Welcome to Our Church?
While waiting for Markus I visited St Nikolas’ church in Guildford. Although it was 11.30am on a Sunday and there were people inside, the doors were locked. I wandered round to find that the somewhat elderly congregation was having coffee in a smart hall at the back.
Interesting, this. What sort of welcome would I receive? I am old (ish!) and dressed as an itinerant scruff – old trousers, a half eaten baseball hat (thanks to our dog Moses), a fluorescent yellow jacket and my big toe showing through my boot, so my fashion suggests “Salvation Home for Destitutes” rather than Hackett, if you know what I mean. What sort of welcome would I have? So, in I walked and the crowd parted like the Red Sea … everyone ignored me, including the vicar, and went on talking to their chums.
My barren visit was saved by the finance chairman called Patrick, who was welcoming, and he gave me coffee.
However, I feel that If I had been an ex-prisoner or black or under fifty I would have not felt welcome.
When I went round to the front doors again there were four young people trying to get in. I told them the bad news… that is that the church has lost the plot and is as dead as the dodo. They smiled and went on their way.
I understand that the vicar is “very spiritual”… that’s nice, then. But it would be even nicer if he had the courtesy to greet strangers because I have always understood that this is vital part of a vicar’s job.
There was a large sign saying “Welcome” on the front of this church, but I have learned that this is only symbolic!
I walked away, sadly…
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never declared, “blessed are the nice” – though it seems all too many of our countrymen want to be thought of as just that. These people don’t want actually to have to do anything in particular to prove their niceness, virtue and political correctness, and they reckon talk will do. They have long since learned what George McDonald Fraser’s great creation Harry Flashman knew: people take you at face value… they don’t probe or think much. So if you can talk the talk, you don’t have to walk the walk. What do I mean?
Talking the Talk
I listened to another vicar the other day, a substantial lady, holding forth to a small group with her “Christian” views on politics. It seems today that clergy talk of little else: they know it’s less offensive and rather easier to discuss, for example, the alleged iniquities of the growth in the number of food banks than preach the Gospel. She talked about “her journey” and then her “vision” for a better society. Then she claimed she was “passionate” about and really “believed” in the NHS, and the plight of the poor to whom she had been “called to serve”. She said, in particular, that she advocated a higher minimum wage.
Why should this lady care that if the minimum wage rises too high, low-skilled workers, whose abilities simply cannot command a high minimum wage, become unemployed? That would of course not be her problem. She was effortlessly indicating to her audience that she was holy, generous and warm-hearted. She was showing that she cared deeply about her fellow man – or woman. All she had to do was talk and send verbal signals. I told her that it was my view that the “Christian” communities held no monopoly of such views, and stances she claimed were “Christian” were surely shared by Muslims, Hindus, Jews and secular humanists. She looked hurt, for all she wanted to be was “nice” and I was complicating things.
This faux niceness is everywhere. One of our young friends claimed at a recent supper party she had voted “Green”. Everyone said what an interesting choice that was; oh yes, what a sensible move. No one asked how the nation could afford, for example, the £45bn bill they were proposing for insulating everyone’s lofts? Or even commented that the scale of their proposed financial profligacy was breathtaking. No one asked why was it considered wise to run down our defences and drop our nuclear defences in a dangerous world? It would seem, rather, that voting Green is considered to be a “nice” and acceptable option.
At another function, one of our other friends announced he had voted UKIP. There were sharp intakes of breath from the other guests for he had unwittingly stated that he was fundamentally rather nasty, that he did not hold liberal media-approved opinions – one of which of course is to loathe UKIP and all its works. The other guests wanted to demonstrate by their disapproval of UKIP they were not racist. Now, I hasten to add that I am not a UKIP supporter, but the fact that the UKIP manifesto was a paragon of common sense when compared to the Greens’ was not even mentioned. Then one of the other guests said, presumably in order to indicate what a nice person she was and how much she cared about the poor, how much she loathed the Daily Mail. Then, in case that message had been missed, she announced how much she despised Murdoch. I asked her why? Silence fell. I presume she was convinced that her views – prejudices really – were for parading, not debating. In other words they could not be challenged in polite company. I asked if she read other papers, and of course she answered that yes she did. Then I told her that if it hadn’t been for Murdoch courageously taking on the print unions in the 1970s, then there would not today be any other newspapers to read. She stared at me silently because parading an acute dislike of Murdoch is a totemic statement indicating “political correctness”.
Signalling how “nice” you are crosses party boundaries. For example, the Conservatives always have to prove that they are not the “nasty party”. This is one of the reasons they have to hammer off-shore havens and tax avoiders. They were about to name and shame a few avoiders when it was pointed out they were in the process of destroying some of their most generous supporters.
Then why do you think that the Tories ring-fenced the expenditure of 0.7 per cent of our GDP on foreign aid? The efficacy of such expenditure on foreign aid is irrelevant: it was to prove the party is nice and caring. When Cameron claims he is a “passionate defender” of the NHS – note the “passion” – he is declaring he also believes, along with everyone else, in what passes for God in the UK. This triggers the other parties to declare they passionately believe in the NHS even more than Cameron, and that they are therefore even more “compassionate” than him. The virtue lies in the wish. The use of the word “believes” shifts the argument away from evidence about which health care system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of voters, to a visceral demonstration of compassion. Then the other parties angrily shriek that the terrible Tories want to “privatise” the NHS and – despite the NHS’s manifest inefficiencies, that will bankrupt us all in the end – that anyone who seeks to change it in any way has to be another Stalin. “Gosh”, we are meant to think, they must be virtuous and ever so “nice” to be so angry and to shriek so loudly.
Then I know of two people who are core capitalists through and through, and with all the trappings of wealth, who claim always to be “Old Labour” because it signals they are concerned with the plight of the poor. But the reality is somewhat different. There is a poem by the great late Bernard Levin that sums their attitude up:
“The working class can kiss my arse,
I’ve joined the bosses class at last”
Virtue is as Virtue Does
There was a time when Christians believed that to be virtuous you had to do something: help in a food bank, visit the sick, or look after your aging parents and not dump them in a care home. These things of course involve effort and sacrifice. How much easier is it just to talk about virtue and do nothing that is actually virtuous.
Christians hold that pride and parading empty virtue are core sins. This is surely why so many of us find empty verbal compassion and virtue signalling nauseating. Perhaps some people are fooled into believing that those who do little – apart from publicly asserting their moral superiority by boasting they loathe UKIP, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail – are somehow more virtuous than those who actually take action.
Today’s widespread sham boasting indicates that there is little shame and no real reflection: it’s all words and wind. I have just received an email from George, someone I hardly know. He ends it, “Have a really wonderful weekend, Tom, Warmest possible wishes, George.” (Note the possible!)
Gosh, what a far warmer and generous person George must be than the individual – whom I like a lot – who signed off his email, “Ever Henry”.