The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

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Ethical Questions

One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.

How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.

Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?

With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.

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Priorities

One of the maddening things about other people is that they often have different priorities from us. Not only that, they have different tastes, different values, different habits. In a monastery, of course, there is the advantage of having the same goal in view, though how we achieve it is frequently a matter of dispute (also known as ‘chapter discussion’). Today in the U.K. we shall learn who is to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and so our next Prime Minister. Not everyone will be delighted with the result, nor will everyone share his priorities or agree with his decisions. With both national and international tensions bubbling over, we may be thinking that the situation in which we find ourselves is dire. Perhaps we need a reminder that prayer isn’t a matter of last resort, something we do when we can’t think of anything else. It is what we do first, a genuine priority. On days like this it is a necessity, pure and simple.

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Measuring Success and Failure

Today,  when Theresa May is widely expected to announce that she is stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party and setting out a timetable for her resignation as Prime Minister, there will be a renewed rush to assess her time in office by the criteria of success and failure. I often wonder what we mean by that. Is it as simple as saying, she said she would do something but didn’t (failure) or she did something she said she would (success)? What happens when someone does something we were not expecting? Does our attitude change, according to whether what is done or not done corresponds to our own ideas?

I began with the example of Theresa May because it is topical, but this post is not about politics but the subjectivity we bring to our judgements. Long, long ago, before I became a nun, my banking colleagues would often mutter the phrase, ‘Now we must be objective about this’ before proceeding to act on some apparently irrational basis. Though no-one would ever admit it, the decisions they made often turned out to be just as effective as those where the number-crunchers had sweated days and nights trying to provide rational, and hence demonstrable, grounds for doing something. All this is rather unsettling to those who like to believe that their way of thinking and decision-making is unarguable. Take, for example, the invocation of science by those who are not themselves scientists. Quietnun can become quite impassioned about those who think that science ‘proves’ an assertion is ‘right’. Her background in biochemistry means she lives in what might be called an ever-expanding intellectual universe, where she is constantly being encouraged to consider possibilities she had not previously imagined. Success and failure don’t come into it: the search is all in all.

Can we apply any of that to our own lives? Here at the monastery we quite often hear from people who think their lives are a failure because they haven’t managed to do something or other, and it would be foolish and fundamentally dishonest to pretend that the choices we make have no part to play in what happens to us. But many things are beyond our control. We didn’t decide our genetic inheritance, or the time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We do the best we can, but it must be the best. I do think, however, that we should be cautious about accepting the values we see in the society in which we live and judging our ‘best’ by them. Success in the West tends to be seen in material terms, even among those who would describe themselves as religious. The more we have, the more successful we are. Owning a big house and driving a fast car is a mark of our success. Even religious communities/clergy can play that game, boasting of the number of vocations they have received or the number of people who attended services. Failure is identified with loss.

As soon as I say that, you can see where I am going. When the Son of God became man, he stripped himself of the glory that was his. He accepted rejection and endured a painful death on the Cross. But he was no failure. Nor are we in God’s eyes if we seek to be true to Him.

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Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.

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How Much Do We Really Care?

The recent row about Shamima Begum and her baby has highlighted a growing difficulty in our public discourse: the tendency to allow emotion and political opportunism to cloud our thinking. We saw something similar at work in the sad case of Alfie Evans. It is as though we are unable to think through the possible consequences of an action and then make a decision, acknowledging that it is imperfect but that it is also as just and fair as we can make it, taking into account not only the principals but all who are affected by what is decided. In the case of Shamima Begum and her son, the safety of the British public as a whole had to be weighed against her desire to be allowed back into Britain. In the case of little Alfie, the wishes of the parents had to be weighed against differing medical opinions and the resources, both human and technical, of Alder Hey Hospital, with the needs of Alfie himself paramount. Those of us who have never had to make such a decision can only speculate what they must cost those who do. Unfortunately, that does not stop us arguing about what should be done, and sometimes, as I said, we do not bother with any real fact-finding or reflection before we burst into print or its online equivalent, issuing little sound-bytes of opinion that play on people’s emotions rather than serving any useful purpose. How much do we really care if that is how we tackle such morally-complex matters?

Tonight’s vote in the House of Commons will have consequences that last at least a generation, but anyone who has followed the Brexit debate in this country must have doubts about the process as well as its ultimate outcome. Is this truly democracy at work or a mutant variety of it? I myself have been disappointed by the way in which some of our politicians have conducted themselves and have often cringed at assertions/wishes being presented as facts when they are nothing of the sort. We have seen manoeuvering for personal/political advantage, half-truths and an unwillingness to face up to some unpleasant realities that has proved extremely divisive. Whatever is decided tonight is unlikely to end the squabbling or lead to more unity. So, again I ask, do we really care?

It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ we are on. We all have a responsibility to ensure, as far as we are able, that Parliament’s decisions are in the best interests of everyone — which includes the wider world beyond these shores. Some will argue that Britain has no responsibility towards mainland Europe, still less to countries further away, but is that true? We have already seen how what is done in one part of the world affects others, even down to the way in which our rubbish pollutes or our love of cheap fashion exploits. Can we really argue that whatever circle of self-interest we choose to define, be it tribe or nation, that is the limit of our responsibility? Some may, but I can’t; and I would hope anyone reading this would be of the same mind, however much we may differ in our view of other matters.

That leaves us with an almost-dilemma. What can we do about it? I would suggest that when we have thought and prayed and done everything we can by way of action, we are cast back onto prayer again because we know that God can do what we cannot. He sees the whole picture. He writes straight with crooked lines. Trusting God when we are doubtful is hard, but none of us can question either the fact that he cares or the extent to which he is willing to go for our sakes. We have only to look at a crucifix to know that. In the uncertainties of the present, I find that an encouraging as well as challenging thought, don’t you?

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What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
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