A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.


Taking a Principled Stand

The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.

Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.

Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?


Courage in Old Age: the Example of Bl. Margaret Pole

Blessed Margaret Pole’s ancestry did not suggest that she would die a heroic death. The niece of Edward IV and Richard III and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (who was executed for treason by his brother) and Isabel Neville, she had a complicated inheritance, to say the least. A peeress in her own right as Countess of Salisbury, she was married off by Henry VII to Sir Richard Pole, one of his loyal supporters and a connection of Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. They had five children together, but Margaret was widowed early and left in what Victorian hagiographers liked to call straitened circumstances, i.e. little land, less income, and a precarious situation vis-a–vis the king. A partial solution to this problem was found in dedicating the third son, Reginald, to the Church, where he subsequently became a cardinal, archbishop of Canterbury and a papal legate, while Margaret herself found refuge among the nuns of Syon until she was returned to royal favour in 1509.

The royal favour was fickle, however, and Margaret’s situation was not helped by her sons, Geoffrey, Reginald and Henry, who all, in various ways, incurred the royal ire. Geoffrey was pardoned; Henry was executed; Reginald was loud in his condemnation of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon; and their mother found hesrself imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up charges. Some say she was treated well; others, that the cold and damp caused her much pain. She knew she could die at any moment, but her spirit was unbroken. She carved the following verse on the wall of her cell:

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

When, on the morning of 27 May, 1541, she was told she was to die within the hour, she retorted that she had been found guilty of no crime. In fact, her refusal to yield on the point of papal authority, and her son Reginald’s constant plotting, made her death a certainty. Chapuys, the ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, described her death as cruel and messy: at first, ‘when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced.’ Then, because the usual executioner had been sent North to deal with rebels, the execution was performed by ‘a wretched and blundering youth who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.’ Her last words were, ‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake.’

Is this just the story of a stubborn old woman who refused to compromise when compromise would have assured her a comfortable old age? I think it is more than that. Those who met her were impressed by her indomitable spirit and the clarity with which she saw the consequences of opposition to the king’s will. How could she not, given her family history? But she was prepared to suffer for what she believed to be right. There could be no going back on that. She is a reminder that courage in the elderly is no less great than courage in the young; that we may meet our biggest challenges when we are at our weakest and least able to cope with them; and that a lifetime of prayer and fidelity is the surest way of ensuring that we do so with grace and constancy. May Bl. Margaret Pole pray for all who are growing old and experiencing trials the young may know nothing of; and may all of us, whatever our age, give thanks for the inspiration the elderly are to us.


St Wulstan of Worcester

When I lived in Worcester St Wulstan was not only a local saint, he was a very approachable one. Much that we saw when we looked out of the monastery windows would have been familiar to him. As Benedictines, we lived by the same Rule and ordered our days by a similar horarium. It helped that he was one of the bridges between the old Anglo-Saxon world and the new world of the Norman Conquest, keeping his see when the other Anglo-Saxon bishops lost theirs. We admired his work to end the slave trade (see this post for a reflection on the same), chuckled over his habit of repeating lines of the Office that he particularly enjoyed (very trying to his companions, no doubt) and were moved by Colman’s stories of his washing the feet of the poor and his generosity towards those in need. Even allowing for the hagiographer’s touch of rose, Wulstan was the kind of saint we could actually like; and we didn’t think much of Emma Mason’s debunking account of 1990.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Wulstan was a holy fool, a man who spent all his time in prayer, devotion and works of mercy and was not taken seriously by his contemporaries. Wulstan was socially well-connected and made the most of his connections. His personal humility did not extend to ignoring or playing down the rights of his see, nor did his zeal for reform or his extensive building plans suggest a weak character. He is thus a much more challenging figure than many will admit. What has always struck me about Wulstan is that, for all his very considerable charm, he was a man of iron will. Even the often-repeated anecdote about his being distracted at prayer by the smell of a goose roasting and vowing that he would never eat meat again if he could be freed of the temptation is evidence of his determination not to be deflected from what he thought was right.

I wonder how many of us have thought about the kind of sanctity that Wulstan demonstrates, the very capable sanctity of a man who fulfilled his office with care but did not limit himself to the immediate concerns of his own diocese? For most of us there is a difficult balance to be maintained between the obvious duties of our life and the wider concerns of the society in which we live. Wulstan’s holiness as both monk and bishop reminds us that achieving that balance, resolving some of its implicit contradictions, is both possible and worthwhile. Today let us ask his prayers for all who feel pulled in many directions but who recognize the pull of our Lord Jesus Christ as the most important of all.


Contemporary Shibboleths

How many people reflect on the fact that the Hebrew word we transliterate as ‘shibboleth’ means ‘ear of corn’? I think we might be tempted to call it a ‘wisp of straw,’ especially when the belief in question is one we do not share or regard as outmoded. I often think that many people in Britain today regard Christianity as rubbish, possibly even dangerous rubbish, and certainly not worthy of respect or any attempt to understand. As a result, whenever Christianity comes into conflict with contemporary attitudes it is dismissed as old-fashioned, over-rigorous or just plain wrong. If one questions what someone means by Christianity, one frequently discovers an ignorance so profound as to be frightening, bolstered by an inadequate grasp of history and a conviction that a very literal interpretation of biblical texts is all that is needed to make one an expert in what Christians believe. If I sound harsh or hyper-critical, it is because I have often been on the receiving end of such misconceptions; and I am beginning to wonder whether our current fascination with the visual (rather than with text) is making it more difficult to argue a case or express an opinion reasonably.

Take, for example, the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance. To anyone who has studied it, it is entirely consistent. From the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, the individual’s right to life is regarded as clear and unequivocal. Abortion and  euthenasia are equally unacceptable; capital punishment may just be allowable, but there is a vast body of opinion that argues against it. Divorce and the possibility of remarriage are difficult areas, and as for same-sex marriage or choosing one’s own gender, the Church doesn’t believe it possible. Not, please note, that the Church is against it; she just doesn’t believe we can decide such matters for ourselves. All these things make Catholics out of step with contemporary British opinion, and often with other Churches that regard inclusivity as more important than tradition. But then, of course, other things come into play. I trust my divorced and remarried friends, my trans friends, my friends who have had abortions, find me as welcoming as those whose lives have taken a different course. And there’s the rub.

Looked at from outside, Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, can appear harsh in its refusal to accept unquestioningly many of society’s current values. Where there is congruence, as, for example, in awareness of the earth’s finite resources and the need for more equitable sharing or for the pursuit of social justice and the common good, there is no problem. But even where there is disagreement, as in some of the instances I have mentioned, these disagreements are not carried over into condemnation of the individual or personal animosity. We are a Church of sinners, and that knowledge teaches us to be humble in the face of difference. We uphold what we believe to be true because we believe it to be true. To do otherwise would be to do violence to our conscience. But we must always be ready to explain, and to make sure that what we believe to be the teaching of the Church really is the teaching of the Church, not our own version of it. Love has a way of making difficult or contradictory things easier. It reminds us that shibboleths can take many forms. Only discernment can show which are nourishing ears of corn and which are transitory wisps of straw.

Please note: I don’t want to get into an argument over the teaching of the Catholic Church in this blog. If you want to know what the Church teaches, a good place to start is the Catechism, which you can find online in English here. (Link opens in new window.)



Remembrance Sunday 2017

I am repeating a post I wrote originally in 2015 because it says exactly what I would like to say and pray this morning.


Poppies by Giuseppe Moscato (www.flickr.com/photos/pinomoscato/)
Image source: Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licence

For people of a certain age or religious belief, Remembrance Sunday is uncomplicated. We pray for the dead and ask God to change our hearts and minds so that war is done away with altogether. Our prayer may be tinged with memories of family members looking out of black and white photographs into a future they were destined never to know, or seared by remembrance of the terrible wounds of mind and body borne even now by those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it is essentially unsentimental, unarguable. People fought; they died; we remember, and we pray. We are grateful for the sacrifices that made our freedoms possible, but we don’t want them repeated. We want a world at peace.

But what if we haven’t grown up with those photographs — if we have swallowed wholesale the revisionist histories or political ideologies that confuse ends and means  and make us uncertain, troubled? What if we have no faith that looks through death? Then, I think, we are left with little more than vague sentiment, regret and fear. Millions of deaths, whether as combatants or civilians, are hard to get our minds round. The more we know about the conduct of this war or that and the political shenanigans that accompanied them, the further away we are from any sense of personal connectedness, the less easy it is to accept the simple view of history. We walk hesitantly where our forebears strode confidently. And if we have no faith, the poppies and the bugle calls bring no peace, no certainty that ultimately sin and failure are redeemed, only regret and an unfathomable bleakness of mind and spirit. We are in the wilderness again.

This morning many of us will have our own private memories of war and the grief that war brings, but even if we don’t, this national act of remembrance is one in which we can take part with integrity and purposefulness. During the two minutes’ silence let us pray not only for the fallen and the wounded, for forgiveness and healing, but also for understanding. Just as peace begins within, so does war. The conflicts of the twenty-first century look like being very different from those of the twentieth, but the toll they will exact in terms of human suffering and death will be the same. Unless we are prepared to make the effort to understand others, we can be sure we will have to pay the price. ‘Peace has her victories no less than war,’ we are told. Indeed, and the greatest of these is to make war impossible. Let us remember that, too.


St Martin of Tours and Armistice Day

There is a sad irony in the fact that Armistice Day co-incides with the feast of St Martin of Tours. Long-term readers will know that Martin is a favourite of mine, as he is of most monks and nuns, but I supect the one story everybody knows about him is of his having shared his cloak with a beggar — the young soldier, not yet baptised, who responded to the need of another and found, as we all do, that it was Christ he was serving. And at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we recall the Armistice and the end of ‘the war to end all wars’, which did nothing of the sort and only showed us how much death and destruction seemingly civilised nations can wreak upon one another. Is there any way of making sense of this?

We could, of course, reflect on the fact that poverty kills more people than war does. We could go and look at paintings of St Martin using his sword to divide his cloak and be struck by how much they tell us about the social attitudes of the painter — the saint is almost invariably depicted on horseback, condescending to the poor man rather than standing side by side with him — and examine our own attitudes to charitable giving. We could go and read accounts of war in Europe and its aftermath and be sobered by our apparent inability to see further than our own noses at times. All these would be useful but I doubt whether they would help us understand something I think St Martin understood, and that we need to understand if we are not to repeat the unlearned lessons of the past.

Martin’s life was changed for ever by his encounter with that poor man on the road. He was baptised, braved his superiors’ disapproval and a spell in gaol, became a monk and later a bishop, and was remarkable not only for his orthodoxy but also his compassion. His efforts on behalf of the Priscillianists, for example, did not endear him to others. Like St Ambrose, he opposed the burning of heretics and did what he could to alleviate their sufferings. But there is something else I think we should remember. He was born in what is now Hungary, lived much of his life in Italy, and founded the first monastery in the West at Marmoutier in Gaul (now France). He was, so to say, an internationalist avant la lettre. His membership of the Church made national boundaries of secondary importance. That does not preclude love of country and all that is good about patriotism, but it does do away with the less admirable elements, what I call the ‘ya, boo, sucks’ approach of drunken football fans and the like. It means seeing people clearly as people, not as abstractions, symbols of something else. When Martin looked into the eyes of the poor man, he saw his brother, not an object of compassion. I think that is what we all have to learn to do. I dare to say if we could all learn to do that, Armistice Day would have attained its purpose and we would all live more happily as a result.


Alternative Histories: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

We don’t ‘do’ television here at the monastery but a quick skim through Facebook this morning produced a handful of interesting comments on the BBC’s latest period drama, ‘Gunpowder’. As a Catholic of a certain age, I’m familiar with the story of English recusancy; so it was fascinating to read the responses of those who aren’t. It set me thinking about the way in which alternative histories co-exist and the influence they have on succeeding generations.

I have only to see one of the tiny chalices and small Mass stones carried by recusant priests and I am back in the stifling heat of a loft where Mass is said quietly, with one ear always on the alert for danger. I am on the dark seashore waiting for a priest who has slipped across the Channel to bring the sacraments to my kinsfolk, knowing that if he is caught it means certain death. If I am male, I am forbidden a horse worth more than twelve shillings, fined if I do not attend the services of the Church of England, subject to all kinds of petty inconveniences and disabilities. If I am female and want to become a nun, I need a licence from the Bishop of London to be able to go abroad, where the only monasteries for Englishmen and women are. And all this while my fellow countrymen are bursting with self-confidence and creativity, laying the foundations of empire and much that is less controversial which we can glory in today. Yet for me, as for many Catholics, the alternative history, the hidden stream, remains powerful. How does it affect us?

I think, in the first instance, it reminds us that faith is precious and freedom of religion a hard-won blessing not to be taken for granted, that we must be willing to make huge sacrifices to preserve. Sacrifice isn’t a fashionable concept these days, but it is an essential part of the Christian vocabulary. I am not very brave myself, but knowing the sacrifices made by my forebears means I could never lightly give up Catholicism or accept any other form of Christianity, no matter how much I value and appreciate its followers and the insights it has been given. I am sure my Protestant friends would say the same, but perhaps the memory of ‘anti-popery’ gives a special force to my conviction. Either that or the natural stubbornness of the Wybournes!

Secondly, I think awareness of the way in which Catholicism survived in England makes us more conscious of the debt we owe to others and the interconnectedness of England and the Continent. I think of the other countries of Europe as being friends not foes—places that gave refuge to English Catholics when life was difficult for us here, and still welcoming today because we share the same faith and sacraments. We have a long history in common. The overseas foundations that played an important role in the lives of English Catholics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries were followed in the nineteenth by an influx of mainly French and Belgian and later, Irish, religious who set up schools and other institutions over here. I was myself taught by religious who came originally from France, Belgium and Spain. Does the internationalism of the Church have a psychological effect? I’d say it does, but as the schools run by religious close and fewer clergy study abroad, one must question whether the sense of belonging to a larger whole is waning, and with it any lingering sense of the ‘foreign’ nature of Catholicism. At one time, to be a Catholic was regarded by many as being unpatriotic. Now, most people don’t care; or they try to stretch the definition of ‘Catholic’ to include whatever they want it to include. If people object to Catholicism nowadays, it is because of what the Church teaches, not because Catholicism is seen as ‘foreign’.

A few very personal ramblings which I make public for one reason only: although I have concentrated on something I know from the inside, the history of post-Reformation Catholicism in England, there are many such ‘alternative histories’ that inform the thoughts and feelings of our fellow citizens. It is easy to be dismissive — especially when one is ignorant of the peculiar force such a history may have for the one who shares it. It is also easy to be over-sensitive — especially if one is a bit wishy-washy about what one believes to be important oneself. What is not so easy is being willing to learn. One of the things I found strangely moving as I skimmed through those Facebook comments this morning was the repeated ‘I didn’t know that.’ I think of some of the people I have met — Vietnamese, refugees from Amin’s Uganda, Syrians — and find myself wondering what their ‘hidden histories’ are and how they affect their lives in Britain today. I have a hunch I might be shocked and shamed were I to find out.


Helpless in the Face of Evil?

Barcelona. Cambrills. More blood shed, more lives lost, more evil to stun mind and heart with its unexpectedness and apparently random character. Do we see what happened in Catalonia as just another terrorist attack, another tragedy to be endlessly discussed on Social Media and surrounded with well-meaning but ultimately comfortless words by those who are expected to voice an opinion? They will tend to be much of a muchness: from religious leaders, the deploring of violence and an exhortation not to repay wrong with wrong; from politicians, expressions of solidarity and revulsion; from people in the street, attempts to put into words feelings of loss and bewilderment that only tears can articulate; and from some, hate-filled threats and invective. And so we have the flowers, the candles, the vigils, the embracings of people of different religious backgrounds, while the Emergency Services get on with their tasks, and those who believe that ‘government’ has let them down spew their anger and fear over the mosques and homes of those they hold responsible.

The real problem, the one we must all confront, is the reality of evil and our feelings of helplessness in the face of it. Recently, I have begun to see that this is one area where there is something of a masculine/feminine division in approach*. Most religious leaders and politicians are male. Inevitably, they frame their discourse in predominantly masculine terms. They talk of fighting, conquering, waging war: there is a victory to be gained, a defeat to be avoided, something to be eliminated, and when the issue is not clear-cut, as it is not in the case of terrorism, there is a frustration that is almost tangible. A more feminine discourse relies on less aggressive verbs and expects a less clear-cut outcome. As a woman I am used to living with, putting up with and similar verbs with ‘fuzzy edges’. Apply this to the evil of terrorism, and what do we get?

First of all, I think we get a better sense of the West’s inability to understand the motivation of those who perform terrorist acts. It is not simply a failure to prevent radicalisation, or a selective reading of the Qu’ran, or even a disregard of the economic and other pressures on those who adopt an Islamist stance that accounts for what happens. We tend to ignore the obvious. For example, the jihadist as warrior or marty is an alien idea to most of us. The warrior ideal is not fashionable in the West today, and however little we may have retained from our Christian past, it certainly does not include any sense of what martyrdom really means. We do have a vague idea that somehow our modern virtues of equality and inclusiveness demand that we do not judge and do not condemn, so we do not call evil out for what it is. But calling evil out for what it is, is not the same as mirroring evil ourselves. We confuse the two.

As I understand it, the self-proclaimed jihadist rejects Western values and sees him or herself as a warrior for God, purifying the world of all that is evil. The ‘war on terrorism’ called for by George Bush and adopted by others is often seen by jihadists as a crusade and so plays to their religious interpretation of events. The trouble is, the war metaphor of Westerners is devoid of religious or moral content. It is all about winning. But we will never win any war on terrorism because the underlying dynamic of terrorism is not based on winning or losing.

I think we also get a better sense of what we can do to oppose terrorism once we recognize its fundamental motivations. It demands courage and sacrifice, but it is by no means the wimpish response that some think it. To go on living lives of integrity, refusing to hate, isn’t an easy option. It will mean being scorned and derided by those who are happier venting their anger or calling for vengeance. It will be no defence against bombs or bullets, that is for sure. However, it doesn’t mean acquiescence, closing our eyes to what is wrong. We must be prepared to name evil and suffer for our honesty in naming it. But the catch for Christians is this: even in our naming of evil we must be careful not to allow the Evil One to infect our zeal. There is a way of calling out evil that is evil itself, which only prayer and a readiness to allow God to be God in our lives can protect us from. So, responding to the latest terror attack demands much more than gestures or rhetorical flourishes: it demands hard work, and a hard work I would say begins on our knees.

This morning we think and pray about those people cruelly murdered in Barcelona; we think and pray about all those who, through the generations, have been victims of violence and hatred. We think and pray and resolve to do what we can to make sure that evil has no part in our own lives, that it may one day have no part in the world in which we live. Ridiculously naive? Possibly. But for those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians there is the knowledge that we follow a crucified Lord who was not afraid to confront evil. He did not fight; he did not wage war; he did not utter threats; but he overcame. I believe we can, too, in him.

* The division into masculine/femminine is clumsy but I hope it will help readers understand the point I am trying to make. If you can think of a better way of expressing the difference, please let me know.


The Importance of Fairness

You were probably expecting me to write something about conscience, given that today we celebrate SS John Fisher and Thomas More, but I’ve already done that more than once and I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly written about fairness.

Fairness isn’t a spectacular quality. It doesn’t usually involve huge sacrifices or dramatic gestures. It isn’t listed as a virtue or lauded as a must-have quality, yet fairness and ‘fair play’ are immensely attractive, especially to those who are more vulnerable. It tacitly reasserts individual value, our worth as human beings despite the accidents of class or wealth or whatever arbitrary measurement society applies. To be fair is to try to enter into the thoughts and feelings of others, to seek compromise where compromise is possible, to have a care for justice, equity and the rest. It is one of the qualities the Rule of St Benedict mentions again and again in connection with the abbot: he is to do all things with prudence and fairness. It allows communities to flourish, as well as individuals.

We seem to be born with an innate sense of fairness — at least as it affects ourselves. How often does sibling rivalry lead to the cry, ‘It isn’t fair!’? We also see in childhood the positive aspects of fairness, with children instinctively sharing and being troubled if one has less than another. As we grow older, some of us keep that sense of fairness, others of us lose it or allow it to be overlain by self-interest. Fairness becomes a bit trickier, a bit less important in a world where ‘dog eats dog’ is the mantra of many supposedly successful people. We can even despise fairness as weakness.

I think John Fisher was a fair man, always ready to listen to others and consider their arguments. I don’t think Thomas More started out as a fair man — he was too much of his time to be ‘nice’ to heretics, for example, and the language of his controversies is distinctly unpleasant — but I think he became one. Neither wanted to be a martyr. Both tried to find ways of accommodating the king, but when they failed, they accepted the consequences with a courage most of us find heroic. If More was unfair to anyone in his last days, it was to his family, as Dame Alice complained. And that is the great problem with fairness. It comes at a price; but it is surely one we ought all to be willing to pay.