Hugh Baker on more government – less society

One of my Wardens works as an engineer. One of his responsibilities is to ensure that culverts under canals are in good order. It’s a good thing he does this: a collapsed canal can cause millions of pounds’ worth of damage. In order to ensure culverts don’t collapse, our engineer would phone a contractor to examine the tunnel with a nifty little remotely controlled robot which would waddle down the tunnel, relaying what it saw through an attached camera. Everything was done by word of mouth: a relationship of trust existed between contractor and contractee, and initial enquiry to completed job would take six weeks.

Last October, our engineer put out more jobs for contract. A year later, he’s still waiting to start. A new Director, full of modern ideas and procedures, now rules. He has declared that all things must pass beneath the eye of a newly founded (at your expense, dear tax payer) Procurement Team. The Procurement Team now have to appraise all jobs, examine all contracts, accept all quotes, study all equipment to be used. The Procurement process costs between ten and twelve times the amount of the equipment concerned!

Sometimes road vehicles collide with canal structures, and our man has to go and examine the damage. The police are usually there first, and have taken the details of the drivers concerned. A simple task for them to pass on these details to the waterways authorities, would you not think? Ah, no; you see, the details are quickly recorded on the Police Database, and are, therefore, covered by the Data Protection Act. Thou shalt not give out any information recorded on thy computer! The consequences of following this piece of legislation to the letter would be comical, were they not so tragic. Some time ago an old couple living in a flat failed to pay their gas bill; their gas suppliers consequently turned off their gas.

‘In this caring society of ours’, you are now saying to yourself ,‘Social Security stood in the breach, and found the funds necessary to keep the old folk warm.’ Ah, no; the information was on computer, you see. The gas people weren’t allowed to tell the Social Security people: there’s a law against it.

The old folk froze to death.

What on earth is going on? Maybe there are cases where engineers and those they award jobs to fall into a relationship a bit too cosy for the public good. Perhaps it’s right that someone looks over their shoulders… occasionally. Even so, the words ‘nut’ and ‘sledgehammer’ come to mind.

I was thinking on these matters when I read the BCP Collect for the Sunday before Lent, and the words ‘Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues.’

According to my newspaper our present Government has, in the last three years, brought in 158 initiatives to combat crime. You can’t accuse them of complacency, but in that time recorded crime has, overall, continued to rise. What’s going on?

A woeful cliché which resonates in the mind of unsuccessful preachers is, ‘It took one sermon to convert three thousand on Pentecost; nowadays it takes three thousand sermons to make one convert.’ A cursory glance at Acts will show us why. After the Pentecost sermon there were no more great convert-making sermons. Sure, ‘they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching’ (Acts 2.42) but they were, mainly, devoted to each other. In the NIV, the paragraph heading straight after the three thousand being added is ‘The Fellowship of the Believers’. There we read, ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common.’(2.44) Basically they got on with the togetherness of the Church, and such was the powerful witness of what the Church was that the passage concludes, ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’

It is what the Church was that enabled Christianity to spread through a Roman Empire which by Christ’s time had already turned its back on the civic values and virtues which had given it its initial strength. Understanding that their society was awash with every kind of doctrinal and ethical loony tune, the Church understood it had to witness firstly to ‘God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature … clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Romans 1.20). Paradoxically, of course, it is ‘what has been clearly seen’ which is denied by our opponents within the Church. Small wonder our present church is non-evangelistic! It was this ‘moral normality’ which first attracted many to look at Christianity, and in due course to be instructed in the catechumenate. Like most of our under-thirties, Roman pagans hadn’t been to Sunday School; the grasp of doctrine followed. The attraction of a group of people genuinely in love with God and each other was the thing that first grabbed their attention.

In the early chapters of Revelation, we see described a pattern of decline in church life, until we reach a point where God says to his own people, ‘I am about to spit you out of my mouth’ (Revelation 3.16). There are those of us who believe that the seven churches spoken of here give us a picture of the Church’s history up to Christ’s return. Irrespective of whether you apply the passage in this way or not, it is sobering to note how the overall process of decay begins. I wouldn’t mind belonging to a church of whom the Risen Lord could say ‘I know … your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men … You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary’(Revelation 2:2, 3). Here at Ephesus, though, the foundation of the Church’s strength and holiness is beginning to go: ‘You have forsaken your first love’ (Revelation 2.4).

Decades ago, when I spent my gap year (as it now is) in a factory fitting shop, I encountered plenty of scepticism and downright unbelief with regard to both the Church and its message. Side by side with that, though, I met deep reserves of pure love and affection. Amid the foul language and dodgy morals were to be found true compassion and care. There was a koinonia in that shop. To my youthful Evangelical mind they were sadly lacking in their understanding of the reconciliatory function of the substitutionary atonement, but there was agape there. People gave their word, and kept it; workmates helped each other with car repairs, house removals and even with advice on love life. It was a society with a minimum of regulation, ruled by a strong, unwritten code of decency. This was the society that centuries of Christian presence had created. Loving your neighbour was an unquestioned norm.

Nearly forty years on, that society is going. As it goes, it inevitably brings in its place some kind of dictatorship. It may not be, as yet, a dictatorship of gulags or extermination camps, but it will be a dictatorship of ever closer control from the centre over the individual. How can it be anything else, when the individual is becoming increasingly in need of restraint and governance?

Society actually needs the Gospel, because it needs ‘the very bond of peace and of all virtues’ which true church life has to offer. For the sake of the neighbour we profess to love we must, with the Holy Spirit’s help, recreate this divine fellowship; and if that means living in a Third Province, so be it.

Hugh Baker is incumbent of the Peel Parishes in southern Staffordshire.