Democracy and Covid-19

Democratic government in the UK can only prosper when the country’s institutions are strong and functioning well. A healthy institutional life prevents ambitious individuals from gaining excessive personal power. Many of our most important institutions are closely connected to the Government itself – Parliament, the Civil Service, the Judiciary, the Police, Local Councils. It is vital, in the interests of democracy, that they have independent identities and clearly understood and defined responsibilities. Other institutions are more detached from Government. Some have a national role, like the BBC, the NHS, leading charities and Trades Unions, but most are more limited in scope. They are nonetheless important in maintaining a social structure within which democracy can operate.

Two processes are undermining these institutions. One is globalism, which has resulted in the creation of world-wide corporations beyond the political control of the UK, or any national government, other, perhaps, than China and the USA. Their financial muscle and their ability to shape opinion are huge and expanding. The other process is political opposition, which has the effect of a steady decline in respect and trust for these institutions. They are often depicted as wasteful, enemies of the interests of ordinary people and bastions of a minority’s self-interests.  Financial penalties follow.

There may be truth in some of these accusations, and reforms may need to be made. The overall effect of such “populist” attacks, however, is a fragmentation of society, which means that those who seek power can appeal unhindered directly to the people. This endangers true democracy. Sometimes a measure of delay and inefficiency is a price that has to be paid to avoid an unhealthy centralisation of power.

One effect of Covid-19 has been a sudden and unprecedented centralisation of power, at least in peace time. This has been necessary, for a while, in order to save lives. But the disease has also highlighted the vital importance of public institutions. The NHS, the BBC, the Police, the Civil Service and Local Authorities are all absolutely vital to tackling it.

Hopefully, when it has all calmed down, the country’s debt to these organisations, and to a multitude of others, including religious and charitable ones, will result in a greater respect for their social role and an increased willingness to provide them with the money they need to do their job well. In view of the global nature of the threat, like others we face, there will hopefully also be a increased desire for more international co-operation among the world’s democracies. Part of the benefit of this could be to achieve some measure of political control over ever-more powerful international business.

There is a danger, of course, that once Government has taken increased power, it will be reluctant to give it up. It is not hard to imagine the plea being made that today’s challenges need strong leadership, action not debate, and that losing personal and institutional freedoms are sacrifices worth making if they get in the way of decisive and effective action. That way lies autocracy, and must be resisted. Another danger is a continued retreat into a narrow nationalism, in which problems are blamed on outsiders and barriers are thrown up in order to protect ourselves from the alien other.

We need to hope and pray that we learn the right lessons from Covid-19, that democratic Government survives in good health and that the world unites in confronting whatever challenges lie in the years and generations to come.

Covid-19

It feels like someone has just pressed the world’s reset button. One minute life jogs along pretty much as usual. The next, we have to start thinking in new ways about everything. The repercussions reverberate in every direction – work, health, politics, family, finance, leisure, etc. etc.. On a personal front, last week we visited a museum, went out for a family meal, did our regular volunteering with a charity and walked with our walking group; I sang at my choir’s weekly rehearsal, led a Bible study at church, attended my art group and led a funeral service. Now, none of it would be possible. In every area of life – politics, economics, business, sport – both within the UK and internationally, the same radical disruption has occurred.  Crisis deliberations are taking place, and far-reaching decisions are being made, at every level of society.

The practicalities of working out how to cope with Covid-19 are huge, but it also highlights other underlying issues. As a global pandemic, it reminds us of the unity of humanity, respecting neither national boundaries or other ethnic, cultural or religious differences that divide us. It was already becoming clear that we need to work together globally to meet the environmental and other challenges humanity faces, and this virus powerfully forces us to face up to this reality. Organizations that facilitate international co-operation, such as the United Nations, should receive the support and resources they need to do their job, and every country, even the wealthiest ones, need to recognize they cannot stand alone.

The virus is no respecter of persons in terms of who it infects, but as with many other threats to people’s welfare, it will be the poor and vulnerable who stand to suffer most. Those in insecure employment or accommodation, or on benefits, let alone any caught up in the epidemic in refugee camps or war zones, will find coping with it – even surviving it – most difficult. It shows up the damaging inequalities that divide us, and the duty of care on the part of the most privileged, both between and within nations.

The current situation dramatically demonstrates the folly of putting our whole confidence in our own achievements and abilities. An organism too small to be seen and one of the simplest forms of life explodes the myth of humanity’s self-sufficiency and our capacity to find technological solutions to all life’s problems. Science is an immensely powerful tool to improve human life, but today we have to humbly acknowledge that we are not the masters of our destiny that we might have thought. On a personal level, the virus reveals our mortality, something we accept intellectually, but are slow to acknowledge in practice. Politically, it demonstrates the limitations of those in power.

The imposed inactivity and resulting financial crisis is a huge worry to many individuals and businesses. A few will inevitably seek to take advantage of it for personal gain. But also, for those not in immediate and critical need, it provides an opportunity for reflection. As the routines of work and leisure have been removed, many of us face what is in effect a forced sabbatical or retreat, providing time for a reassessment of our priorities. What difference this will make in the long run, both personally and politically, remains to be seen, but there is a possibility, once the pandemic is over, of lessons to be learned and changes made for the better.

Life’s Instability

Sometimes sorrows seem to gang up against you. For me, recent events have made life feel more precarious then usual. It can’t all be shared in a public post like this, but the following illustrates what I am talking about.

Our volunteering with ASSIST, the Sheffield charity supporting destitute asylum seekers, has been disrupted over the last few months by the angry resignation of several experienced volunteers, provoked by disciplinary measures taken against one of them, action which most of us found difficult to comprehend. The person involved was a highly respected and valued member of our team, to whom many of us owed a lot. The inevitable results of the resignations has been disruption of the work we do and extra pressure on those who are left.

A few weeks ago the minister of our church suddenly and without warning resigned, not only from the church itself, but from ministry altogether, leaving us all bewildered. This has caused much sadness and thrown future plans and expectations into disarray, and for me, possible extra responsibilities.

Last week, one of our friends here in Chapeltown deliberately walked in front of a vehicle on the motorway and killed himself. We had got to know Ron well, having been introduced to them by our daughter shortly after we arrived here more than three years ago. We had been with them less than a week earlier. He leaves a wife, children and young grandchildren.

Events like this give rise to feelings of sadness, confusion and regret, sometimes also of anger and guilt. When they come together over a relatively short period of time they cause a general unease and insecurity. Circumstances and people that seemed stable have proved unreliable – the world has changed and I am not sure I feel at home in it any more. Of course, there are all sorts of things that cause people even greater feelings of dislocation.

On top of personal disruption, national and global instability is one of the features of our time. At the end of this week the UK is due to leave the European Union, a baffling and destabilizing event whose repercussions will be felt for years to come. In the USA, the world’s most influential democracy, rancorous division and accusations are having a deeply damaging affect on political life. Technological innovation is profoundly and rapidly revolutionizing economic and social relations. Perhaps most significant of all, global warming threatens the survival of human civilization itself.

Growing economic prosperity and political stability have for a long time provided a foundation for confidence about the future. It is becoming clear that we can no longer take these things for granted. Events that bring disorder to our personal lives, some of which are partly the consequence of these broader trends, are more difficult to cope with in such an environment.

One of the consequences of all this can be paralysis. When the normal framework for living seems to be disintegrating, it is hard to find a secure basis for doing anything. I need to remind myself of moral values that do not change, and to hold on to those. Sometimes what is needed is just courage and endurance to see things through, and not be overwhelmed by feelings of lostness and threat. We may need help from others to do that. Sometimes we can offer a steady hand of friendship to others.

The words of Jesus are apt: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”.

Peter Shepherd (January 2020)

A Prophetic Message for a Time of Crisis

I have been looking at the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.  For all its strange language and imagery, its message is strikingly pertinent.  Ezekiel was a priest forced into exile with many of Israel’s élite shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the early 6th century BC.  His message is aimed at the people back in Jerusalem, and especially their leaders.  Its predominant theme is the disaster they face because they have abandoned God’s way.  The book starts with the precise day when the prophet’s visions began, and other dates are given when new visions occurred.  They seem to emphasize the passage of time, each day that passes bringing Jerusalem closer to judgement day.

Ezekiel is fierce in his condemnation of false prophets.  They are liars, he says, falsely claiming that all is well in Jerusalem.  The truth is that the city is profoundly and institutionally corrupt.  Its pride in its past and its presumption of God’s protection are dangerous mistakes.  In reality it has betrayed its God, despising his guidance and prostituting itself before the nations around it, committing worse sins than they have.  Ezekiel has a burning sense of obligation to speak out and expose the injustices and corruption he sees for what they are.

The book’s message, however, is not only negative.  Ezekiel describes what a good society should be like, where people respect each other and each other’s property, where oppression and injustice are absent and where the poor are provided for.  He is also hopeful for Israel’s long-term future.  His most famous image of hope is in chapter 37, where a valley full of dead bones is transformed into a “vast multitude” of living people.

Naturally, the context of the book is entirely different from our own, perhaps most noticeably in his overwhelming sense of the glory of God.  His language and imagery retain much of their original power, but they are sometimes incomprehensible to us.  The themes, however, are relevant for the times we are living through.

For a start, the political dislocation caused by Trump, Brexit, climate change, the rise of nationalistic and religious extremism, etc. draws us into significant parallels with the situation confronting Ezekiel.  The global nature of today’s crises is on a very different scale, but the threat to Israel’s survival and the apparent failure of trusted ideologies led to similar anxieties and confusion as our own.  Like today, simplistic promises and false hopes were given by those in leadership.  In the face of severe external threats the fabric of society began to crumble.  Violence increased; unscrupulous profit seekers sought opportunities to take advantage of the situation; the fate of the poor deteriorated.

Ezekiel’s response was similar to some of the prophets who had come before him.  He was passionate in his condemnation of those who had led the people astray, and were doing so still.  Having abandoned the worship and ways of the Lord, the Israelites were now facing the consequences.  But forgiveness and a future restoration would occur.  The closing chapters of the book describe a detailed, and highly symbolic vision of a new temple in Jerusalem, where true worship would be offered.

Facing up to past and present wrongs which are inevitably leading to disastrous consequences, and at the same time being hopeful about the future is not easy, but they are both necessary, especially in times of crisis.  The threats facing Western societies today – for many of which we are responsible – seem overwhelming, and can easily lead to despair.  They must be honestly acknowledged.  Repentance and a serious commitment to change are necessary, but without hope, they will never happen.

Hope in the book of Ezekiel, that priest and prophet of Israel, is centred around the restoration of true worship in Jerusalem.  That may not seem particularly relevant to us, but our vision for the future, like his, involves a society and a world where security is restored and people can live in freedom and peace.  Unless we have such a hope to inform and direct us, darkness is bound to overwhelm us in the end.

Peter Shepherd (October 2019)

Brexit and Irish Unity

The prospect of Brexit is making the logic of Irish union increasingly compelling.

Between 1886 and 1920 four attempts were made in Parliament (then governing the whole of Britain and Ireland) to grant Ireland Home Rule. The idea was to keep Ireland constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, as it had been from the start of the nineteenth century, while at the same time allowing it independence in internal affairs. The first attempt failed because the House of Commons voted against it, the second because it was rejected by the House of Lords, the third because of the intervention of the First World War, and the fourth because by that stage (1920) the momentum for complete independence in the South had grown too powerful.

For much of the time, most Irish MPs supported Home Rule, although the Unionists in the north opposed it.  If only Gladstone had been successful in driving it through in 1886 or 1893, how different things might have been. Today, devolution has given a considerable measure of independence to the north, but for Ireland as a whole Home Rule died with the 1916 Easter Rising. The only realistic constitutional choices are continued separation between North and South or Irish unity.

I have no personal connection with Ireland and no right to say what should be done. Only the Irish themselves can decide. That is not as straightforward as it sounds, however, given the division of opinion between North and South. If majority opinion in the North moved clearly in favour of Irish unity, that would solve the issue, and personally, I hope that day will come sooner rather than later.

In the event of Brexit, the dividing line between North and South will be the boundary between two entirely separate economic and political jurisdictions, each with its own rules affecting trade and travel. As long as both countries remain in the EU and accept its principles of freedom of movement, tariff free trade, etc., this is not a problem, but without that, major adjustments, with all the damaging implications for co-operation and peace in the island of Ireland, are inevitable.

If it were simply a matter of economics, the elimination of the border would be the obvious solution, but of course it isn’t. Politics, history and contrasting notions of national identity all stand in the way. But they are not as decisive as they once were. The current political deadlock in Northern Ireland is depressing, but the acceptance in principle of devolution and the sharing of political power between the two communities has loosened the ties between Belfast and London, and strengthened those between Belfast and Dublin.

Opinion on the value of remaining in the EU differed from that in Britain as a whole, the majority voting against leaving in the 2016 Referendum.

The power of the Roman Catholic Church in the Republic – one of the main reasons Unionists in the North argued against Irish unity – is not as strong as it used to be. The religious divide generally is not as powerful a factor as it once was, especially among the young.

There has always been strong cultural, economic and political ties between Ireland and Britain, and that will doubtless continue whatever happens to the Irish border.

Opposition to Irish unity will continue to be held passionately by many, but Brexit means that the dream held by most of the people of Ireland is moving closer.

Peter Shepherd (August 2019)

The Boris Factor

Boris has launched his Brexit campaign running. His leadership style, with its articulate bluster and confidence have left most of the opposition wilting. A dose of optimism does wonders, even when it is unjustified, at least for a while.

A key factor in Boris’s impact and appeal is his skill with words, written and spoken. As a journalist, his Telegraph columns were read and enjoyed by many, even, I suspect, by some who found them irritating. His speeches attract crowds and are frequently greeted with enthusiasm and amusement. Their striking phrases and metaphors make compelling headlines.

Boris’s opponents accuse him of being shallow and untrustworthy, but are still anxious about the attention he grabs, and wonder how long it can last.

The astonishing thing, given the confidence with which he speaks of it, is that Boris’s policy on Brexit is unachievable. It amounts to an attempt to so frighten the EU at the prospect of the UK leaving without a deal that they abandon the Irish border “backstop”, along with other elements of the “dead” Theresa May deal. In reality, this threat is an empty one, as Parliament will not permit a no-deal exit. It is also an insult to our European friends, like the associated threat not to meet our financial obligations.  It unwisely assumes that while Britain is prepared to cope with the damage no-deal will cause, other European countries are not.

To be fair, the situation we find ourselves in is not all of Boris and his fellow Brexiteers’ making. Most MP’s, with the possible exception of those who consistently backed Theresa May’s deal, share responsibility for the impasse.

Boris’s campaigning instinct alongside Parliament’s failure is probably driving us towards a General Election. What the outcome of that might be is anyone’s bet, and it is likely we have a long way to go before we are out of the political wood.

Once Boris’s charismatic bombast has run its course and shown to be inadequate for the task, as it inevitably will, others will be needed to take on the role of leadership. There is always a risk that someone with determination and popular appeal, like Boris himself, will be appointed to lead us out of one mess, only to drag us into a bigger one. What we must do is look for men and women who demonstrate the true qualities of character that are needed in times of crisis. Not so much self-confidence and an ability with words, important as they may be, as integrity, wisdom, resolve, a willingness to work with others and a concern for the vulnerable. Someone who can attract loyalty and respect even from political opponents.

The adversarial style of today’s political climate and the widespread cynicism towards everyone in public office may make it hard to believe such people can ever succeed, but let us hope and pray that before too long the right kind of leadership will be recognized and rise above the partisan scheming and media distortions that are so damaging to our public life today.

Peter Shepherd (July 2019)

A Better Christianity?

I’ve just finished reading Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration (Brian D. Mclaren: The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2016. ISBN 978 1 473 62672 0).  He calls us to escape “conventional” or “traditional” Christianity, which he believes is causing a catastrophic decline in faith, and invites us to embrace a just and generous way of life more true to the example and teaching of Jesus.  Conventional Christianity, for McLaren, means a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, a “a system of beliefs” that is no longer credible, a dominating and frequently violent God and religious institutions pathologically resistant to change.  He is convinced that a new movement, based on a fresh understanding of faith and a “just and generous Christianity” is emerging.  His book can be a workbook for groups, with questions for reflection and discussion at the close of each chapter.

The migration McLaren speaks of reflects a personal journey of faith.  A Church leader from a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren background in America, he experienced a crisis of faith when he found himself unable to believe the concepts and doctrines he had been taught and often preached from the pulpit.  He rejected his previous understanding of Christianity, and in a moment of conversion, discovered “a deeper treasure”, embracing a life style derived from a more genuine relationship with Jesus.

It is difficult to argue with the Christianity the author discovered, and the book will hopefully help many Christian believers whose experience of faith mirrors his own.  His description of the history of Christianity and his advocacy of a “great spiritual migration” is, however, fundamentally flawed.  The conventional Christianity he describes, and from which he believes he has escaped has never been typical of the faith of those who are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus, and cannot properly be described as traditional.  The literalistic, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible he condemns may have gripped the minds of many, particularly in America, but it is a relatively modern phenomenon.

He claims that the traditional “belief system” Christianity led to appalling acts of violence and genocide, such as those perpetrated by the Spanish and Portuguese Conquistadors in the sixteenth century, and continues to justify the destruction of the environment.  Any thoughtful Christian must admit with shame that Christianity has been used to justify many dreadful things, but the Jesus of the Gospels has always stood in judgement against them, and it is wrong for McLaren to argue that his modern migration is needed in response to such horrors.  People in power have often sought to manipulate religious enthusiasm to further and justify their ambitions, and will no doubt continue to do so, but that is not the fault of the faith that derives from Jesus.  Far from being the source of all kinds of wickedness, historical Christianity has often led the way in pursuing justice and peace, championing the rights of the poor and opposing oppression.

Religious institutions, like all other kinds of institution, are resistant to change, and exercise considerable power over individuals, sometimes to do them harm.  Prophetic voices have always been needed to challenge them and expose injustice.  It may be true that none of today’s institutions seem able to solve the environmental, economic and political problems facing us, but McLaren’s extravagant claim that a new spiritual migration can move Christianity and the world to a new and better place, is misleading and overambitious.

Christian people have always been called to pursue a distinctive and prophetic way of life, in every age, to travel with Jesus, show love to all and pursue what makes for peace and justice.  The call today is the same.  We do not stand, as McLaren asserts, like ancient Israel, before a Red Sea, summoned by God to abandon the old ways and launch out into unfamiliar territory, in order to discover a new land of milk and honey.  Instead, we are invited to renew our commitment to follow Jesus in our day, just as our Christian forebears did in theirs, striving in his name to make the world a better place.  There is no better Christianity.

Peter Shepherd (December 2018)

Politics and the Way of Jesus

Our political system is under severe pressure.  Several recent developments are challenging the pattern of political life we have got used to: Scottish nationalism, Brexit, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, etc..  It’s unclear what it will all lead to, but it seems the way we think about ourselves and the way we govern ourselves is changing.

Our immediate political challenges are a reflection of deeper changes in attitude and behaviour, many of them global in scope.  Technological innovation is altering the way we relate to each other and the way we understand the world, along with every aspect of our economic activity.  The social and economic ground beneath us is shifting in unpredictable ways.  The end of the Cold War, the increased prominence of China in world affairs, the creation of the European Union and the growing economic power of developing nations are making the familiar post-war pattern of international relations increasingly irrelevant.  For us in the UK, we are still coming to terms with the decline of our role in the world after the end of Empire.

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that the way power is exercised at a national and global level is struggling to keep up.  Elected politicians are losing people’s confidence and are widely distrusted.  In the search for stability and security, voices from the extremes, with their promise of a return to earlier certainties, are becoming more popular.  The danger of deepening fears and division, with the consequences they bring, is obvious.

How should we who seek to follow the way of Jesus respond?  Sincere Christian people will be found on different sides on most issues.  Some will feel strongly enough to engage in direct political activity or campaigning, but for many – perhaps for most – argument and debate will be avoided, whether through ignorance, lack of self-confidence, confusion, fear of giving offence or simply boredom.

We all have a responsibility to think and pray about the current political climate, and the specific issues facing us, and to ask ourselves what we should be doing.  How can peace and justice best be promoted and preserved?  How can the natural resources of the world God has given us be used well and protected from irreparable damage?  How can they be shared fairly?  These questions confront us all, even if answers are difficult to find.

There is a political dimension to them all.  Collective decisions need to be arrived at one way or another.  With so many of the crucial issues facing us being global in nature, international co-operation is essential, and we need to support those organizations, like the United Nations and international non-government agencies, that foster it.  Awareness and understanding, especially among the young, is also essential.  Schools, colleges, the press and mainstream media, parents, churches – in fact, all of us – have a duty to encourage a spirit of curiosity and enquiry about the world and how we live well together.

But there is something even more important.  While we seek answers to difficult questions, and pursue greater co-operation and understanding, we also know that any result is bound to be imperfect.  Politics, important though it is, will never provide a final answer to anything, and the best we are likely to achieve is muddling along in approximately the right direction.  In the meantime, followers of Jesus have a higher duty, to live by the standards he has set before us, whatever our political engagement, or lack of it.  If we are to “abide in” him, the qualities he demonstrates, such as respect for others, kindness, generosity, humility, courage and integrity, are essential, whatever we do.  In the end, political answers will not satisfy, and may be deeply disappointing, but nothing can overcome the way of life Jesus offers.

Peter Shepherd (November 2018)

Is the Pursuit of Justice a Sham?

The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it is Broken (Macmillan, 2018) is a rather depressing account of the failings of our criminal justice system.  The author commends the integrity, hard work and dedication of most of the people who work in it, but there are few aspects of the way it works today that escape criticism.  The press is targeted for frequently ridiculing and misrepresenting the courts over the decisions they make, politicians are targeted for starving the system of the funds it needs to operate well, and the rest of us are targeted for our complacency.  The picture painted is of a system unable to deliver justice effectively and fairly.

The law and its implementation in the courts are a complete mystery to most people, and one of the Secret Barrister’s appeals is for us to be better informed about it.  The quip that the professions are a conspiracy against the laity seems to be particularly pertinent to the legal profession.  A fair and trusted system of criminal justice is essential to any healthy society, and that is what, according to the Secret Barrister, is coming increasingly under threat.  A just society, she (he?) rightly says, is the responsibility of us all.

With the best will in the world, perfect justice, where the guilty are always convicted and sentenced, fairly and appropriately, and the innocent never are, is unachievable.  For a start, guilt and innocence are sophisticated and subjective ideas, and impossible to define adequately in any legal system.  There are inevitably flaws and biases in how laws are worded, how trials are conducted and how verdicts are arrived at.  Even the wisest magistrate or judge cannot hope to always pass a fair and appropriate sentence on a person found guilty, especially as the options available are limited.  And there is a whole array of other complex issues that should be addressed in the pursuit of justice, such as the rights of victims, the rights of those convicted, the need for the rehabilitation and the role of deterrence.

The Secret Barrister rightly urges us all to take the pursuit of justice in our society more seriously than we do.  His book is, in part, an effort to inform us about such things as how the court system works, how magistrates are appointed, the availability of Legal Aid and the impact of imprisonment, and also a plea for us to act if we discover something we think is seriously wrong.

Vitally important though this is, there are also more profound questions to consider.  How can we know what real justice is?  Is there such a thing at all?  Perhaps a country’s legal system is no more than a matter of it seeking its own self-interest.  Which leads to another important question: should the pursuit of justice be limited to the boundaries of a particular State, or should it be a global endeavour?  Our current system of law-making and law enforcement inplies the former, but surely there can be no real justice unless it applies to the whole of humanity, not just one part of it.

If genuine justice is always beyond our reach, then there is no redress for those wrongly convicted; no bringing to account the guilty who have avoided conviction; no resolution of all the other injustices suffered by people, past and present.  There is something profoundly unacceptable about such an absence of moral order to our existence.  We pursue justice because we believe in it.  We believe that good should be affirmed and wrong righted.  If this belief is no more than wishful thinking, and we are living our lives in a moral vacuum, making things up as we go along, it is rather a miserable condition to be in.  Fortunately, the existence of a God of justice means that our own pursuit of justice is not a sham and that our efforts are not made in an empty void.

Peter Shepherd (June 2018)

 

 

Peter Shepherd (May 2018)

In the Days of Rain

In the Days of Rain is Rebecca Stott’s biography of her father, Roger Stott.  He was a leading figure in the Exclusive Brethren, leaving the movement in 1970 when he was in his early 30’s, and when Rebecca herself was just 5.  His story was pieced together after his death in 2007.  The book won the author the Costa Biography Award in 2017.  It illustrates the power of a religious community to damage people profoundly.

The story is told sympathetically, in spite of the author’s painful childhood experiences, both before and after her father’s break with the Exclusive Brethren.  He struggled to come to terms with a deep sense of bereavement after parting company with a community which had shaped his whole life until that point. He stopped believing in God.  He became a compulsive gambler, drinking heavily.  His marriage fell apart.  He was convicted of embezzling money from the company he worked for and spent time in prison.

Stott is portrayed as a victim as much as a villain.  Bullied by his own father, he was compelled as a child to submit to the strict discipline of the Exclusive Brethren and to keep apart from the world beyond its borders.  In spite of its privations, it did not prevent him taking up a place at Cambridge University to read English Literature.  The broadening of his intellectual life that resulted from this did not lead to a loosening or breaking of ties with the Brethren, rooted as they were in deep and long-standing family bonds.  In fact, no “loosening” was possible – you were either in or out.

The 1960’s were a time of increasing rigour and extremism among the Exclusive Brethren, under the global leadership of James Taylor, the “Man of God”.  Stalinist purges took place within the movement and the demands made of its members to live separately from others multiplied.  Stott and his family were trapped in a system of close personal ties, dogma and religious practice that demanded discipline and loyalty.

The end eventually came when Taylor was exposed for being drunk, foul-mouthed and sleeping with another man’s wife at a Brethren meeting in Aberdeen.  Stott was shaken and bewildered.  For a while he continued to preach at “Non-Taylorite Exclusive Brethren” gatherings, but within a few years abandoned Christianity altogether and began a steady decline into compulsive gambling, drinking, debt, criminality and the neglect of his family.

Roger Stott’s story may be seen by some to illustrate the destructiveness of any religious belief.  The Exclusive Brethren, however, were a small religious cult quite untypical of religious groups in general.  But there are similar cults in existence, and probably always have been, in most if not all religious traditions, and in that sense it is a warning about the destructive potential of religion.

The story is better seen as an illustration of the immense power of religious faith to inspire devotion and loyalty, and to create community.  It is hard for those who deny the validity of any kind of religious faith to explain the source of this power.  There is something about our human condition that longs for the transcendent; that thirsts for God.  Extreme religion, for all its potential to do harm, reveals how deep-seated this longing is.  Religious faith needs to be acknowledged as important and brought into the open, to be talked about in a serious way.  Destructive extremism is fostered in a closed, exclusive environment where it is not exposed to challenge or debate.  The more religion is relegated to the margins or ignored, the more dangerous it is likely to be.

In the Days of Rain also demonstrates processes that encourage extremism.  The author describes the power of a close community to control the emotions and behaviour of individuals within it.  Within such an environment people’s freedom to think, to explore ideas and to make decisions for themselves can be restricted or even stolen from them.  It is not only religious communities that are guilty of this, of course.  If this is to be avoided, communities need to encourage their members to think for themselves.

Another force in the growth of extremism is the role of the charismatic leader.  A frequent feature of dysfunctional communities is a leader whose authority is accepted without question.  The leader’s status is identified with the welfare of the community as a whole, so that to question it is seen as profoundly threatening.  To prevent this, the community needs to develop a strong sense of its own identity, quite apart from the personalities that rise within it, and that can survive their departure.

Reading Rebecca Stott’s book would benefit anyone preparing for ministry or leadership in the Church.

Peter Shepherd (February 2018)