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.