Paul Griffin ponders a singular loss of nerve
THE GREAT CHURCH victorious, we are told in the hymn, shall be the Church at rest. A look at our British society suggests that victory is being celebrated a little too early; for the Church certainly seems to be at rest. Not within herself, of course, but in her effect on society. In an age of sexual licence on a new scale, with its concomitant divorce rate, its single mothers, inadequate upbringing for children, violence and vandalism, the Church of England seems uncertain even over whether or not to wring its hands. The Roman Catholic Church uses its greater authority to issue commands that are commonly disobeyed, and the Free Churches, relying on the authority of the individual conscience, seem too little aware of the guises in which conscience can appear.
Because illicit sex lies at the root of so many of our troubles, let me start with it; my intention being not so much to put the clock back as to recover lost good. I am old enough to have been reared in a different world, which in some respects worked better than our own, but which in others emphatically did not. Attempts to remedy what has not worked have been responsible for much of the history of the twentieth century, and no doubt of many other centuries; some of our remedies have been successful, but some have destroyed old certainties without offering new ones. I am particularly struck by the interest and surprise with which some traditional teaching is greeted when I produce it in the pulpit.
Most spectacularly is this so in the case of Christian marriage; for it is now practically accepted that the young may sleep with each other without a public commitment, and any suggestion to the contrary is coming to be regarded as revolutionary. Very many parents of apparent sense and orthodoxy allow their children to share bedrooms with those of opposite sex or, indeed, where homosexuality is concerned, of the same sex.
The passionate involvement of the sexual act has come to be regarded as one of the jolly gifts of life, like swimming and spaghetti bolognaise: something to thank God for if you happen to believe in God, but not crucially important.
Yet only a lifetime ago a girl who slept with men to whom she was not married would have been called a whore. The men themselves, as any feminist would be quick to tell us, were not so much criticised, but were avoided by ladies with marriageable daughters. Those ladies now seem to abandon their efforts once girls reach the age of fifteen. A father I spoke to the other day, himself well brought up, was passionate on the subject. “It is ridiculous to talk of parents not allowing their teenage daughters to sleep with men. What girls do with their bodies is up to them, and is no business of their parents.”
But when the girl changes her mind, and decides she does not like the man she has chosen, to whom does she turn? To her mother, in most cases. “Make him go away!” she cries, before her next sally to disaster.
Of course sex is a gift of God; and of course it is not disaster for a girl to be sexually involved with a man, as long as a whole life of affection, common interests, children, and grandchildren is planned. Planned and promised publicly, that is. The question that is now asked is why a man and woman cannot share sex without anything else being involved but the pleasure of it, as a man and woman can share bridge or sailing or commerce without other involvement.
Ever since the apparently safe Pill was invented this idea of sex as a jolly game with no after-effects has been peddled by writers, with only the mild hiccup of AIDS, which represents little threat to a western heterosexual. It is nearly true to say that no publisher would now publish a novel which stuck to traditional sexual mores. Authors would argue that they are merely a mirror for what is happening, but I have no doubt that the universality of soft pornography in stories, magazines, films, and television has accelerated the change in social customs. The effect of it all on marriage, in the shape of adultery, the acceptance of a desire to change partners, and the divorce rate, is attended by desperate children who disrupt schools when they bother to attend, and run wild in the streets when they do not. Meanwhile the Church of England, which is there to show us what love really is, calls together committees and talks cautiously of “falling short” and “new perceptions”.
It must be said that there is no shortage of positive condemnation from individuals, especially on the Protestant wing, with its attendant Free Churches. This is still well furnished with Pauline texts about fornication, and encourages the young to face their problems together. Oh, dear! The trouble with Evangelical preaching is that it cannot produce the sort of rational arguments which convince non-Evangelicals. Whoever said “I believe, in order that I may understand” clearly already believed.
On the other hand, Roman Catholics understand the need for rational argument. Unfortunately, as so often in history, the factors on which they base their argument are yesterday’s, and have produced what seems even to Catholics an absurd Papal decree on birth control. While this holds, they can exert little influence on the unredeemed.
The need is to do what the Church has managed to do in the past: to influence all people, whatever their beliefs. Once, the Christian view of marriage was largely accepted by non-Christians, because it had a rational basis. The insistence on chastity could be seen as borne out by the effects of sleeping around illegitimacy and disease. Medical advances have removed that basis and have implicitly and wrongly suggested that Christian chastity is just a dotty self-restriction.
Even so, many young people are prepared to accept the need for what they call commitment, which in one sense if not that in which they use the term implies Christian marriage. One commonly hears cohabiting couples claim that they take marriage too seriously to get married until they are “sure”. The traditional counter has to be that if they really took marriage seriously they would not be living together. I am afraid this talk of commitment is often a weasel way of saying that you intend to go on sleeping with your present partner until a better deal presents itself; but at least it shows a wish to occupy moral ground. It is up to us to show what the true moral ground is, and how it is rationally desirable.
Unfortunately, the Christian Church blithely changes its language and customs to draw in the young, and softens its statements to conform with the world, thereby detaching itself from the moral basis of its faith. Instead of facing such ideas as heaven, hell, the kingdom of God, and the devil, clergymen avoid them. Many of them are so ill-educated as to think that these ideas are unfortunate accretions to the Gospel instead of absolute fundamentals that need to be expounded in understandable terms.
In the material sense, everything has a meaning; it has a motive force and effects. A dog drinks from a pond because it is thirsty. Afterwards it is sated, and the fish which had a fright when the long pink tongue invaded its privacy has found a new place to lie. The pond is a tiny bit emptier. I believe chaos theory carries these effects to great lengths, so that every small event affects all other small events.
The dog does not then go away and worry whether he has drunk from the right pond, or whether he should have drunk at all, or whether it is his duty to tell the next-door dog about the pond. A human being may well do all these things. He or she, however liberated and however crude, is always concerned with whether what is done is fair, right, or a bit off. In a big organisation like the Army or the Football Association or the Civil Service, these concerns tend to be collected into a system of morality: what is permissible and what is not. Someone at some stage will have worked out why this or that is not on, but often the ordinary members will not have access to their reasoning. They will normally conform on the assumption that what they do is justified by someone else’s calculations.
So is it in the Church. Only a proportion of Catholics will wish or be able to go through the moral calculations lying behind the Pope’s latest guidelines. The rest will either accept what he says or, these days, follow their own calculations, under the impression that they have been thoroughly into the matter. This, I suppose, is called Protestantism, in the widest sense.
Protestants in the narrower sense distrust the calculations of others, and regard their authority as the Bible. What Jesus says, or what Jesus means, cannot be superseded. Only he can be trusted to have a clear view of a moral issue. On the other hand, much Protestant time is spent working out what Jesus actually intended, and what meaning his words have for today. At one time his remarks on adultery or theft, like the original Commandments, were accepted easily enough; but they now tend to be subjected to reservations, extensions, and even objections, based on the application of rational considerations of varying depth.
Yet there is still a feeling in people’s minds that revealed truth exists independently of our being able to understand it; this feeling may be religious or may reflect the limit of an individual understanding. For example, Galsworthy describes a case one occasionally meets in real life, that of a lady whose husband is permanently ill in a mental hospital, but who obstinately refuses to yield herself to a man who is deeply in love with her. Our instinct is to cry “Why not?” and insist that what appears to be the moral course cannot be so; but the lady does not accept that. She may feel that acts have a significance over and above their rational effects. To that way of thinking I shall return. Or she may feel that loyalty to a promise, loyalty to a person, is an overriding need on the rational ground that the whole fabric of society would break down without it. As Shakespeare puts it: “And appetite, a universal wolf…… Must make perforce a universal prey, And last eat up himself.”
Still leaving aside the eternal significance of our acts, we have to note that for years now the prescriptions of the Bible and the Church have been subjected to practical and rational considerations which have often in effect overridden them. Indeed, in recommending the Law of Love, Jesus himself seems to be encouraging us to submit the Jewish Law to those very considerations. It cannot be the Church’s part to hinder this; rather its task is to refine and question the calculations that are commonly made.
For example, the young commonly claim that what they do is perfectly moral as long as they cause no harm to anyone. This is held to justify an astonishing range of excesses: sexual, pharmaceutical, gastronomic, and sartorial for example. The principle seems to be in accord with the Law of Love and in a sense is perfectly true; but the person applying it commonly presumes the desired effects without proper thought, and also disregards adverse effects on himself or herself. The function of the Church is not so much to argue with the principle, though no doubt it can be more usefully rephrased, as to insist on a rigid investigation of what constitutes harm, and to insist also that it is wrong to hurt oneself.
When two young people want to sleep together, protected by contraception, they see what they do as a private matter, in which each partner receives and gives pleasure. This is an utterly limited view. Virtually none of these affairs are or can be truly private, as many anxious mums and dads know. They therefore have chains of effects outside themselves, surely never beneficial. As for the pleasure they provide, this very soon turns into a range of other feelings, perhaps deepest and most lasting, even today, in the girl. Men are generally regarded as hardened sleepers-around; yet I remember a male friend of mine who had such an affair, then fell deeply in love with another girl whom he married, and always bitterly regretted what he called the “coarsening” effect of his earlier spree.
Here again, we are talking of rational assessments.
At a more trivial level, I remember how many of the boys I taught used to want to grow their hair down their necks in the Sixties. It was nearly impossible to convince then that their coiffure was anybody’s concern but their own. They were happy to face their parents, teachers, future employers, new acquaintances, looking like Hindu swamis; “And if they think the less of me because of my hair,” said more than one, “it shows how stupid they are.” And how stupid I was for being mad about a pointless uniformity. Yet five years later, they would be immaculately attired, trotting into City offices, their hair like everybody else’s. Only, for the moment, what they wanted was right.
What we want can be right, but not necessarily because we want it. It can involve self-damage, which is wrong because it limits our use to ourselves and to others; and it can harm other people.
I did not say self-damage was wrong because it marred the image of God; I have been avoiding that particular issue. The issue is whether what is right is only what is convenient, whether in religious terms all we have to do is love our neighbour, or whether there is a need to love God. There is death, but is there judgement? Are all our acts to be brought before some barely imaginable tribunal and assessed? Does what we do have any significance other than its material effect?
It is here that the old religious machinery of which I spoke stubbornly obtrudes itself with visions of fire and devils with pitchforks, of eternal punishment and eternal bliss. The Book of Common Prayer asks adults presenting themselves for baptism: “Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?” It covers the matter admirably, but how often has a memory of that promise subsequently affected behaviour? The vocabulary hardly squares with modern understanding, and needs very careful explanation and emphasis if it is to be hoisted in. Would any two priests explain it in the same way? I doubt it. A Church that cannot agree within itself not only cannot teach effectively, but is virtually giving carte blanche to its members to make their own rules.
Take the word ‘eternal’, also translated as ‘everlasting’, and liberally sprayed throughout the Anglican Prayer Books. I take it as meaning ‘beyond time’. In the jargon of physics, some sort of freedom from the fourth dimension is implied. Some physicists do speak of a fifth dimension with a reality beyond the symbolic mathematical one. If this is so, obviously we being four-dimensional creatures cannot perceive it, any more than something confined to one midday moment of time, if it were sentient could perceive six o’clock in the evening. It might conceive of it in a vague way, as we can conceive of a fifth dimension without beginning to understand it.
Now it helps in no way to change the word ‘eternal’ for something else, because one could only introduce a fresh and freshly confusing metaphor. What does help is to explain the word in the way I have just done, breaking down the barrier that it tends to create between religion and reason. Just as time is included in eternity, so reason is included in religion. A religious truth cannot in the long run be unreasonable.
This may help also to explain the difficult terms ‘Hell’ and ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. ‘Eternal’ does not only imply the future, but the past and present as well. What is eternal has been with us all through time, and is with us here and now. If there will be Hell, there has been Hell, and is Hell.
Death, then, while it appears to be a leap out of time into eternity, is not quite that, because time is included in eternity. Heaven and Hell do not start at death, since they have been there all the time. We have all seen Hell, even if we have not been in it, in the eternal sense. The significance of our acts on ourselves is something we all feel. Unfortunately, this is usually after we have committed them, rather than before. The drug addict, the sadist, the man at the mercy of his temper come to crave to be released from the consequences of their own actions, which are hell.
The message of Christ is that all who believe can be released from the consequences of their actions, by his suffering; or, in the traditional and sensible wording, their sins can be forgiven. This sounds all very easy, and indeed the Church has always taught that forgiveness is instantaneous upon repentance. What the non-Roman Churches are too slow to point out is that any repentant sinner will now find himself with a further agenda.
To take an extreme case, suppose Hitler had repented in 1944. Suppose he had seen the error of his ways and thrown himself on the Church for mercy. There would still have been many million dead through his acts, and many million families broken and grieving. What is he to do about that? Imagine a world full of repented tyrants, who cheerfully and faithfully go to Mass and pray, while their victims still weep and lament, and suffer the consequences of the acts of their forgiven masters.
Something more has to follow from feeling sorry, saying sorry, and determining on a righteous life. These are three of the five stages of repentance; there are two more. As far as possible one must abandon any advantage obtained by sin, and make amends to those injured. I say as far as possible because much damage is more or less irrecoverable. Because a murderer has a change of heart, his victim cannot rise again; a promiscuous girl does not become a virgin again, nor a heroin addict necessarily recover a healthy body. In some sense, as Cecil Day Lewis put it: “Fallen is fallen past retrieving.” There is also a limit on what a penitent can give. Like John Profumo, he can resign his honours and devote the rest of his life to humanity; but he cannot give more than his entire life.
We are talking about penance, a term better understood by the Roman Catholic Church than by any other. Although the second rubric of the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer makes the matter clear enough, it tends to be dodged as Popish. The generalised confession of Anglican services, like the hysterical dredging up of Evangelical peccadilloes commonly leaves people uncertain as to what follows. Although the five stages of repentance should occur naturally to any thoughtful and sincere penitent, we are often distracted by our own guilt, by self-indulgence. or by sheer stupidity, and need authoritative guidance. This is the function of a priest.
My use of the word ‘authoritative’ may have set alarm bells ringing. The easy acceptance of authority is not in itself a virtue, and it is certainly not common today. Hence even Catholics drift from the old paths, and ministers of all denominations come to feel guilty about interfering in the lives of others. In two senses, they are frightened of judgement, forgetting that their own imperfections do not relieve them of their duty to proclaim the truth; that indeed failure to be positive is itself an imperfection.
In any event, personal guidance is one of those jobs that as an incumbent’s number of churches and parishes increases has become more and more reduced to counselling the bereaved and interviewing couples who want a marriage or a baptism or a confirmation. It is easy to be critical about this, until you realise how many Synods, Chapters, and other meetings have to be attended by any conscientious priest in charge of, say, four churches.
The Christian view of life is of a constant process of repair, a piecing together of broken fragments to make a new design. Heaven, I suggest, can be glimpsed from our lives on earth. A good marriage, fulfilling work, any activity directed to the happiness of those outside ourselves, gives us a place in the Kingdom.
The young, whose idiotic ideas are permitted to dominate our society, find it difficult to accept this. Encouraged to regard themselves as free and thinking agents, they find life simple enough, as long as the droolings of the aged are disregarded. They have vigorous bodies and energetic ideas. The Western world offers them freedom to speak, to copulate, to investigate whatever ridiculous custom or creed catches their fancy. Cut off from the experience of their elders, they cannot be expected to have the faintest notion that cannoning around the world is going to bring themselves and others a lifetime of pain and misery. Surely the commonest sight of today is the desolate parent saying: “I told them, but they wouldn’t listen.”
How is one to communicate with such creatures? With trendy morality and amplified guitars, or whatever method is current in their world? If there are sound ideas behind the hype, this does not appear completely stupid. The drawback is that it confirms the young in their belief in their own essential rightness. It may bring some into church, but it also suggests that church is always to be like that; just as the awful giggling weddings that some priests tolerate suggest that marriage is always going to be on that level. The gap between a trendy service and the reverence and solemnity of a good Christian Eucharist proves in practice almost unbridgeable.
Across any communication with the young lie the media, whose wickedness passes belief. They are interested, not in the wise, but in the voice of the mob (‘What school-kids think about religion’). Against their vast degeneracy it is useless for a single person to stand and cry: “Halt!”
Only if the faith that still predominates in the West can discover a unanimity and force, a spiritual basis for rational principles, a coherence not seen for centuries, can a point be found from which society can be transformed. It is a colossal task, but it is the only task worth doing.
Can one find the finance to challenge the media in their own terms, by offering Christian newspapers, radio, television, novels? Can one re-train and transform hundreds of confused clergymen (‘Dog-loving vicar lives with vet’s wife’, ‘Down with God says rebel priest’), who are half-educated, power-obsessed, single-issue, you name it?
Only a strong leader can settle the method. What is certain is that nothing whatever can happen to loosen the stranglehold of evil unless we in the Church are clear about what we believe, not in the sense of saying the Creed with our own glosses, but of actually understanding, believing, and being able to communicate what we are saying.
In England, such a change can only come from the Church of England. The Roman Catholics, for all their difficulties, have the machinery in place. The Free Churches one hopes would trail along. A strong, transforming Archbishop of Canterbury has the task of turning a bunch of weak, overworked Bishops into a body with one voice, and that strong enough to keep the dreadful Synods away from matters of doctrine. The days of Theological Colleges striking out on their own lines must be numbered. Their courses must be more effective. and probably longer. When I last visited a Catholic seminary, it took thirteen years to train a Jesuit priest. An Anglican clergyman, especially now that local ordination is the rage, can waltz into the diaconate in a couple of years, then learn the nuts and bolts as curate from an incumbent as confused or crazy as himself.
The problem is to turn the basis of our faith, the life of our Lord as revealed in the Bible, into terms that mean something to the people of today, without changing the traditional terminology into metaphors that create fresh misunderstandings. This is not achieved either by sudden conversions, welcome as they are, or by liberal gentlings of the message into a system of universal indulgence by a Ground of Being. The four Last Things, Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell, have to be given an experienced reality. An abandoned single mother, a child whose parents have broken up, a battered wife or battering husband, a teacher who has been unfaithful to his trust, know well enough what Hell is. All who live lives of unselfish love, the happily married, devoted nurses and, yes, priests, know what Heaven is. The Church needs to point out that their experiences have given them a glimpse of eternity, and that they still possess the power to pursue good.
It may seem cheek to say that an abandoned mother has any power at all to leave her state; and certainly she needs encouragement and hope to do so. This must come from the Church, the community of love who should know about the transmutation of suffering.
The reality is shameful. Ill-led, indifferently-trained, concerned about such matters as sex equality, democracy, and balancing its budget, the Church of England offers a thinner and thinner spread of incumbents to people who imagine that a nice Harvest Festival marks the limit of what it can do.
I fully realise the financial implications of all this; but I can say that once it becomes clear that the Church of England is strongly led from the top and is prepared to tackle its urgent task of leading the nation into right ways; once the energy of its priests is properly harnessed; once it becomes accepted that lay leaders, however valuable, cannot replace trained priests, and that Synods are not to touch doctrine; then, however gradually, new sources of income could become clear. Candidates for the ministry would increase, national attitudes would change, and funds would follow success.
People will give small sums to a shambles, out of sentimentality. The world is going to the dogs, and so is the Church; many of us are fond of dogs. The Kingdom of Heaven is not going to the dogs. Once the young are being taught to inhabit it, to shun compromise with the promptings of their bodies, their magazines, and their mates, and once parents and teachers themselves have clear teaching, people will give as one gives to the only hope in the world.
Divorce is common, homes are broken, education is in retreat, sexual licence, always there or thereabouts, has spread to new age groups and areas. Only faith in something better can offer relief. To the countless priests who protest, rightly or wrongly, that the Church does speak out but nobody listens, I can only say that to me, as to many, the voice of the Church is one of confusion.
The Church is all we have. For God’s sake, let it put itself together and actually speak with one voice.
Paul Griffin is a reader in the diocese of Norwich