Digby Anderson explains how the mocking of rules as petty, inflexible and hypocritical has played a key part in the successful undermining of Christian values, and calls for a return to virtue

Could we, if we so wished, put the moral clock back? Could we, for instance, restore the monogamous, heterosexual, permanently married family as the norm? It used to be thought that re-setting the clock was impossible.

We owe a great debt to Margaret Thatcher and Pope Benedict for showing that you can reverse progress,’ the one with the market economy, the other with liturgy. So could we do so with morals?

In the liturgy wars, a favourite liberal tactic is to mock old practices. ‘Do you know, they even had rules for which arm shouldbe inserted first into the alb when vesting?’ The invitation does not need to be spelt out. When we have finished guffawing we are to chorus, ‘Ridiculous, how petty, when there is the love of Christ to proclaim, how absurd to waste time following silly little rules of procedure.’

The old rules

Liberals have used the same trick with moral rules, contrasting the spirit of morality (vague, costless and good) with precise rules of practice (inflexible, artificial, trivial and bad). I was reminded of these silly old rules by an article in the Chennai Chronicle, for in India the old rules still flourish. The Chronicle reported complaints from female university students that the hostel rules were too strict.

In particular they complained about those related to meeting boys. ‘We have to be back in our hostels by 5 p.m. every day and it’s a big hassle to be permitted a night out. Mobile phones are banned’ (so we can’t communicate with boys that way) and sneaking them in’ (the phones, not the boys, that is) ‘is a daunting task as they check even our sanitary pad covers on a regular basis,’ said one student.

Another, Rajesh, from the engineering college, says, Although the girls hesitate to sneak [mobile phones] in, the boys manage to do so. However, if their cellphones are confiscated, the

authorities check their phone books for names and phone numbers as the college is very particular that boys and girls don’t mingle. In fact it’s one of the reasons why we have few trees on our campus’ (to prevent boys and girls meeting under them).

Reversal of morality

In English universities, up until the late Sixties, similar if not quite so drastic restrictions applied. The thinking behind the restrictions was the same. The boys and girls were just that, boys and girls, minors (until their majority at age 21). The college authorities acted in loco parentis to them.

When the age of majority was lowered to 18 and as society changed its attitude and response to unmarried sexual relations and the immaturity/ maturity of youth, so the language and practices of authorities’ and ‘restrictions’ were swept away. The restrictions would now, no doubt, be seen as oppressive and petty.

Today we would still applaud the vague ideal that sexual relations be responsible and, above all, ‘appropriate! Some of us in the churches might still subscribe to the principle of sex only within marriage. But the rules to enforce and patrol such principles would be laughed at.

During the last half-century the onslaught on Christian morality, especially sexual morality, has been highly successful. Divorce, once the exception, is the norm, as is premarital sex. Illegitimacy, once as low as 4%, is so prevalent it is no longer recognized.

How was this reversal so successful?

One way was by focusing on the trivialities, the absurdities of the old rules, not so much the rules of principle but of practice. How absurd it was when social security officers spied on cohabiting couples, how petty when the BBC issued language codes on sexual topics.

The charges of hypocrisy, inflexibility, judgement by appearance and pettiness had the advantage that they were the ammunition for humour, satire and parody.

There was one other charge. The old procedures were automatic, unthinking prejudices. And what good, middle-class liberals valued above all else was discussing things, bringing them into the open. There was nothing that should be beyond debate.

Agreed standards needed

It’s ironic but it is the discipline so valued by the liberals, sociology, which gives the lie to their nonsense. All societies need some agreed standards, matters beyond debate, or else they will never get on functioning as societies – for debate never ends. If everything is up for debate then the trivial will get as much attention as the serious. Hypocrisy is a necessity in any virtuous society. Petty rules often turn out to be very sensible.

If there is a constituency within the Church whose nostrils have belatedly caught the whiff of the contemporary moral cesspit and is thinking about the possibility of a return to virtue, it should be aware the process would be painful. Debate won’t put the clock back a second.

Willing a return to virtue will mean Holy Church being mocked as petty, denounced as hypocritical and worst of all revealed as ‘excluding! And if there is little appetite in the Church for a return to virtue, there is none for the means necessary for it. The question will remain hypothetical to the point of phantasy as we sleep-walk to the fate of Gomorrah.