It was touching to read the account, in ‘Our local rock’, of a priest with that mixture of sensibility and wisdom that helps the best Christians make life richer for those around them.
I too have had the privilege of meeting men and women like Father R, among senior and junior clerics, and among the laity. And I’ve met them among Hindus, Jews and Moslems as well as among Christians. There’s no doubt that they bring comfort in a world that’s often short of it, making us all better off for their presence.
It is the behaviour of such people that helps reconcile me to their beliefs. Because in what I admit is a relatively simplistic attitude on my part, I find it hard to accept that principles developed by an essentially agrarian society 2000 years ago are going to be helpful in understanding where we stand today. Particularly as I often find them deeply flawed.
Take the story of the prodigal son. Isn’t the gross injustice of his being rewarded out of his brother’s inheritance after running through his own, blatant to anyone who reads it? What about the Gadarene swine, driven to their deaths with not a thought to their owner’s livelihood? But the worst of all is Luke 14:23:
And the owner said to his servant, 'Go out to the streets and to the place of hedges and compel them to enter, that my house may be filled’
That’s provided justification for forced, often violent, conversion down the ages.
Still, faced with people like Father R. I find it easy to say, ‘if it generates such goodness, perhaps I can live with the incoherence of the Church’s principles.’
The trouble is not these individuals, it’s the institutions, the churches, to which they belong. Those institutions are far more than the sum of their parts; above all, they’re far more powerful than the sum of their parts. And, sadly, some of the individuals are a lot less nice than Father R.
Look at that quotation from St Luke again. ‘Compel them to enter’. It’s that compulsion that’s the fearful key to much religious behaviour. I can’t imagine Father R behaving that way, but what about Scottish Cardinals fulminating against homosexuality, or fundamentalists picketing abortion clinics to intimidate women who are already going through a difficult and unhappy moment?
I don’t call on any devout believer to be well-disposed to homosexuality or abortion or any other aspect of human behaviour they dislike. You don’t want a gay sexual experience? Don’t have one. But don’t dictate their behaviour to other people who don’t share your view. When a TV programme turns up that shocks your religious sensibility, change to another channel. If you don’t like a full-face veil, don’t wear one, but don’t shut out a woman who does.
Father R draws strength from the Church behind him and uses it to spread harmony. That’s religious behaviour at its best. He has entered into the lord’s house and it gives him solace which he shares with others. But he isn’t trying to compel anyone else to enter too.
When religions learn to follow Father R’s example, society will become an immeasurably more civilised place. But while they continue to apply the principles of Luke 14:23, anyone who believes in decency or tolerance has to oppose them. And this applies to any belief system, not only to Christianity.
Which means, by the way, that it applies just as much to militant atheism. Followers of Richard Dawkins, please take note.