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Giles Fraser: A Church for sinful addicts

04 May 2011

I MET a man the other day who had spent 20 years as a heroin addict. He is now the CEO of a large and well-known company, and married with children. The only suggestion of previous addiction was the can of Coke in his hand as the rest of us drank wine. He has been clean for nearly 25 years, but still goes to Nar­cotics Anonymous (NA) every week.

I am on day four of giving up smoking, again. It’s not the same as a heroin habit, I know. But it is interesting how addiction stays with you. I gave up smoking several years ago, and I really thought I had cracked it. But, one night last December, I just had the one, and then was back on 20 a day within a week. It was madness.

Was it weakness of will? That, of course, is a common explanation of addiction. But my new friend understood it completely differently. Addicts actually have incredibly strong wills, he argued — in fact, too strong. How else can they resist the pressure of friends and family constantly calling on them to quit? No, the addict’s will is so strong that he or she is endlessly inventive to justify a reason for the next fix; endlessly devious in finding new opportunities for a puff or a line.

This is why, my friend believes, the only way to recover fully is to hand your will over to others — or, as a Christian might put it, to an Other. Thus, for instance, if he was planning to go on a trip, he would ask those at his NA meeting whether they thought it was a good idea. They would see the risks, understand the temptations, and smell out the bogus justifications that we use to return to our drug. If they said no, he wouldn’t go on the trip.

I have long felt that groups such as Narcotics Anonymous offer a model for a persuasive ecclesiology. Human beings are sinful creatures. Sin is an addiction, even for those who have been clean for years. A good church is a place where you can have the trust to hand your will over to others — as well as to an Other. A good church is a place where we all acknowledge our addiction, and can help each other with honesty and fellow-feeling.

This is why church can be so easily corrupted by respectability, by the desire to pretend and to tut-tut. I was having a fag outside the new Bishop of Ely’s enthronement the other day. Another cleric saw me, and screwed up his face in obvious disapproval.

If my ecclesiology has some merit, then that face is how the Church dies. Snooty respectability kills it by acting as if we, as church, have been cured of our addiction. No: what we need to do is to support each other in our battle against sin, not to pretend that we are somehow beyond it.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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