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.

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Can the Powerful Be Holy?

In Anglo-Saxon times such a question would probably never have occurred to anyone. The long roll-call of saintly kings and queens, bishops, abbots and abbesses (who were themselves usually of royal or noble origin), would have been evidence enough. The royal cults of Anglo-Saxon England are especially interesting, as they include one or two saints whose claim to holiness is — what shall we say — a little on the questionable side by modern standards. Even today’s saint, Edward the Confessor, has had his sanctity questioned by latter-day historians, though more on the grounds of political ineptitude than because of any deliberately ungodly behaviour on his part. It is as though the possession of power marked a man or woman out as blessed by God; and provided the administration of that power was in conformity with Christian ideals and accompanied by manifestations of divine approval (miracles), the holder of it could be thought of as holy. Is that true today?

I daresay anyone looking at the political landscape in Britain today would hesitate to dub any of our chief politicians holy; there have certainly not been any obvious miracles to attest to divine favour recently — or am I being unduly cynical? It makes one ask, is there now a divorce between holiness and power? Does personal goodness in a leader matter? Should our conduct in the public sphere be affected by the ideals we hold in the private sphere? These become important questions when we are talking about legislation on life-death issues such as abortion, euthanasia, or war. They are also important when we are considering the education of our children or the welfare system that supports the sick or unemployed. They matter, too, when we are managing a company or administering a service. In short, anyone who is a leader or holds any kind of power has to make choices that affect others on the basis of what he or she thinks or believes.

For many people — not just politicians — the answer is to be found in compromise. One does what one can, according to one’s lights; and because Britain today is a multi-ethnic, polycultural society, what one can do must be tempered by the knowledge that someone’s susceptibilities are likely to be affected. The only problem I have with that is the fact that we are all called to be holy, something which admits of no compromise. I do not know how to square that with the realpolitik of leadership, but I am sure prayer is an essential element. To some, Edward the Confessor may seem a bit of a loser, but I think myself he makes a very good patron for those in positions of power wanting to do the right thing, but not entirely sure how to set about it. St Edward, pray for us!

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What We Don’t Blog About and What it Says About Us

Blogging, we are told, reveals what interests us and the kind of people we are. What we say and how we say it captures our essential essence. Le style est l’homme même indeed. But I wonder whether what we don’t say is just as revealing. The austere format of this blog suits me, but I know it puts some readers off. Perhaps, secretly, I don’t want the kind of readers who prefer visual imagery and catchy formats; so while I protest that I like the ‘monastic’ simplicity of the layout, I am actually trying to ensure that I only attract readers who are in sympathy with me? O devious Dame, if so!

You will find that I very rarely comment on what is going on in other churches. There has been no word from me on the subject of women in the episcopate or the doctrinal formulations of the Reformed or Protestant Churches, for example. That is not because I have no opinion, but because I do not want to be drawn into controversies I can never fully understand from the inside. I would need to be an Anglican or a Methodist or a Baptist to engage at any real depth. It is easy to see why. I may have read a fair amount of Anglican/Methodist/Baptist theology, but I have never lived as an Anglican/Methodist/Baptist so there is a gap between my theoretical understanding and my lived experience. Turn that back to front, and you may see why occasionally I am irritated by members of other churches making statements about the one to which I belong. It is not that I think they have no right to do so; it is just that I am not convinced they are always as well qualified to do so as I (note the ego!) think they should be.

I rarely comment on marriage or family life and have largely side-stepped the debate on same-sex marriage, yet I know that for many readers, they are questions of fundamental importance. My reticence stems from an awareness of my limitations. Why should I comment on that which is beyond me and about which others are infinitely better informed? Turn that around, and you may understand why I sometimes smile over comments that tell me how I ought to understand/live the monastic life. Many comments are helpful and make me examine my own practice, but there are a few that take us to cloud-cuckoo land!

I know I have many American readers, from both north and south, but I am very hesitant about commenting on U.S. politics. I have views, certainly, but I am not equal to the sheer intensity of American responses. The hatred of President Obama expressed by people I know to be good and kind leaves me speechless. I just don’t understand it — just as I don’t understand the apparent unwillingness to do anything about gun crime or the brinkmanship that has led to the latest shutdown of government. Turn that around, and as a European, I find the American tendency to think that what is good for Americans must be good for everyone else quite troubling.

Today you might have expected me to blog about St Thérèse of Lisieux, as I have done in the past; but I haven’t, because there are aspects of her life I find difficult. She was a great woman as well as a great saint, with more of steel in her than little flower, I think, but she plunges us into the stuffy world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, and I find that unattractive. I cannot relate to it in any meaningful way. In fact, I have never been drawn to Carmelite spirituality, much as I honour and hold dear those who are. I think that illustrates one final point about what we don’t blog about. No matter what we leave out, what we choose not to write about, someone, somewhere will have something to say that is worth reading, on precisely the subjects about which we ourselves are inadequate.

So, pray on — and blog on!

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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The Right Thing to Do

British politicians seem to have adopted ‘the right thing to do’ as their catch-phrase of choice. It suggests high moral purpose, deep thought and a noble sticking to principle. I shall be very surprised if David Cameron does not tell Parliament this afternoon that exercising Britain’s veto at the E.U. summit was ‘the right thing to do’.

The trouble with claiming something is ‘the right thing to do’ is that very few choices in life are simple, and a bad or ill-informed decision cannot be defended by appealing to some vague conception of ‘rightness’. On the other hand, we all regularly have to make decisions on the basis of imperfect knowledge and imperfect grasp of possible consequences. Today’s collect captures this sense of moral confusion by asking the light of Christ to shine on the darkness of our heart, tenebras cordis nostri. The darkness (tenebrae) referred to is a little more definite than mere obscuritas but not quite so intense as caligo — not darkness as a deliberate choice of evil so much as darkness caused by laziness or lack of knowledge.

Advent calls us out into the desert in order to rediscover what the Covenant is all about, to prepare a highway for God in our hearts, to allow the light of Christ to shine on our darkness. We may be in a fog about many things, but turning to the Lord is always the right thing to do. As Hosea assures us, he is our Teacher who will show us the way — if we are prepared to listen.

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Women’s World Day of Prayer 2011

Map of Ivory CoastLast night I could not sleep. Trying to pray failed to cure my insomnia, so I fell back on listening to the World Service. A report from Ivory Coast shocked me. A woman described how a group of about 5,000 unarmed women had gathered to march in support of Alassane Ouattara. As they began to do so, tanks appeared and at least six women were gunned down by the security forces (the woman speaking claimed eight were shot, including one pregnant woman whose womb was ripped open and another whose head was blown off in front of her). This morning, that report is not even mentioned on the front page of the BBC news web site. To me, that is eloquent both of the quiet heroism of many women and their “unimportance”.

It is ironic yet strangely fitting that the news should reach us today, which is Women’s World Day of Prayer. Had those Ivorean women been hurling sticks and stones, I suppose the story might have been more newsworthy, but they were defenceless, in a part of Africa no one except God thinks about very much or very often. Today huge numbers of women throughout the world will be gathering together to pray, and the prayer of all will be one with the prayer of the powerless and “unimportant” in every age. I believe such prayer is powerful with God. Perhaps the death of those women in Ivory Coast may help bring about the political change which no amount of diplomatic dealing or violence has yet been able to do. I certainly hope so.

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Gaddafi and the Problem of Tyranny

Watching the very public agonizing of President Obama and others over what to do about Libya set me thinking about the way in which Christian writers have attempted to deal with the problem of tyranny. That it is a problem is obvious. You have only to read Romans 13. 1-7, which seems to recommend absolute submission to earthly rulers (and has often been quoted by earthly rulers as justification for whatever they want to do) to see the dimension of the problem. People must put up with anything and everything, right?

Some Christians would certainly agree. Indeed, those of us who have vowed obedience to a religious superior know that our vow obliges us to obedience in all that is not sin. The problem comes when we and our superior disagree on what constitutes sin (folly is a sin, dear Mother) or we venture into that grey area which St Thomas Aquinas describes as “not sin, but sharing in the nature of sin.”

St Thomas gave a lot of thought to that passage from Romans. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (Bk2, dist.44, quest. 2, art 2), he makes a distinction between authority derived from God and authority that isn’t. In other words, rulers must fulfil certain conditions if they are to be obeyed. He provides this helpful little guide to identifying rulers whose authority is not God-given:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

Thomas goes on to argue that both passive and active resistance to tyranny are allowable. He also considers whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to kill a tyrant. With regard to the tyranny of Julius Caesar he concludes that “in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded.” That is strong stuff and is the natural consequence of what he has to say about the nature of legitimate authority, how it is conferred and how it should operate. Thomas’s principal concern is for the good of the community (which reminds us he was a medieval, not a modern, man) but he was aware of what Walter Ullmann called the “ascending theme of government”, the need for the people’s consent. Only those who protect the good of the people are legitimate rulers in St Thomas’s eyes.

I find it interesting that St Thomas should write so clearly about a problem that exercises our minds today. At what point does someone cease to be a legitimate ruler, what are the limits of obedience and what is the scope of legitimate disobedience? The answer might have surprised my novice mistress.

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Saying Sorry is not for Wimps

Many readers of this blog probably sighed with relief when they heard that Britain’s state-owned woodlands are not to be sold off to the private sector; but I wonder what they made of the curious political tit-for-tat that followed the Environment Secretary’s announcement. I thought myself that Caroline Spelman handled a difficult situation with dignity, even graciousness, and was particularly struck by the absence of fudge in the way she began her announcement, ‘I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today.’ That is not what, sadly, we have become accustomed to hearing from some of our M.P.s. Even more interesting, though, was the way in which she countered an accusation that she had been ‘humiliated’. Whatever her private feelings on the matter, what she said was straight and to the point: ‘I’m sorry . . . One of the things we teach our children to do is say sorry. It is not a humiliation; it is my choice.’

Why do we think that admitting one is wrong and saying sorry is humiliating? Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in history, some of the most dreadful wars, owe their origins to someone’s inability to climb down and say sorry. We all know the kind of apology which is no apology at all and merely provides the one ‘apologizing’ with an opportunity to run through all the resentments that led to the explosive situation in the first place. But a genuine apology, made simply and humbly, is utterly disarming. Few have the courage to attempt that, and I have to say, at the risk of annoying my male readers, that women tend to manage it better than men. Perhaps because we cannot physically exert our will on another, perhaps because we are better at reading emotions than many men, we don’t find it necessary to maintain our position in the face of the evidence. We can concede without feeling defeated.

Jesus of Nazareth was one man who knew how to handle an apology. On Fridays our thoughts turn naturally to his Passion and death on the Cross. I am trembling on the edge of heresy when I say this, but I think his death is not only the occasion when man said sorry to God for all the sin committed by humankind, I think it is also the occasion when God said sorry to us and bowed his head before his creature, not because God had ever done us wrong but because the way in which an apology is accepted matters, too. Saying sorry is not for wimps but for the brave of heart and truly loving.

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Of Flags, Flowers and Dreams of Freedom

One of the minor pleasures of modern mass communications is seeing what world leaders like to have as backdrops. The President of the United States of America is invariably accompanied by flags; the President of Russia seems to prefer some nondescript bits and pieces of technology and some very grand paintings (not difficult when one has at one’s disposal the treasures of the Hermitage); the Egyptian Military Council has flags, of course, but also some rather stiff arrangements of flowers improbably placed around the Council’s horseshoe desk.

During World War II my father served in North Africa. Some of his books are filled with wild flowers picked on the battlefields or gathered on ‘sight-seeing’ trips during rare intervals of rest and recuperation. This morning I found several from Egypt: fragile, crinkled blooms of unfamiliar flowers. They made me reflect that tyranny, like the poor, is always with us, only the names change. The thought that today is the anniversary of the Dresden bombing is a further reminder of the dreadful things we can do in pursuit of freedom and peace. Those flowers around the Egyptian military are surely meant to be reassuring. Let us hope that they presage better things for all Egypt’s citizens.

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