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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Where Shall We find Trust?

The mayoralty of Durham has been a matter of public debate this year: not the person but the office itself. I am sure I speak for us all when I say that we value the traditions of mayoralty that affirm this city’s pride in its history. It is not for the preacher to say more. But I urge us to do what the prophet said and ‘seek the welfare of this city’, for in it lies our own welfare. This is why we hold a civic service: because we honour the mayoralty and want to pray for the new mayor, offer the civic year to God and dedicate the city’s leadership and ourselves to the service of our fellow human beings.

Any public office, be it mayor or dean, means living in two worlds: the visible role we inhabit when we put our robes on, and the human being we are underneath. In today’s New Testament reading we heard two parables that belong to the place where these personal and public worlds meet.  They tell of two people at the end of their rope, whose private struggles have become so severe that they crash through the normal restraints we impose upon our personal lives and become a public matter.  In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, organised religion and public duty are not enough.  It is the cry of a broken man that God hears, says Jesus: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.  In the parable of the widow the judge respects no-one, but her ceaseless worrying away galvanises him into action out of a wish for a quiet life.  The public world needs pressure to respond. It is not by nature altruistic. The temple religion of the Pharisee cannot take away the publican’s burden.  The judge does not want to help the desperate widow. Both needy people are an embarrassment to those in high office, as the poor often are.

The paired characters in these parables are a foil for each other: tax-collector and Pharisee, widow and judge, two victims in trouble, two establishment people who have their reward already. But these stories also show the complete trust both victims have in their institutions. They believe without hesitating that their causes will be addressed in a public place be it the temple or the law court.  The tax collector never doubts that his cry will be heard. The woman knows after a lifetime of struggle that it pays to pester authority, and that even a self-serving judge can be driven to the point where he must act.  Never mind his motives.  What matters is her belief that she will have an outcome.

Let me explore this question of trust.  Why is trust in our public institutions at such a low ebb, and when was it ever more challenging to take up public office? There is a culture of suspicion that rests heavy on all of us in public roles whether in education, the church, the judiciary, healthcare or politics.  Wherever we are, we cannot escape the mechanisms of performance targets, benchmarking, micro-management and hyper-accountability that, far from enhancing trust actually erode it.  Our love affair with rights, litigation and blame is hardly surprising.  Of course, institutions erode trust in themselves when they become compromised, heedless of their values, haughty about those with little voice or power.  There are hospitals that have been too careless about whether patients live or die. There are church leaders who have covered up for abusing clergy. There are financial institutions that exploit the poorest or have failed to honour their pledges. These are not just little local difficulties.  They are symptoms of a worrying disease that, unchecked, will corrode confidence and trust. This includes the ancient institutions that symbolise what our nation stands for: parliament, local government, the armed forces, the judiciary, the monarchy, the church.

I want to think, a trifle na├»vely you may say, that our public institutions and their leaders could be more trusted, not less, to know what they are doing, act responsibly and behave ethically.  Many sign up to the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and good leadership. But these altruistic, vocational ideals for public service and citizenship only flourish in a world where we trust one another. But there’s the rub, for our society feels a profound dis-ease toward institutions of all kinds. We don’t always believe that they have our best interests at heart.  We easily suspect collusion, self-interest and hidden motives. Respect for public office and those to whom we owe loyalty, what we used to call piety, is not what it once was. 

What might Christian faith have to say about this on mayoral Sunday? I believe that when there is trust in our institutions and those who hold office in them, it creates a virtuous circle where we can all flourish.  Where we act out of a real desire to serve, where we practise compassion in the face of pain and need, where duty is truthfully yet humanely exercised and where we honour the value of others, we create trust.  And trust is not just a utilitarian way of oiling the machinery of our institutions.  It is a theological virtue whether we know it or not. It is grounded in the belief that human beings have infinite worth, for we are made in the image of God. It is how God is towards us to whom he has given the stewardship of creation: he trusts us with his world, to look after it and cherish it. This is how we need to be towards one another.

Where trust fails, coercion and the abuses of power that go with it gain a foothold. That ugly trait has been elevated to a fine art in the last century or so.  Of course we need checks and balances, proper audit and intelligent accountability in public life and personal relationships.  We need them in our governance and to preserve good order. We need them to make good judgments in our ethics and religion. This is where the unjust judge fell short: he feared neither God nor man.  By contrast the widow shows a better way.  By hoping against hope, she represents those in every age who will not capitulate to despair, not give in to the idea that things can never be other than they are, not be fobbed off by the structures of power and those who wield their weapons.  She symbolises the possibility that the world can be a different place if we want it enough.

Jesus told the parable, Luke says, to help us not to lose heart. This civic service brings together people committed to promoting the wellbeing of our city and county. It affirms trust by pointing us to resources beyond our own for tasks we feel scarcely prepared or adequate for, Solomon’s wisdom we heard about in the first reading. It invites us into a journey of hope which offers a new perspective on who and what we are.  It is a journey our society needs to make if we are to be saved from ourselves. It is a journey our church needs to make, and not simply speak about from a safe distance. It is a journey for each of us to make as we look beyond our narrow worlds into a more generous vision of what God is calling us to become. This is what we ask for our new mayor today and for ourselves as we give thanks for another year and pray that even if we have to sow in tears, we may soon reap with songs of joy.

Durham Cathedral, at the Mayor's Service, 28 July 2013
1 Kings 3.3-15; Luke 18: 1-14

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