Thought for the Week 30 October 2011
The necessity of Trust
Churches are human institutions and therefore exhibit the flaws for which human interaction is notorious. They are also divine institutions, called to be embodiments of the divine life, charged with bringing the good news of God’s will to humanity. The mistake is always to believe that the latter aspect of the church can be revealed cheaply. It cannot.
For a start ours is an age which enjoys ridicule. Even the honest and conscientious scarcely escape ribaldry; the pretensions of the pompous stand no chance of escaping derisive laughter. In some societies the teasing may be good natured; but where the church has shown itself to be incapable of running its affairs decently, the laughter is tinged by cruelty and disdain. There is no doubt that the child abuse scandals, however exaggerated, have done very serious harm to the church’s claim to have anything to say about our society.
But secondly, no one is eager to suffer the costliness of the struggle to reconcile competing interests. What does one do at the Peace during the service when there is no peace? Perhaps the Liturgical Commission, which is very fond of alternatives within the rite, could provide words for a ‘Truce’ rather than a peace. The alternative of seeking true reconciliation demands time, energy and huge reserves of humility and an ability to laugh at oneself. We all have much which we feel we need to defend but when churches fight, the world loves the spectacle.
Third, keeping one’s eye on what matters amidst the babble of advising voices is very hard. The sound bite may be a misleading expression of truth but sometimes it does point us to what matters. So, for instance, there is little that the staff of St. Paul’s cathedral can say to answer to the point that Hitler’s bombs did not stop the round of worship, but apparently a collection of tents in the square did so. They were made to look foolish and to appear to collude with those who wished that the challenge to the behaviour of bankers would go away. You cannot serve God and mammon. The conclusion is pretty plain.
We should, it will be agreed, clean up our act. How we should do so is not. The world’s practice is to establish systems, protocols, codes of practice, and systems of monitoring, in short to provide structural solutions. As a Reith lecturer pointed out a year or three ago systems disvalue trust and, she might have added, the church cannot live without trust. Trust is risky. Others will not act precisely according to our standards; people will sometimes betray trust. The culture of trust is difficult to create and is easily damaged. But we do not live, as St. John says, in the dark. We are happy that our deeds should be transparent to the world and we should feel such horror that we have betrayed another’s trust that would prostrate ourselves before them as if before our Lord.