One of the principal tasks of a leader is to communicate reality to those who wish to take his or her lead, and the reality that I observe all around me, not just in Church but in every sphere of life, is a mood of impatience with other points of view, of an increasing narrowing of vision and of a drawing back from the sort of commitment that creates sustainable and worthwhile communities. It is hardly an exaggeration to call these developments the triumph of individualism and I sometimes think that the word “individual” should be banned from Christian conversations and replaced by a word like “person” to reflect the complexity and value which each of us has – what we share as much as what we need.
This individualism which is so prevalent in our world and sometimes in our parishes is the enemy of reasoned debate and very far from the spirit of Anglicanism. Over the past ten years or so a new and very revealing way of opening a conversation or a debate has entered into our way of talking. “Speaking as an X.” somebody will say, whatever X might be. Speaking say as a woman or speaking as a progressive or speaking as a traditionalist or speaking as a unionist or as a republican – whatever it might be. But the intention of that way of opening a conversation is not to engage in an equal conversation but to establish some sort of privileged position. “I am X and you are not, so you couldn’t possibly understand.” It is an attempt to set up a wall against questions and it turns conversations into an encounter about power. The winner of the argument won’t be the person who has the strongest reasons but the one who has the morally superior identity and can express the greatest outrage at being questioned.
The key word to look out for is “offended”. Other people’s arguments aren’t weak or illogical – they are offensive. What replaces argument is a series of taboos rather like in the old paganism where only a small number of people, like the Druids or the shamans, were permitted to speak on certain matters or do certain things but nobody else not of that caste could interfere. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. Ask any of your children who have been to university recently about the matters which people simply aren’t allowed to debate any more or the beliefs which are denigrated because they are outside a certain limited range of reference.
As you may have guessed by now I believe that the antidote to this strange perversion of the liberal spirit is the smallness and the diversity of the parish. It is what I meant when I said last year that the parish is the place where we create local significance in a globalised world.