An update from Rector Sam

(This is going in the new parish newsletter; thought it would make sense to put it on here too.)

Many of you will be aware that it has been something of an eventful year for me. It may help if I simply list a few key developments:

– I was away on sick leave for three months this summer, the result of exhaustion brought on by sustained stress. I am hoping that whilst the fundamental structural problems relating to my workload (the responsibility of the Diocese) have not been addressed, I am now in a better position to cope with the consequences of that inaction;
– sadly, Rolanda and I have now divorced. We are on good terms, and the children are sharing their time between the Rectory and Rolanda’s new home in The Lane;
– I have stepped down from all of my non-parish responsibilities in the hope that I can sustain my changed family commitments. This means that I am no longer the Area Warden of Ordinands; the Area Healing and Deliverance Advisor; nor a member of the Deanery Pastoral and Standing committee. In addition my day off has reverted back to Friday, and I shall only be working alternate Saturdays;
– I have agreed with Bishop Stephen that I shall be staying in my present post for the foreseeable future.

I am very grateful for all of the love and support that I have received these last few months. I am particularly grateful to the ministry team for stepping in to the gaps thrown up by my absence. As I’m sure you will appreciate, mine and my family’s lives have been through a great upheaval, but things do now look to be settling down and I believe that we can look forward to a more stable future.

With my thanks for our partnership in the gospel…

Privacy, Protestantism and Print Culture

The revelations about government snooping and spying on our lives raise the question of how far we are entitled to have a private life, which the state is forced to respect and which it cannot breach with impunity. I believe that privacy is a foundational freedom. What do I mean by that?

Let me quote from the European Declaration of Human Rights, Article 8, which comes in two parts. Part one states “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” So, where this respect is denied – as, for example, when the government monitors all of our e-mail traffic – then our legitimate human rights have been undermined. Of course, the real meat of arguments about privacy come when different rights start to conflict with each other, and this is why there is a more substantial second part to Article 8, which states “There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” So, in terms of the Declaration, the right to privacy is balanced against the various needs which a state might have for preventing crime, terrorism and so on.

However, notice that the second part includes a clause about ‘morals’. In terms of the case law, it has been established that homosexuality, for example, is a protected freedom because the actions of two consenting adults in private do not have a sufficient impact upon the wider society as to justify a curtailment of their right to privacy. The question is how far the state’s legitimate concern in preventing terrorist acts justifies the establishment of a surveillance state.

Another relevant example relates to home schooling, that is, when a particular family decides to pursue the education of their children through means other than that provided by the state. This is, of course, the predominant mode of education throughout history, up until the last one hundred years or so, but in our present society it is customary for education to be provided centrally. In the United Kingdom it is legal for parents to choose to educate their children in their own homes, and this seems consistent with the fundamental right to a private family life that Article 8 enshrines. Yet in Germany such a choice is illegal, and the state actively breaks up the families which seek to pursue such an independent path. The grounds given for such action in Germany are that certain teachings are illegal – a legacy of Germany’s own twentieth century experience – yet that seems remarkably flimsy justification for the destruction of home and family life.

If we consider the nature of what it is that the state is wishing to monitor through the establishment of the various surveillance networks on the internet the key element for me is simply that it is about the monitoring of words. That is, all the activity that takes place on the internet is more or less intellectual – it is a forum for the sharing of ideas, of free speech, of open communication. That sharing may well include things which are inherently dangerous, such as the recipes for making certain sorts of bombs, but there are no actual bombs blown up in an e-mail.

For the state to justify the invasion of privacy that has taken place, therefore, it has to argue that the existence of certain sorts of words are sufficiently important, that they matter ‘extremely’. As a religious observer, I can’t help but think that this is a tremendously Protestant attitude. After all, it is in countries that have a predominantly Protestant culture that the written word is given such importance. It was through the understanding of words that salvation was found; Holy Writ was the vehicle for eternal life. In countries with a less Protestant emphasis there is a far greater concern with actual actions, not simply the discussion of actions. Words do not matter so much. It is not an accident, of course, that this new emphasis coincided with the introduction of new technology, a technology that gave the written word much greater prominence.

This, I believe, is the direction that our culture is travelling in, as it traverses our own post-Christian environment. I believe that in our own lives we are placing less emphasis upon particular words and far more upon how people’s choices and attitudes show in actual behaviour. It is less important what people believe, it is more important what they do. In our present case, too, new technology is having an impact, and the internet is allowing for a much greater exchange of ideas and – when it works – a fuller mutual understanding and acceptance of difference.

In this conflict between the state and the various whistleblowers, therefore, it seems to me that the state is trying to preserve a particular understanding of what matters, and it is sacrificing our privacy on a Protestant altar. In just the same way as Luther was able to use new technology to dismantle the power held by an oppressive and corrupt institution, so too are the Assanges and Snowdens using our contemporary new technology to expose the corruption at the heart of our own arrangements. The overmighty state is reaching in to our private lives – our family lives and correspondence – and not only does it have no no right to do so, it cannot hope to achieve the aims that it intends. Nobody expects the English Inquisition. It is acting from an obsolete script, and it cannot but fail. Let us hope that it doesn’t cause too much suffering in its death throes.

Christ’s bias to the queer

Last time out, I wrote about the way in which our benevolent political masters have fostered a culture in which it becomes more and more difficult to avoid conforming to what society considers acceptable behaviour. This applies in all sorts of ways. Some of the clearest examples have of late been with regard to traditional Christian beliefs, which have progressively been rendered illegitimate, from whether gay couples are welcome at Bed and Breakfasts to whether the Catholic church can run an adoption agency in accordance with its own teaching.

This process of requiring conformity – and enacting penalties against those who do not fall in with such conformity – is something that lies right at the heart of the Christian view of the world. This is for the simple reason that it was one of the clearest and most characteristic features of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Put simply, Jesus had a striking and distinct ‘bias to the queer’, which got him into a lot of trouble, and was almost certainly the fundamental reason why he ended up being executed by the state.

This was seen most clearly through his ‘table fellowship’, that is, by looking at who Jesus chose to spend time with, break bread with, have a drink with. The mass of people who conformed to cultural norms, and especially those who were responsible for espousing what those cultural norms were – the priests and lawyers – consistently criticised Jesus for eating with ‘sinners’, that is, those whose nature or behaviour meant that they fell outside of society’s norms. Sometimes this was for reasons that we might recognise as being ‘sinful’ today – a prostitute, for example. Often, however, the people who were excluded were simply those who didn’t fit – those who were physically disabled in some way, the halt and the lame, or those who were from a different ethnic group or religious background. Time after time Jesus rebukes those who sought to police the boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and the queer, consistently speaking up for the sheer human worth and loved-by-God-ness of those that the dominant society were rejecting.

Jesus, after all, was well aware of the way in which human solidarity is so often fostered and encouraged through the establishment of a tribal identity over and against an ‘Other’. This happens in the school classroom, when one child is perceived as being different, and thus becomes the isolated one, often victimised and bullied. It happens in a community when strangers appear in our midst, bad things happen, and a community rallies together to purge the interlopers from amongst us. It happens at a national level when a particular community is seen as the source of all the tensions experienced by that nation, and so the nation is led to believe that destroying the dissident community will ease matters. It happens internationally, when a ‘bad dictator’ is held up as being responsible for all sorts of terrors, and if only we can get rid of him then things will be alright.

It is, in other words, a fundamental feature of our human nature that we will seek to define an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ – and to use that difference as a way of generating community solidarity. In a word, it is part of human nature to find a scapegoat, and at each level of human life to then seek to expel or destroy that scapegoat in order to keep affairs in their proper order.

The best way to understand the life and death of Jesus, for me, is to recognise that Jesus is acting against this background. That he knows exactly how human beings behave, and that, given the nature of his ministry, he had a very good idea of what would eventually happen to him. That due to his consistent tweaking of the nose of authority he would eventually be turned into the scapegoat himself, and be expelled from the community, and destroyed. What makes the Christian religion distinctive is that it says, very simply – God is the one who is destroyed, not the group doing the destroying. In other words, God is on the side of the queer.

It is because of this emphasis that Jesus teaches so consistently that we are not to judge each other, that judgement belongs to God alone, that if we ever become aware of a speck of dirt in our neighbour’s eye we need to fist make sure to wash the mud from our own before we seek to intervene. The process of scapegoating can only start when there is first a judgement about acceptability – a statement saying ‘We are OK but you are not’, whatever the ‘not’ might be. It might be a missing limb or blindness. It might be a skin colour or a religious belief or a sexuality or a political point of view. In each and every case that we have a record of, Jesus consistently affirms and upholds the sheer humanity of those that the dominant society are excluding. This is, I would argue, the single most salient political emphasis of Christian belief.

Of course, it is due to this stream of Christian thinking that we have the present legal arrangements that we do; it is what one author has called ‘the deep workings of the gospel text’. In other words, in so far as we benefit from an understanding that we now call ‘human rights’, they rest upon the centuries of prayerful reflection upon the idea that each human being is made in the image of God, and as such is deserving of care and consideration. The language that is often used today is determinedly secular, but that is simply to place alternative clothing upon the same body. Put differently, before there was a generic humanism, there was a Christian humanism, but whatever name we wish to call it matters less than the reality being described. If we are to have a free and humane society then there must be a certain level of care which every single human being must be enabled to enjoy. We, too, must exercise a bias towards caring for the queer.