What is Truth?

George Austin asks an unoriginal question

It was Mark Twain who coined the phrase: ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Touchstone suggested no less than seven, ending with the ‘lie circumstantial’ and the ‘lie direct’. Three or seven or twenty-seven and the result is the same – the destruction of trust. In recent years it is has been a cancer at the heart of our society, both secular and ecclesiastical, and makes us echo Pontius Pilate’s cry, ‘What is truth?’

A musical ear

The problem with statistics was well illustrated with the recent claim that an academic investigation had shown the claim that boys and girls voices in cathedral choirs are different is based on simple misogyny, because in tests ‘only’ 53% could identify this. Now mathematics is not my subject but I did think that the fact that 53% could spot the difference that would mean that 47% could not, and that this is a lower figure.

I was surprised that the figure was so high, since to detect the difference requires the musical ear that not everyone possesses. I wonder how many of the congregation at our local church can detect that age has caused the organ to be badly out of tune. (And why anyway should the suggestion of a difference be attributed to a hatred of women?)

More seriously, when statistics from the Church of England indicated that the usual Sunday attendance figure had dropped below one million, a new method of statistical counting was introduced. The new figure was then – surprise, surprise – well above that magic number and the important fact was ignored that in making such a comparison one can only compare a like method with a like method. It was not helped when one bishop claimed as a result that in reality numbers had not dropped at all – the truth was that ‘more people were coming to church, but they were coming less frequently.’

Right Royal Doubts

We are not supposed (at least at the time of writing) to know the content of the charge about Prince Charles – unless of course we live in Scotland, Ireland or for that matter anywhere in the world apart from England and Wales. Of course most people do know and for my part let me say categorically that I do not believe it for a minute. If the press reports about the former servant are correct, then he is a man seriously disturbed, someone who – so the police say – called for assistance when he was threatened at home by unknown assailants. Eventually, so they claimed, they covered his home with a surveillance camera and on the next occasion they knew that the call for help was unsubstantiated.

But because we also know that what we are told of the lives of the Royal Family is what they want us to be told and nothing more, such reports always raise nagging doubts. Is something being hidden? How did the Queen so conveniently ‘remember’ the fact that caused the Paul Burrell trial to collapse? Was Princess Diana really disturbed or was that a smokescreen spun to help her husband? Is someone’s character or reliability deliberately being destroyed? When truth is sometimes hidden doubts inevitably arise. Reality becomes fantasy and fantasy reality.

Politics has of course become the home of spin, but though it has certainly been developed to a fine art it is not just a novelty introduced by the Blair machine. We have always been told that which governments wish us to know, with the truth either hidden, doctored or else severely limited.

The activities of spin doctors have severely damaged the credibility of the Blair Government. And in a different way during the last election there were similar questions about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, with William Hague promising that public spending would be cut by £8 billion and Oliver Letwin admitting the much higher figure of £20 billion – confusion perhaps rather than spin.

Doubts raised through spin did nothing to help the Government in trying to convince the nation that it was right to go to war against Iraq, and as a result we still wonder if those pressing for war really believed there were weapons of mass destruction, or whether they just thought there might be, or if in fact they knew WMD did not exist.

Right Reverent Mentalities

The recent report from the Archbishops’ Council reviewing the Church’s national communications policy seems to be a step in the right direction, for the Church too has in recent years been badly infected by the culture of spin. Few with experience of its effect would question the conclusion that the ‘fortress mentality’ pervading the national church institutions, especially Church House and Lambeth, needs to be dismantled.

Nor would there be much doubt that Church of England communications need a ‘change of culture’ in order to obtain a better working relationship with the media. If as a result of the review there is a new openness and transparency the present situation would be greatly improved.

But the problem within the Church goes much deeper, with the ‘lie synodical’. When the women priests legislation was presented, we were assured that both views, for and against, would be assured of ‘an honoured place’ in the Church, and that there would be no discrimination against opponents in either parochial or episcopal appointments.

The unpleasant fact that such episcopal promises were broken from the very moment the legislation became law has destroyed absolute trust in any statements made from then on by or on behalf of the hierarchy of the Church of England. That is a terrible indictment against any leadership body, let alone one that is supposedly acting under the authority of God.

Between the Lines

It means that one must read between the lines of any report for hidden statements countering apparent orthodoxy in the presentation. The document Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Contribution to the Debate is at first reading – and in the intention of some of its authors – biblically conservative, though without stating the limits of diversity to be allowed. Because for instance it accepts that some clergy will conduct services for the establishment of gay partnerships, it is immediately taken that this has been officially endorsed, with two bishops declaring support for their clergy who do this.

Moreover, its companion guide urges the establishment of study groups whose members (can you believe it?) will ‘take turns to “walk in the moccasins” of those they disagree with.’ That sounds very much like the emotional (and liberal) ploy of saying ‘Walk with us and you’ll agree with us.’

To those of its authors who may suggest that I am paranoid, I can only say that the ‘lie synodical’ has made me so.

George Austin is a retired archdeacon.