Abusers of Faith

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation

David ison 2

In June 2017 the Church of England published the Gibb Report An Abuse of Faith, an independent enquiry into the Church’s handling of the Bishop Peter Ball case, a damning exposure of how the Church had responded poorly to Ball’s abuse victims and had colluded to cover up the seriousness of his manipulative conduct.

Two and a half years later, on 13th and 14th January 2020, came the screening of two hour-long programmes on BBC2 called Exposed: The Church’s dark secret, which used survivor and witness testimony and dramatic reconstructions to bring home the emotional impact of Ball’s betrayal of trust set out in the Gibb Report. The bravery of the survivors of abuse was remarkable; and so was the incompetence and lack of care shown by some senior Church and establishment figures in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Exposed programme made links between Peter Ball and other paedophile priests, and hinted at a wider public school culture where physical punishment, humiliation, emotional and sexual abuse in the name of ‘manliness’ or even ‘godliness’ facilitated abusive behaviour. Peter Ball’s abuse was on the basis of anglo-catholic monasticism. But it has strong resonances with similar behaviour uncovered in the last few years in relation to John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher, two evangelical Christian leaders who were involved in manipulating young men into stripping and being beaten. In Smyth’s case his abuse was known but dealt with covertly, allowing him to go on abusing in another country.

Why do men act in such ways? Why does the church establishment not respond with compassion towards their victims and survivors? Two starters for ten.

The perversion of sexuality.

Healthy personal identity includes coming to terms with our sexuality, whatever it is, and living it appropriately (whether in relationship or in abstinence). Being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a perversion if it’s who you are. Denying your sexuality, without integrating it into your life and putting appropriate boundaries around it, is what leads to perversion. Whether it’s a poor public school boarding system or a dysfunctional family which takes away from children the opportunity to learn healthy intimacy and relationships, the repression of emotional warmth and the dis-integration of the self makes people vulnerable to finding their missing intimacy in perverse ways. Sexuality becomes covert, shameful, hidden, and leaks out in ways that can damage other people as well as the person themselves.

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8.31-2). We need to be truthful and open, rather than dogmatic and hidden. Ball, Smyth and Fletcher were orthodox and exemplary Christians on the surface, but were not truthful about their impulses and who they were, and used others for their gratification rather than admit their problems and find help. They preferred to exercise power and control over other people than be vulnerable themselves. The healthy response is for people to acknowledge their sexuality and seek to integrate it into their lives; and the Living in Love and Faith process in the Church of England offers a further opportunity for all of us Christians from across the spectrum of sexuality and church tradition to face up to our own insecurities and temptations, and build healthy, compassionate and equal relationships with others.

Beliefs that reinforce separation and authority.

Common to Ball, Smyth and Fletcher was the use of selective Christian teaching combined with overt and covert appeals to the spiritual authority of the person doing the controlling. They groomed their victims in a spiritual context which validated what they were doing. They also groomed the organisations they worked for into believing that they were great leaders and that what they were doing was normal and right. Ball in particular was spectacularly successful in getting both Church and Establishment to see things from his perspective, treating his victims as being to blame for the problems that he had created, and perpetuating a culture where people with power could not be held to account.

Any ‘charismatic leader’ runs the risk of allowing pride and control over others to overcome compassion and Christ-like service to them. But that risk is greatly magnified in faith settings where there is a view or expectation that the leader is a saint, or closer to God than others; and also where there are rigid beliefs that keep people from thinking ‘outside the box’ and questioning their leaders, views which stop them hearing the beliefs and experiences of others. The recent book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys (SPCK, 2019) gives many examples of how ‘groupthink’ can happen in a church closed off from Christians and others who are different and could challenge the leadership. Such churches can be fertile breeding grounds for abusive behaviour. Whether it’s evangelical or catholic or liberal, any church or group which doesn’t accept difference is more vulnerable to hosting abuse. One reason why Peter Ball didn’t come to justice for so long was that few people wanted to believe that a bishop could be like that, and bishops who knew otherwise weren’t prepared to acknowledge it: protection of their position was more important than caring for others and telling the truth.

There are catholic cultures and institutions which shelter perverse sexuality, the divide between the aspiration to celibacy and the reality. There are evangelical churches which deny the reality of gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender Christians, in the context of a Church which denies acceptance to gay people wanting Christian and faithful relationships on the pattern of marriage. That’s part of what needs to change in order to be healthy, so that ‘if we walk in the light as [God] himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ Until we tell the truth and live in the light – together – we will continue to make it easier for there to be victims of abuse.

After watching the second programme on Peter Ball, I changed channel to see the news. The second item was the report on child sexual abuse in Rochdale, where Manchester police and social services had written off vulnerable young girls in care and allowed wholesale abuse by men to take place against them. It’s not only the Church that has refused to listen to victims of abuse –  it’s a massive social problem of how men can turn to abusing others instead of taking responsibility for managing their own sexual desires and conflicts in a healthy way. The Church should not collude with it, but be leading the way out of hypocrisy and dis-integration into the light and truth of Jesus Christ.


Posted in Dean of St Pauls, Human Sexuality, IICSA, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, Spiritual Abuse | 1 Comment

Secularism – A Force for Good?

by Savi Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist


Sometimes religion is twisted to serve the ends of those ruthlessly seeking power. Yet others live out their faith through commitment to justice and equality, risking themselves for others.

One of example of this is what we have witnessed in South Asia over the last few weeks where people of various faiths and none have risked their own safety to defend their neighbours and values they regard as important, including secularism.  There have been moving scenes of caring and courage across India in resistance to a law that would harm a vulnerable religious minority.  Women students in Delhi have bravely protected a male friend from further beating and slum-dwellers in Mumbai (Bombay) have marched in their thousands against discrimination.

Often ‘secularists’ are thought of as being opposed to faith or at least its influence on public life. But for many in South Asia and beyond, opposing the idea that the state should favour just one religion, so treating people with other beliefs as if they were of lesser worth, is seen as a way of showing love and promoting justice.

Avoiding division, cruelty and inequality

According to its constitution, India is a ‘secular democratic republic’ with ‘equality of status and of opportunity’ in which state discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste or sex is banned. This has often not been put into practice, but as the 70th anniversary of the original constitution approaches later this month we are reminded that the ideals still remain. For instance, gay sex was only decriminalised last year.  This happened in part because the ban was ruled unconstitutional, as was shoddy treatment of the ancient transgender community, though on this matter the law remains unsatisfactory.

However, in recent years a government has been in charge which has distorted Hinduism in its quest for power – despite the protests of some devout Hindus. As Religion News reported last October, Muslims have been lynched and Christians, Dalits and dissidents persecuted. Economic bungling has worsened the plight of the poorest. The seizure of Kashmir in 2019 and isolation of its residents (in ways now ruled unlawful) was a further step towards ditching the ideals which energised the independence movement. A national register of citizens is now planned, where people will have to prove their status – which of course is extremely hard for those on low incomes, who often do not have birth certificates or other documents and cannot afford lawyers.

Many will be left stateless and most likely herded into camps, as has already happened in Assam. A Citizenship (Amendment) Act has also been passed which would allow most of those affected, if they are not Muslim, to eventually be declared ‘refugees’ and allowed to become citizens again. It seems clear that politicians appear to have intended to pick off minorities one by one.

But defying fear, protesters – many of them women – have gathered in India and overseas, with slogans such as ‘All Indians are brothers and sisters’, ‘Save humanity, save country’ and ‘Keep dividing, we will keep multiplying’.

A couple of weeks ago, 200+ Christian leaders from across India came together and stated: ‘The new law is deeply divisive, discriminatory and violative of human rights. In particular, this legislation discriminates against Muslim communities in India, who constitute over 14 per cent of the population of India, and therefore, it is totally unacceptable in a secular democratic republic of India.’ They appealed for lawmakers to scrap the legal changes and ‘stop the construction of detention/concentration camps at the earliest’.

The Archbishop of Bombay and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, has also spoken out, declaring ‘The Citizenship Amendment Act is a cause of great anxiety for all citizens and there is a danger that there could be a polarization of our peoples along religious lines, which is very harmful for the country…It is the responsibility of all to promote solidarity and respect for all in our country.’

Not watering down spirituality for worldly gain

I would therefore suggest that in such circumstances, secularism can in fact assist the deepening and spread of true religion.

This may seem a strange notion to some people of faith, especially given many Christians believe that belonging to an established Church helps to promote their message. I accept that links with the state, and with others with authority and wealth, can be helpful in sharing the Good News and serving the community. Yet ties which are too tight can in my opinion cause harm, especially if a Church is too afraid to defend the weak or the essence of faith is diluted to please powerful patrons.

Piety may in fact become a cover for corruption and the quest for power or status at others’ expense, a concern. This is something that the ancient Jewish prophets knew all too well about and to which Jesus also pointed. Worse still, a twisted religious fervour can be turned against women, minorities or others who are marginalised, hatred and contempt whipped up against ‘outsiders’, who may become scapegoats.

As one brave Hindu priest, Pujari Laldas, warned before he was murdered by fanatics of his own faith in 1993: ‘All the communal riots that have rocked India have been caused for financial and political gain.’

 In contrast, kindness, generosity, wisdom and concern for peace with justice are at the heart of authentic faith.

This is not to say that those drawn to ‘religious’ movements which oppose human rights for everyone are always insincere. Some are just naïve and unaware of the human cost to their neighbours, especially those whose experience is very different from their own. Others may be seduced by charismatic leaders or slick publicity, especially if these tap into the insecurities or resentments which we all have. However Divine love offers a deeper and more lasting satisfaction.

Christians worship a God who, for love’s sake, abandoned power, privilege and security, instead being born as a helpless baby and condemned to death by the mighty and ‘holy’. Yet, through the cross, new life is offered in a world turned upside down, the hungry fed and divisions overcome. This hope helps to sustain many Christians, in India and beyond, who have put their own reputation and safety on the line for others.

Therefore, whilst I recognise that there are some secularists who are agnostic or atheist, I would suggest that passionate faith can, and often does, go hand in hand with commitment to religious equality and human rights for all.

Posted in Establishment, Human Sexuality, International Relations, Savi Hensman, Social Justice | 1 Comment

Living in Love & Faith – The Importance of Speaking the Truth

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

Simon Butler

Sir Roger Scruton died on Sunday. Unrepentant fox-hunter, lobbyist for the tobacco industry, publisher of countless articles attacking the progressive “isms” of our day – feminism, multiculturalism, pacifism – conservative philosopher and public intellectual, it is not hard to imagine that sometimes chose his battles simply to annoy those with whom he disagreed. This was the writer who, even as he battled with cancer, wrote an article entitled “The Art of Taking Offence”, highlighting as he saw it the modern preference to take offence, even when none was intended. He was also a practising member of the Church of England.

Scruton once wrote in his book Gentle Regrets, “it was worth sacrificing your chances of becoming a fellow the British Academy, a vice-chancellor or an emeritus professor for the sheer relief of uttering the truth.” Of his editorship of the Salisbury Review, a conservative journal, “It cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour… three lawsuits…the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere. And it was worth it.[1]

Although much of Scruton’s thinking and some of his action is open to proper criticism, what I admire about Scruton was his steadfast refusal to be silenced and his defence of free speech, even when it has the potential to offend. Of course, it is right that we should not set out to cause offence, but when we self-censor to the extent that we do not share our genuinely held views or opinions, we diminish ourselves and we disrespect others.

So far, hardly contentious.

But, in writing again for Via Media I thought I would focus on the forthcoming publication of Living in Love and Faith from the perspective of someone who has followed the progress of the work closely and with considerable personal investment, but without being actively involved. Over the coming months I therefore propose to pick up on a number of themes across several articles.

For those of us who are LGBT+ in the Church of England, Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is a watershed moment. At last our stories are being heard and told. However imperfectly, we are being listened to. From all I have heard about LLF, that will not and must not change.

We have learned to speak of our sexuality to those in the Church who have found it hard to speak to of these things. Some of them, indeed more than I have hoped so far, have respected that speaking and have listened with care; many, if not most, are absorbing what we say. A few wish us to remain silent, but they are destined to be rightly disappointed, not by us but by the wider Church who would not wish us back ‘in the closet.’ So, even when it causes offence to those who hear, we must continue to tell our stories, to share what we bring to the table, because in doing so we bear witness to the ‘treasure in clay jars’ that is ‘Christ in us the hope of glory.’

Such testimony is but the beginning, however.

Being welcomed and included is but the first step to a theological integration of what we have learned of Christ in the life and thought of the Church. Theologically-speaking, we have much to grow into as well as much to share. But, for this thinking to develop, we must never collude with those who would wish us silenced.

But, if Scruton’s experience is anything to go by, we must also fortify ourselves with courage too.

Others will, and should, continue to speak, including those who do not wish to see our insights welcomed into the Church’s life and teaching. Some of what they say will need to be heard by us, weighed, absorbed and integrated into our approach to Christian living. LLF is committed to such conversation. That will be costly, because the gold of what we need to hear from them will be coated in much dross, and we will naturally – in hearing criticism, gold or dross – respond from our long-standing place of hurt and pain. We will need to find the resources to bear with one another, to support one another as well, because it won’t do us or the Church any good if our response to such unfair criticism is to silence others.

Where Scruton and I agree is that our culture is too easy to take offence: when that happens we risk silencing those with whom we disagree. We are not looking to replace a historic conservative hegemony in sexual ethics with progressive domination.

I leave the final word to Professor Scruton:

“By living in a spirit of forgiveness we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom, it comes from sacrifice. That is the message of the Christian religion…It is the message that has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but which it seems to me can be heard once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Christian tradition the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices vengeance and renounces thereby a part of himself [sic] for the sake of another.”

[1] Scruton, Gentle Regrets, p.77

Canon Simon Butler is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea and Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury.  As such he sits on the Archbishops’ Council for the Church of England.


Posted in Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Simon Butler | 1 Comment

Are We Partly to Blame?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media News and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

Meghan and Harry

Families.  They affect us all – for better or for worse.

Some are so close knit that they never let anyone through their metaphorical front door, whilst others quite literally wash all their dirty linen in public and leave it hanging there to dry!

Families are the one thing that most of us have no choice at all of being part of – as Harper Lee famously said: “you can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family”.

Interestingly families are one of the things that comedians – old and new – love focusing on.  From Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning Fleabag, to one of the world’s most famous families, The Simpsons.  Perhaps I should say the world’s most famous fictional families?  For there is of course one family that is known and loved above all others, made up of real people, with real lives, who have real feelings, and bleed when cut – although I very much doubt that their blood is actually blue.  I speak of course of our Royal Family, not that portrayed by the drama series The Crown, but the one made up of individuals who have had no choice but to accept the role into which they were born.

Very few of us know what it is like to live under the intense scrutiny of the 24-hour media.  It is, I am assured, utterly relentless. The advent of social media has made this undoubtedly worse.  For we now live in a world where diplomacy is conducted in 250-characters and news broken via Instagram.

Never has there been a greater need for clarity of communication that is impervious to spin in order for it to be believed and trusted.  However, ironically, never has there been such a soundbite culture that demands fast news, at the risk of it morphing into fake news.

And so we start to witness the casualties – most recently in the form of a certain young couple who have declared that they want their lives and their privacy back.  We blame the insatiable appetite of the media, without recognising that it is us – the public – who are the ones that are hungry for news.

It reminds me that there was once a young man who also found it hard to escape the multitudes.  Who had people monitoring his every move, and criticising his every decision – including his own family.  His popularity and fame were legendary, and ultimately led to him being crucified by the very crowds who had originally feted him.  Jesus of course was prepared for this.

It is however a sobering reminder about the role we, the public can play. At the start of this New Year, perhaps it’s time to check our appetite for certain types of news.

Posted in Establishment, Jayne Ozanne, Royal Wedding | 1 Comment

All Things Considered….Including ‘Living in Love & Faith’

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester 


Research, mine and that of many others, shows that the deeper we go into our faith, the higher we score on a scale known as Quest Religiosity. Quest gives an indication of our willingness, and indeed desire, to live with uncertainty. It measures how much we enjoy the fact that our faith is not final and static but developing, as we continue to explore questions for which we have no simple answers.

That notion of Quest came to the front of my mind a couple of days ago whilst driving through Tucson, (I’m there with the Society of Ordained Scientists as their Episcopal Visitor). We had just switched on the car radio to listen to the late afternoon news on National Public Radio when the presenter announced the title of the programme as “All things Considered”. I joked to my Arizonan host that there was probably a rival station whose drive time broadcast went by the name “Just go with your gut”, or possibly “Stick to your prejudice”.

I didn’t listen long enough to be able to judge whether the show lived up to its name, but the aspiration seemed an honourable one – that everything should be taken into account, weighed carefully in the balance. Only then should a judgement be made. Moreover, if new evidence or additional perspectives come to light, fresh things not previously considered, then any previous judgement must be at least open to reassessment and revision. That would seem to have a lot in common with the Quest way of being, where our conclusions remain subject to revision, as we seek to live a life of “all things considered”.

I suspect that my colleagues in the Society of Ordained Scientists all score high in terms of Quest. In their various scientific endeavours, as academics, industrialists, research workers and elsewhere, they will have had to develop the desire to venture into the unknown, and to enjoy the process of discovery as much as the things eventually discovered. Part of their charism is to carry that over to what it means to be an ordained minister in one or another Christian denomination.

The mantra of “All things considered” flies in the face of that pretence to balanced journalism which consists of getting a protagonist from each of the extreme poles of a debate, giving them equal airtime, and imagining that would cover all views in between. Indeed, the Society of Ordained Scientists began because the public interaction between science and religion was being dominated by the shrillest voices of militant atheism and fundamentalist Christianity.

The call to holistic consideration also challenges the pattern of presenting, as though of equal worth, both the widespread mainstream informed consensus on some matter and a maverick position. To take a timely example, the overwhelming evidence for the human impact on climate change, and the need to address it urgently, has gone far beyond the point where the views of climate deniers, no matter how sincerely held, or how devoutly appealed to from theological grounds, should be entitled to more than a cursory mention in a footnote of the debate.

In summary, I would argue that “all things considered” means not only that the range of evidence and opinion is covered, but that two other rules are considered. Firstly, that the extremities are not allowed to shape the debate. And secondly, where views involve stretching the academic evidence to breaking point, or are held only by the smallest minorities, they must not given more weight than they merit.

This year, we will see the publication of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith resources. Not only have a very diverse set of perspectives have been sought, but participants from across the range have been deeply involved in producing the materials. This has helped shape a piece of work that should readily pass the first test of “all things considered”. One of my first tasks, when I look at the maturing and final versions that will ping into my Inbox in the next few months, will be to check that my two tests have also been passed.

Once the materials are launched, that will provide opportunity for the whole church to engage in the task of consideration. Indeed, it is only when all things have been able to be considered by all of us that the church will be in a position to think about the action it needs to take in the light of that process of consideration. No doubt there will be those who fillet the documents, highlighting the arguments that most strongly support their presuppositions. Others will look for whatever they disagree most strongly with, in order to damn the church and justify distancing themselves from it. But I hope and pray most of us can do rather better than that; that we can read and reflect, become part of the process of considering all things, and find much that most of us can agree on, and much else where that engagement in consideration helps us to disagree eirenically and well.

In a few days I will be back in the UK, the warmth and sunshine of the Arizona winter behind me. But I will will carry back with me in my baggage a fresh commitment to live up to the challenge of that NPR rush hour broadcast; to play my part in helping 2020 to be a year where full and careful consideration leads to wise and sound judgement, both in my church and across the issues our society faces.


Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith | 2 Comments

What Will Happen to the Church of England and Anglicans in 2020?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of Via Media and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

Jayne Ozanne (3)

In a word or two – not very much!

For the vast majority of Anglicans both here in England and further abroad, the year ahead is likely to be one that is focused on the daily challenges of witnessing Christ to a world that needs to hear the Good News of Jesus more than ever before.  It’s a task with which we Christians have been grappling with for many years, and this year is likely to be no different to any other.

Unlike the Revd David Baker in his article that responds to this precise question in Christian Today (Jan 2nd 2020), I do not believe 2020 will be shaped by answers to questions relating to Church discussions on sexuality.  Instead, I believe it will be shaped by whether we, the Church – in all our various denominational forms – can become known for the love that we profess to preach.

Interestingly, I doubt that very few churchgoers across the Anglican Communion have actually ever heard of the Church of England’s Evangelical Council or indeed of GAFCON.  They will, however, have heard of the challenges their vicar faces in meeting the needs of the poor in their area and the growing inequality that exists between those who “have” and “have not” in their neighbourhood.

If they are in England, they will most likely know that their church has much in common with the other public services in their area that have been starved of investment and are struggling to cope with increased demand.  Many will be concerned at the aging nature of their congregations and their diminishing ability to pay their parish share.  Some will feel they have been raising this problem for many years with a central structure that they feel is not listening to their predicament, or who are ignoring their difficulties because they do not want to face the reality that the “system is broken”.  Others will be excited about the calling that God has placed on their hearts but will be struggling to see how they can follow it with all the other demands that are being placed on them.

What I believe will unite the majority is a deep frustration with church politics that seems to “get in the way” of their mission.  Many have no idea why the Church of England doesn’t practice what it preaches and allow its doors to be open wide enough for everyone to feel welcomed and celebrated.

If there is one thing that I do foresee happening in 2020, it is a major show down between the hither-to-silent laity and their leaders, particularly in conservative churches.  Personally, I think many clergy are likely to be in for quite a shock – particularly in terms of the reactions from their younger members – when they finally come clean about where they stand on certain issues.

(As an aside, do you know where your own vicar stands on the issues that matter to you most?  Why not resolve to ask them directly this year if you haven’t already done so?)

So, what will happen to the Church of England in 2020?

It will continue much as it has always done to live in the grey world of compromise, otherwise known as trying to hold in tension as broad a set of views on any particular topic as possible.  Some may feel they have to leave as they cannot accept that others hold differing views to them with just as much sincerity and depth of belief.  They will not be the first to leave nor the last, for this is a trait that has been going on for centuries.  However, the vast majority will continue “like a mighty tortoise” (as the parody of Onward Christian Soldiers states) “…treading where we’ve often trod”.

Tortoise or no tortoise, the direction of travel on various issues is clear.

We will continue to speak out for the poor and the marginalised, challenging those “who have” to open their hearts and their wallets to those “who have not”.  We will continue to be the hands, ears and feet that seek to serve and support those around us who need practical help, or someone to talk to.  We will continue to use our considerable investment power to influence large multinationals and hold them to account over their climate change commitments.  We will continue to try and hold those in power to account, including in our own internal church structures.

Most of all, we will continue to love without question – without caveats or exception clauses.  And we will move to ensure that no one is ever excluded from celebrating the love that they have found and wish to commit to with regards to their significant other.

And what of the Anglican Communion in 2020?

God quite literally knows.

Institutions by their very nature are man-made, and the Anglican Communion is no exception.  It is out of most of our hands as to what happens.

But whatever does happen two things are certain – the God of Love will continue to be worshipped and the Good News of Jesus will continue to be shared.

Happy New Year!
















Posted in Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne, Lambeth Conference, Living in Love & Faith, Politics, Social Justice | Leave a comment

A ‘Low & Dishonest’ Decade?

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation 


Just over 80 years ago W H Auden, in New York, wrote his poem “September 1 1939”:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth…

That was then; but is it also now?

The decade just gone was certainly full of clever hopes – getting Brexit done, spending billions of pounds at no cost to you – which have not yet expired. They continue to be spun, and to dazzle many. And whether the last ten years formed ‘a low and dishonest decade’ depends on your view of what high life and truthfulness might look like. For me, overall, ‘low and dishonest’ says it pretty well.

Once again, though, just as in 1939 (or still earlier, in 1914) the complacent assumptions of a sunny liberalism have been shaken out. The shadows are in focus once again.

Clever hopes shine more brightly against a dark background; for this reason President Trump in his 2017 inaugural address referred to the “American carnage” from which only he could save his nation. The trouble with speaking like this is that the evocation of carnage, the summoning of dark spirits, can become unholy flesh, as we see almost weekly in the US, most recently in the shootings in a Texan church which ended when worshippers pulled their own guns and shot the shooter. Carnage indeed.

But it is not only in the USA that the evocations of darkness can be heard. And wherever they are heard the question follows: in such a time, a time of untruth, a time marked by anger and sudden violence, how can we live truthfully?

It is at least reassuring that this is not a new question.

When Pilate asked “What is truth? ” he spoke as a representative of Empire, and over the years Empires have learned that if they cannot define truth, they can at least devalue it. The New Testament can be read as the building of a community in the teeth of Empire, or to use its own imagery in the face of the Beast . The bright hope of the Eucharistic meal shines against the dark background of Judas leading the authorities, seeking the One whose table once included even him. How did our friends live truthfully, they who shared our faith in the crucified God; how did they live in a time of untruth? And for us, as one decade folds itself away and a new one begins, how should we live?

Living by a Rule

Here in Liverpool Diocese we aim to shape ourselves by the truth of Jesus Christ, by means of a Rule of Life. It is as simple as we can make it; we say that we are called by God and sent by God; called to pray, read and learn; sent to tell, serve and give. We speak of the inner journey of calling, and the outer journey of sending. We say that praying and reading and learning equip us to tell and serve and give, but we also say that speaking our faith, and struggling to see justice done, and offering and spending our lives, that these things deepen our prayer and our reading and our learning too. Public witness and private devotion form one undivided discipleship.

My colleagues and I hope that this Rule of Life produces a certain disposition in us, and in all those who seek to follow it, in a time of untruth. We know that our Rule is lived out by each disciple in very specific and concrete ways, but we hope that these ways have a family likeness; the likeness of the siblings of Jesus, together.

What are some of the marks of this family likeness? I only have space in this small piece to speak of two: of truthfulness and the courage it requires, and of gladness and the discipline it demands.

Truthfully and Gently

Several times in this piece I have spoken of “a time of untruth”. I do not only mean by this that our political leaders lie to us. They do, but this is not the worst of it. Worse than lying is the shamelessness that sees no sin in lying, that knows there will be no penalty to being caught lying, that pays no penalty, that systematically devalues truth in the pursuit of popular power.

In the face of this it is still possible to live as if truth matters. To do so is to live a life of resistance, which needs to be resourced.

A Rule of Life is merely a spiritual bauble if it does not resource God’s people in truthfulness. To choose to pray to the true God, and read truthfully, and learn the truth together; to tell the truth and to act with truth and if necessary to pay the price of telling the truth; these things matter when the gale of lies is blowing. As the new decade begins I honour those who live, or wish to live, as though these things matter.

In a time of untruth Christianity itself can be weaponised and distorted like everything else, made into a tool of national populism. The pictures below show how this is being done in our own nation.

The attempts of populist politicians to appropriate the Bible and the cross, for example in the USA, in Italy, in Hungary, are seen here also with increasing frequency. But this is not an inevitable thing. The excellent work of the group led by the Bishop of Truro on the world-wide persecution of Christians points to the reality of that persecution while resolutely turning its back on the sort of defensive Christian supremacy that is being used to stir up fear of the other, of other faiths, of other lives, of other human beings. Instead, Bishop Philip and his group had a quieter and more demanding aim: to tell the truth.

There is a price to be paid in telling the truth.

This applies to telling the truth within the family of God as well as “speaking truth to power”. The remarkable courage shown by victims and survivors of abuse in the Church exemplify this costly price, and I continue to honour their example of truthfulness.

The last thing that the world needs is a harrumphing self-righteousness from Christians who do not see the glass house in which they live. In its wider life – not only its treatment of victims and survivors – the Church has absolutely no reason to boast, except only to boast of the God of truth under whose judgement and mercy we all stand.

The Church is a fallen and a broken community, all too often caught up in its own contentions, treating living human beings as “issues” or as the objects of “debate”. This has been the fate of the marginal in the Church to this day. And it will remain so into the New Year unless the truth of human lives – living and breathing human beings – is honoured with the utmost vigilance.

To prefer abstract words to human breath is to give insufficient attention to the real world, and insufficient devotion to the true God. It is the true God in the real world whom we are to serve, the true God who loved the real world so much as to give the true God’s only begotten One – Jesus – for the real world’s life. To live courageously in a time of untruth is therefore to speak for truth from a place emptied of pride and defensiveness; a place of utter dependence on the Truth which is beyond us and will always be.

Gladly and Securely

Speaking the truth can be a hard thing, and too easily a hardening one. This is true for me. The last thing that the world needs is my own harrumphing self-righteousness, adding to and increasing the volume of noise instead of communicating the sound of the One who speaks softly in silence, the One whose yoke is easy and whose burden ls light.

The God whose truth is beyond us, and always will be, is the same God whose love sustains us, who will love us and the world into wholeness in the end. To live well as a Christian in a time of untruth is therefore to live truthfully and gently; but also to seek another gift from God – not only courage, then, but also an unquenchable gladness – a gladness which has, indeed, been promised.

Psalm 45 contains a vision of what it is for authority to be truthful and glad:

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal sceptre is a sceptre of equity;
you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions…

This image is taken by the writer to the Hebrews and applied specifically and directly to the Lord Jesus . This same Jesus has breathed the Holy Spirit on his friends; this same Jesus has told us that we will know the truth and that the truth will make us free . In the spirit of this Jesus then, understanding who it is that holds and rules the Universe, we are to be glad, even as we speak the truth clearly and resist evil strongly.

There is no place in this Way for refusing the real world. There is no place in this Way for a furious and impotent anger that so easily turns inward and consumes our friends and ourselves. In short it is good to be clear-eyed, and with clear eyes to be glad.

In a world marked by a wilful embracing of lies and fantasy on the one hand, and an angry and self-righteousness shrilling of truth on the other, the Gospel of gentle gladness weaves its way. It is easily missed, and its insistence that we live without corrosive anger is easily refused. But to live as a Christian is to trust that the Gospel’s shuttle is weaving our lives too, making it possible for us to be an honest and gentle community in a time of untruth.

My hope then at the turn of the decade is that the Church will see this today, as Auden saw it 80 years ago:

… Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

A blessed, truthful, glad and happy New Year to all.




Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Brexit, Politics, Sexual abuse, Social Justice | 9 Comments