October 24, 2019

Over ten years ago, my former PhD supervisor Andrew Shanks and I tried to write a book together about the importance of the theologian Gillian Rose. In the end, we found it hard to agree, so he wrote the book – and I wrote a forward about why it was so hard to write the book together.

All this was somewhat ironic, given that the book – Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith – was substantially about the ethics of compromise. I was reminded of this exercise by Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, after she voted with the Government and wrote:

“In my view you betray the people you represent when you believe that your own moral purity and principles come before trying to improve things for others, however hard. I could stand on the sidelines and wave a flag, or make some decisions. I choose to try.”

This is a praiseworthy and mature sentiment, very much the position adopted by Shanks, and I wonder why I couldn’t go along with it at the time – and whether, ten years on, I’ve changed my mind.

Though Against Innocence was unashamedly theoretical, the backdrop to the book was anything but. The Church of England had been convulsed by a culture war about homosexuality ever since 2003 when a gay Anglican clergyman, Jeffrey John, was nominated to be the Bishop of Reading. In response to the worldwide outcry from conservative critics, the Archbishop of the time, Rowan Williams, asked John to withdraw himself from consideration.

There is no doubt that Williams was in a difficult position. For although it was easy to imagine that his instincts on homosexuality were entirely progressive – not that he would be necessarily comfortable with that description – he also had other considerations. He believed (probably rightly) that were an openly gay man to become a bishop in the Church of England, many parts of the African Church in particular would withdraw themselves from the structures of the Anglican Communion.

This was not just a spiritual issue, as the structures of this communion made a very substantial difference to the material welfare of a great many people, among the most vulnerable in the world.

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His job, as archbishop, was to protect those structures, and so (and this is my reading of the situation) with much unhappiness, he set aside his personal views on the moral status of homosexuality in the name of what he saw as the greater good. I disagreed with him.

A book on the philosophical and theological ethics of compromise was always going to be tricky against such a background. But I nonetheless agreed with Shanks and with Rose that one of the challenges of practical ethics is that those tasked with real life decision-making do not have the luxury of doing their job whilst maintaining morally “clean hands”, as it were. The placards of the activist and the demonstrator often represent the kind of cheap cost-free wisdom all too easily waved about by those without real decisions to make.

Rose had a lot to say about how ethics in the 20th century had detached itself from the practical business of governance. She blamed this development on a reaction amongst professional ethicists to the violence of the early part of the century, a reaction that led many to adopt an extreme reluctance to formulate any sort of ethical system that had any sense of the right use of force or violence.

And by that, she meant they were reluctant to articulate any sense of applied ethics that held things like police, prisons or the law as a sanction. Her criticism was aimed especially at thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas, for whom ethics had become a matter of airy-fairy ideas like “the face” and “the other”; it was an ethics, she argued, that had come to be disengaged from the real world.

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Last November, I preached a sermon at Evensong in Southwark Cathedral at a service attended by members of the Inner London and Blackfriars Crown Courts. In front of rows of judges all dressed up in their wigs and gowns, I made the point that Christianity had developed a problem with the law – associating it with the Old Covenant between God and the Jews – and that Judaism, with its emphasis on commandments, was often more mature in its understanding of the requirements of practical ethics. Lady Hale was on the front row; afterwards, she generously expressed her satisfaction at what I had said.

The point being is that the activist and demonstrator – and perhaps media commentator most of all – can all too easily allow themselves to enter into the fantasy of a free-floating ethical life, one whose distance from the practical demands of moral decision-making allows it to sustain the impression of its own innocence. And that is quite some charge.

Shanks’s book was all about how the desire to be innocent, the need to appear to be right, is a terrible threat to the sort of compromises that practical ethics necessitates. What is required, Shanks argues, is that we dismantle the fantasy of our own innocence – fantasies that sabotage the search for compromise.

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There can be no clearer expression of cost-free wisdom than that expressed on Twitter, and Lisa Nandy has had a hatful of it in the last 24 hours. “Betrayal” was a commonly used word; likewise “traitor”. I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I felt the same about Rowan Williams back in 2003 – though I may have moderated my language a little more than that.

I couldn’t write that book with Andrew Shanks all those years ago because I could not find a way to think well of compromise on an issue that I still feel strongly about. But despite this, I take no pride in the position I adopted. And, if anything, quite a lot of shame.

Shouting “traitor” from the side lines, condemning those who are tasked with the sort of moral decision making from which most of us are spared – that is one of the most spectacular forms of self-righteousness you can imagine, and built on the luxury position of not having to face the fact that the world is far more complicated place than we would like it to be.

Twitter is the home of cost-free wisdom, Lisa. It is a place where people parade their own innocence. Ignore the lot of them. You did good, even if I know it probably doesn’t feel that way. Only the fantasy of moral innocence contains the serotonin of satisfaction. And you have bravely gone without that.