Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Back on the agenda: Doing God

I was told yesterday an amusing anecdote relating to Robert Runcie, the last-but-three Archbishop of Canterbury.  Following a Lenten service somewhere or other, he asked people in the congregation what they had given up for Lent.  He was met in the main with predictable responses about alcohol and chocolate.  One man, however, said he couldn’t reveal what he had given up.  “You needn’t be shy”, said Archbishop Robert, kindly, “I’m a priest.”  “Well”, said the man, hesitantly, “to be candid, I’ve given up masturbation.”  Runcie paused momentarily, then smiled.  “In which case”, he replied, “Easter is going to be fun!”

But my favourite quote is this (which I heard him say in a TV interview): “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and a source of perpetual embarrassment to the English.”  Perhaps the reason I remember this adaptation of St Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 1:23) is that it captures something of how the English relate to the Gospel, and their supposed tendency to suppress its less comfortable aspects.

I am reminded of this in the context of David Cameron’s speech at the Downing Street Easter reception, in which he revealed something of his own relationship with Christianity.  This has caused some to sneer, partly because they read in his words a crude attempt to curry electoral favour with Christians (which frankly strikes me as rather improbable); but mainly because of their slightly anodyne character.  He speaks warmly about the Church’s social and pastoral work; he praises its priests and its schools, and he reveals something of his own (rather infrequent) religious practice.  He does not mention Christ’s agony on the cross and its meaning.  Not once.

His critics were quickly out of the blocks.  In the red corner, no less a personage than the Reverend Giles Fraser; and in the blue, Tim Stanley, Telegraph journalist and blogger.  Their contributions make some important points and are worth reading.  Their gist is that Christianity isn’t just about being nice or “moral”, about helping people, about warm words.  It’s about something horribly raw, something life-changing, something overwhelmingly, beautifully true.  Of course I agree with them, and am myself impatient of the prissy bloodlessness that sometimes sanitises worship and dilutes witness in the interests of good taste.  True Christian faith has dark as well as light, fast as well as feast, sorrow as well as joy – all of which must be faced and entered into by those who would follow Jesus.

And yet I suspect there are many for whom Cameron’s words will have struck a chord.  Many who have an associational rather than participative relationship with the Church - who are not opposed to it, who in fact are quite supportive of it, but who are nervous of its perceived certainties, silly internal arguments and what Cameron calls (in a subsequent Church Times article) “doctrinal purity”.   These are they who are grateful for the Church’s presence in times of grief and joy, for its benevolent presence in the community, and for the peace to be found, when necessary, in Larkin’s “serious house on serious earth”.  I can see that these might well find the meaning of the Cross difficult to grasp.  It is quite a journey.

Five years ago this month, I was present in St Paul’s cathedral when the Bishop of London hosted a panel discussion in the “margins” of the G20 conference.  On the panel were Gordon Brown (then PM of course) and Kevin Rudd, at that time PM of Australia.  Someone asked Mr Rudd to say something about his own faith.  Describing himself as a “common or garden Christian”, he gave a simple yet eloquent account of the way in which the Gospel informed his own life and work.  When Gordon Brown was asked the same question, he pointedly (and characteristically) avoided it, but referred approvingly to the so-called Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).  This is, of course, not a uniquely Christian precept; but it was the nearest he could get to an expression of personal belief.  I do not believe this was because he had bought into his predecessor’s idea of religion being toxic in a political context.  I wondered, rather, if he had no conventional religious faith, or one that was weak and variable - but was just too hideously embarrassed to say anything that might reveal this.

No doubt full-on, full-blooded Christians will continue to look down on David Cameron’s “religion-lite” (G Fraser).  And, as unrealistic as it may be, I would rather he had said something solid about Jesus and about his own discipleship.  I would rather he went to church more often.  But he has broken a taboo.  The British Prime Minister has said something highly positive about religion, Christianity, the Church of England and his relationship to them.  He has done so publicly and without embarrassment.   We do seem to have moved on.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Maria Miller, Nigel Evans and public humiliation

I do not know Maria Miller.  I have no special regard for her, beyond the (rather significant) role she played in the passage of the legislation introducing same-sex marriage.  She took a lot of flak over this - rather bravely, I thought; and an acknowledgment of this was perhaps partly behind David Cameron’s initial decision not to ditch her when the press campaign to force him to do so got going.  Gay marriage was his baby; and he knew that Mrs Miller had borne much of the heat of the battle to secure it on his behalf.  For those with ears to hear, his reply to her letter of resignation goes beyond the usual formulaic expression of regret.

Otherwise I have no view on the case, beyond the commonplace observation that those in high places do well to ensure their affairs are in order.  In our unforgiving public square, ignominy awaits the careless.

And what ignominy it was in this case.  There was a near as we ever get to a concerted campaign to force her out. “One of David Cameron's more decent instincts”, wrote Polly Toynbee, not usually one of his milder critics, in the Guardian, “is to protect his team from the wolves.”  Well he had a good go; but in the end even he could not withstand the blistering heat of the attack.  Which incidentally featured a huge banner, sponsored by the Sun and held aloft outside Parliament, depicting a millipede with Miller’s face and bearing the legend: “Time To Quit Miller. Just Thought We’d Flag That Up”.  Classy stuff.

Anyway, quit she (eventually) did, and honour was satisfied.  Well, if it was not exactly honour, it was perhaps our own peculiarly British variety of schadenfreude, which delights in seeing wrongdoers – especially prominent ones - brought down and punished.  I was reminded of nothing so much as of accounts of how, in the 18th century, crowds with drinks and snacks would gather outside Newgate prison, so that on the eighth strike of St Sepulchre’s clock, they could enjoy a good hanging (or two).  Perhaps there is something in our makeup that relishes public humiliation.

And our proxy in all this is, of course, the press – on the future regulation (or not) of which Maria Miller was working at the time of her demise.  We leave the papers to do the self-righteousness, name-calling, and crude vindictiveness for us, since they exist to speak truth to power and celebrity in ways that we cannot and would not.  And when they go too far (and they cannot easily restrain themselves), we can back off, and claim they are not doing it in our name.  But we know they are pandering to our baser instincts; and when our pleasure over the latest downfall or humiliation has subsided, we sense that we have colluded in something not very noble.  That may lie behind the entirely proper, yet unexpectedly fulsome, joy with which Nigel Evans MP’s acquittal on sex charges was greeted the day after Miller’s resignation.  When we know we have been complicit in bringing someone down, we unconsciously compensate by raising another up.  I suspect the anti-Leveson libertarians overlook the subtle moral game the British play with their press, and that ultimately, we will consent to its regulation.

Since this is my first post for a long time, I hope I may be permitted a theological reflection.  The gospel reading for Passion Sunday this year was the account of the raising of Lazarus.  The passage features the famous verse “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).  It is sometimes assumed that Jesus wept over the death of his friend; yet he had already in absentia announced Lazarus’ death and predicted that he would rise again to glorify God.  When he reaches the tomb in which Lazarus’ body lies, and sees Mary (Lazarus’ sister) there weeping, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (NRSV).  He is moved not by Lazarus’ death, but by Mary’s distress.  Jesus – true God and true man – shows that, to be moved by another’s distress, is both deeply Godlike and deeply human.  It is a profound expression of the love of neighbour to which he repeatedly calls us.

I am delighted for Nigel Evans: I cannot imagine what life has been like for him over the last year, and I give thanks that his Christian faith seems to have sustained him.  But I am also sorry for Maria Miller who is, for all I know, a perfectly nice person and perhaps not incorrigibly wicked.  In any case, her demise and probable distress isn’t doing a thing to cheer me up.