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Giles Fraser: The danger of being respectable

17 August 2012

by Giles Fraser

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 "reputational risk"?

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 job properly.

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 subtly corrosive.

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.

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