

It is here that Claire is most deft about the role of the Institute. “We have very carefully positioned ourselves not as a think tank, not commenting or suggesting policies” she explains. “It’s about championing what is good in these institutions” as opposed to assuming the very worst.

The best way to explain the role of the Institute is to recognize that its mission might be for you, but it resolutely isn’t about you. When the Institute’s high profile speakers and audiences convene they are having intellectual and critical conversations about the pressures of public service.  

As Claire says “I’m interested in people of good will who are public servants.” While the Institute “can’t just be fawning courtiers to the establishment” she is determined not to descend into divisive party politics.

“With the Institute,” she says “we are trying to get that spirit of sticking with the right thing to do because it’s the right thing to do, and just trying to spread that message to the institutions around the square.”

“I often imagine the Abbey spilling its guts out on to the Square,” Claire says invoking the very best medieval ecclesiastical imagery. From this point of view, she is at her most animated and an almost brutally intelligent champion of a patch of grass and architecture in the middle of London which is extraordinarily unpopular with the general public today, but essential to the safe, happy lives we all wish to lead.

The honest truth, she tells us, is that in spite of what the public think public servants “really aren’t corrupt. There is so little corruption around here.” We don’t have a “corrupt administration” and we certainly don’t have “a corrupt democracy.”

On par, the deep commitment to carrying out the Institute’s mission inspires one to feel inclined to agree with Claire. In order to maintain a balanced and healthy public service we really need to have the type of “critical conversations” that the Institute hosts. Furthermore, there is nothing clandestine about the fact that Claire and the institute aren’t concerned with how “the general public.” view the Abbey. Her mission is to ensure, thanklessly and in part on your behalf, that public servants see service as a vocation and not a labor.



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