Giles Fraser: The danger of being respectable
Posted: 17 Aug 2012 @ 00:38
Judging from the number of phone calls I have had recently, the
academics are beginning to get their teeth into the Occupy
protests. Mostly, they ask the same things, and get the same
replies. But, this week, a particularly well-informed post-graduate
asked me a question that unexpectedly opened up a portal into my
soul. He simply used the phrase "reputational risk". The hairs on
the back of my neck stood up.
"Reputational risk" was a phrase often used at St Paul's
Cathedral, and in the City generally, and one that a number of us
especially disliked. What would the man who was attacked for
hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collectors have made of
Surely he would have had no place for it. Indeed, he was the
stone that the builders rejected, and yet became the cornerstone.
So how is it that the Church built in his name has become so
concerned with its own reputation? In a sense, if the Church does
not have a bad reputation - or, perhaps better still, if it were
indifferent to the fact that it might - it would not be doing its
This is something that PR agencies and ecclesiastical
spin-doctors are going to have a hard time getting their heads
around. Yes, I know we all ought to be evangelists, spreading the
good news. And reputation may be an issue here. But, as
Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, sometimes Christ gets
in the way of the Church's mission.
I was invited to preach in the United States recently, and I
suddenly realised how difficult it must be to be a Christian in a
culture that continually applauds you for being one. I guess it
might be a bit like Pavlov's dog: soon you might begin to think
that the applause and the Christianity were connected.
Moreover, how would you ever really know that you would be one
of the people who would continue to keep the faith if others
despised you for it? Would politicians be Christians if it were a
vote-loser rather than a vote-winner? Respectability can be so
One of the best sermons I ever heard at St Paul's was from an
Evangelical who asked the congregation: "If you were put on trial
for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict
you?" It wasn't a new idea, but I think we all felt properly
chastened by that charge.
We are indeed on trial. And the charge against many of us will
be that of respectability. This is why the phrase "reputational
risk" ought to be banished from the conversation. We ought not to
care about it. It does not point out the way of the cross.
Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's,
Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.