The Morning After #GE2015

There are advantages to being a nun when General Elections are held. One goes to bed at the usual hour then awakes to a world a-buzz with comment. Twitter this morning is awash with tweets containing a degree of infallibility that might surprise even the pope. For some, we face disaster; for others, a golden era beckons. Both are wrong. What we face is largely unknown. We know there will be some very important decisions to be made — about our place in Europe and the shape of the Union, for example — but the predictable is often blown out of the sky by the unforeseen. We are not just a small group of islands able to live wholly self-sufficiently. What happens in Washington, Beijing or Moscow, in the boardrooms of multi-nationals or on the streets of Syria or Iran, can have a huge effect on what happens here. Even the actions of a single rogue trader, manipulating stock markets, or someone anonymously hacking the IT systems of a nation state, can have immense consequences for us.

Today brings us not only the General Election results but also a reminder of VE Day, the seventieth anniversary, in fact. World War II may seem a distant event to many, but we live with its consequences, both good and bad, even today. As we remember those who gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy, and reflect sadly that the world is still at war in many places, we can also reflect on both the fragility and strength of our democratic processes. We need to pray for H.M. Government, H.M. Opposition, the Civil Service and all who have a role to play in the business of government and the implementation of policy. We may like or dislike individual parties and their policies, but the important thing is surely to try to do the best we can for everyone — to put into action what we, as Christians, often claim to have: a sense of moral purpose, a commitment to the common good, a desire to be of service to others. These are not small things, but they can be hard to achieve.

Many today will also be quietly celebrating Julian of Norwich and her wise and generous vision of a world in which all shall be well, because it is held fast by the hand of God. That hope and vision are a comfort and inspiration, but they require our co-operation to be realized. The General Election is the end of one process and the beginning of another, just as much as VE Day marked the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of the building of the peace. The one thing we can safely predict is that it isn’t going to be easy.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Decline of Civility

One knows one is edging inexorably towards old age when one begins to notice a decline in civility. Whatever one’s own lapses, the lapses of others begin to matter more. I’m sometimes a little taken aback at the way in which people write to the monastery or address us via Social Media, but then one meets someone whose exquisite courtesy restores the sun to its heaven and all’s well with the world. Good manners are not merely ornamental: they protect the weak, prevent the tyranny of the strong, make for ease in tricky situations, and allow individuals a kind of predictability about their encounters with others. We do not have to reinvent the wheel of social relationships every time we meet.

Why am I wittering on about civility the day before the General Election? The answer is to be found in the origins of the word itself. Civility comes from the Latin civilis, pertaining to citizenship, and is related to the qualities the Romans associated with good citizenship, including orderliness and responsible behaviour. One of the (to me) sad aspects of the pre-election campaigning has been the rather obvious appeal to personal interests at the expense of larger issues. A decline in the sense of the obligations of citizenship, of the common good, tends to go hand in hand with a decline in the sense of what is due to the individual by way of politeness and consideration. The civility of the citizen and the civility of the neighbour are linked.

As we consider how to cast our votes tomorrow, there will be much thought and prayer; but one question we can, and I’d say ought to, ask ourselves is, am I preferring self-interest to the interests of others? We may not think of voting as a religious act, but in essence it is, because it is the fulfilment of an obligation (from the Latin, religo, to bind). To be a good citizen implies much more than putting in an appearance at the ballot box every five years. It implies civility in both public and private life, and that’s something for every day of the year, not just 7 May.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Rich and Poor and Purity of Heart

As we draw closer to the General Election, politicians of every stripe are anxious to be seen as good guys. Unfortunately, that often seems to mean bandying around claims and counter-claims about poverty and wealth which foster division and envy. We do not have to hate the rich in order to be concerned about the poor. We do not have to despise the poor in order to desire a prosperous society. Dives and Lazarus in today’s gospel (Luke 16.19–31) are not to be interpreted in black and white terms. Wealth is not condemned nor is poverty commended as such. Dives is in agony because during his life on earth he failed to be charitable, not because he was rich. Lazarus enjoys bliss because he was patient in adversity and never railed against God, not because he was poor.

Very often at the monastery we are invited to support some good cause or other, and we have learned to be wary. Sometimes the cause isn’t good; sometimes it is presented in a way that makes us uneasy. It is possible to do an ostensibly good deed in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy — these are not Christian values but they can be the wellspring of our actions. St Benedict borrows a verse of the psalmist to remind us to be on our guard about our own motives: ‘my every desire is before you,’ he says, and that includes those we prefer not to acknowledge. It would be a useful Lenten exercise to spend a few minutes thinking prayerfully about the things that matter to us and, without becoming tied up in knots about it, scrutinising our own intentions. A pure heart is only attained through constant watchfulness.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Price of Integrity

When the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued its pastoral letter, Who is my Neighbour? (text here) there was immediate condemnation from those who think the Church — whether Anglican, Catholic or what you will —  has no business ‘meddling’ in politics (as though membership of the Church somehow disqualified one from engagement with politics, government, law, morality, etc, etc). Then came the disturbing revelations concerning Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, and even the most secular of secularists may have wondered, Quis custodit ipsos custodes? Who will ask questions or challenge the assumptions of those in power if not the Church? The ‘greed is good’ mantra is not one Christians or Jews usually espouse, but events of recent years have demonstrated, again and again, that Parliament has been tainted with financial corruption among its members, and that bodes ill for all of us.

It should be said that the allegations against Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm have not yet been proved, and it may be that they have done nothing illegal. Doing nothing illegal or contrary to the rules is not the same as acting honourably or with integrity; and some unfortunate remarks of Sir Malcolm about ‘entitlement’ will have jarred with many. The larger question remains, however. What do we expect from our politicians and how should we react when they don’t seem to be adhering to the standards we expect?

Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in our expectations. We often expect others to act better than we do, on the grounds that they are richer, cleverer, have more opportunities than we do ourselves. That is, of course, envy masquerading as something else. Today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6.7–15). Reading through those phrases I think one is stopped short. What we call ‘integrity’, acting honestly and in accordance with strong moral principles, can only be attained through a sense of the interconnectedness of individuals and — ultimately — our dependence on God. We forgive, and are forgiven; we are fed, and feed others; the holiness of God is the context in which all other texts (words) are uttered.

Today, as we wait to see the outcome of the Straw/Rifkind debacle, we might meditate on the price of integrity. Are we prepared to live as we think others should? And what might that mean for us, in the particular circumstances of our lives? That is not a question from which we should turn away. Indeed, it is a apt one for examining whether our Lent has moved from the theoretical to the practical, from thinking about goodness to trying to be good.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail