Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Success vs meaning

A correspondent sends me a couple of interesting and contrasting links which lead to the following stories.

First, Archbishop Vincent Nichols has addressed the burning issue of whether Christians are under pressure in the UK. Surprisingly, he comes to the conclusion that they are not. Or at least, he says they are not persecuted:

“I personally don’t feel in the least bit persecuted. I don’t think Christians should use that word.”

This is a surprisingly unecumenical gesture from the Archbishop. After all, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has claimed that there is a crusade against Christians in this country. Bizarrely, and with a degree of self contradiction, AVN also observes that

what might have started out as an acknowledgement of a variety of religious and philosophical positions has produced a seeming determination to tear the legal and therefore cultural life of the country away from its Christian roots.

Now that is odd. The legal and cultural life of the country is being vandalised but we mustn't feel it's personal in any way. That, at least, appears to be the message.

It's a position which brings me back to one of my favourites tropes: that life is a pilgrimage and not a fine art. Why is it Archbishop Nichols does not want to use the word 'persecution'? Because he cares about the success of the Church in the public square. He is afraid that we might appear to be whingers. He doesn't want to appear alarmist. Are you feeling edgy because the exercise of your profession might bring you potentially into conflict with your conscience? Get over yourself, darling, the Archbishop appears to imply. Nobody is after you. They're just after dismantling every relic of Christian sensibility.

Georges Bernanos once lampooned the fear of reactionary clergy that they would be martyred by offering to start up a Martyr Life Insurance Company; he reckoned he would make a fortune! The Archbishop almost seems to have gone to the other extreme; don't call yourself a martyr, even if the barbarians are trampling the remnants of Christian meaning in the law. It's nothing personal. Of course, I'm not for a minute sugesting that the UK is witnessing a brazen persecution of Christians akin to ancient Rome; it's just that the legislature currently seems incapable of going for five minutes without passing yet another law which makes life more difficult for Christians. The Catholic adoption agencies in this country disappeared almost without a whimper. What were they, your Grace, fair sport? An accident? Or were they victims - more still, were their child clients the victims - of a legislature resolved to imprint the dirty footprint of its ideology on the neck of Catholic freedom?

Fine-art faith is about being a success as a Christian, and about looking credible. If apologetics is always necessary in a hostile climate, fine-art Catholicism is about the total victory of apologetics over every other branch of theology. It's the victory of plausibilty over unnecessary fidelity. The problem is that you spend so much time trying to be plausible that you lose your identity, like blu-tack stretched between two distant points.

Being on pilgrimage, in contrast, is just about keeping your feet on the path - the path away from which you cannot remain your true self and, more importantly, you cannot remain true to God. The passage from pilgrimage to fine art was, Christopher Dawson says, one of the initial signs of secularisation. The question you have to ask is: does being an instrument of God mean bending over backwards to give a chance for people to understand who we are, or does it mean being true to our calling while we let God's grace do the rest?


Archbishop Nichols might not feel persecuted in his Westminster appartment but the lady whose story appears in the second link sent by my correspondent probably does. Celestina Mba was dismissed from her job because she refused to work on a Sunday. Conscientiously, she objected to violating the Sabbath, even though she would take on other shifts at other times in the week that were unpopular with co-workers. It did not matter apparently that a Muslim last year won the right to leave work to attend mosque on a Friday. The employment tribunal who reviewed her case ruled against Mba. 'Your conscience or your job,' they said in so many words. I assume Mba has replied, 'My conscience.'

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that a sound Christian position would support Mba entirely. She worked in a children's home and surely they need looking after seven days a week - not just six, as Mba's logic appears to imply. Still, the tribunal's ruling stands as the victory of law over everything else.

Now, the victory of law over everything else is a form of violence. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the father of anarchism, thought that all societal organisation could be boiled down to a system of contracts between individuals who come into contact. Ironically, however, when everything is enforced by contract, we find ourselves living under intolerable burdens. The seriousness of the situation is shown in the way that British legislation is increasingly adopting the model according to which the State acts not as an arbiter between the various constituencies under its aegis but as an all-powerful enforcer which aims at conformity. It's the victory of Hobbes over Locke. Ironically, it's the victory of the emotional fascists over the democrats of sensibility. Nowadays, half of Britain is scratching its head and wondering what on earth has happened here to turn it into a paradise for emotional fascists.


Is it not true finally that in some way the preoccupation with success is analogous to a preoccupation with law? Do both anxieties not reveal a desire to control, a desire to be voluntaristic, a desire to turn life into a fine art? If Archbishop Nichols does not see hostility to Christianity as a form of persecution, maybe he should ask himself whether his deepest instincts - the sort of instincts that drive him to tell peope with genuine concerns to hold their tongues - are far too much in tune with the prevailing atmosphere. I assume he would have been outraged, and rightly so, if legislation had forced the closure of every black newspaper in the UK on the grounds of race equality. So, where is his outrage - for nothing less is appropriate - against those who aimed to force the secularisation of every Catholic adoption in the country? In that Warlockian-Humean, Lord-help-us desire of the marginal Catholic to fit in with modern Britain, there never seems to be much questioning of what it is we are trying to fit in with.

We know Archbishop Nichols can do a pretty good attack-dog routine. He should do it more often. This toothless fear of appearing alarmist, however, looks more like Corporal Jones than Captain Mainwaring.

We should pray for him.


Genty said...

What the Archbishop hasn't yet grasped is that you cannot serve two masters. Whether he ever will is a moot point.

Ches said...

Let's pray that he does so soon.