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Rich man, poor . . . beggars belief

26 July 2012

Can morality survive a loss of faith, asks Roger Arguile. He looks to Smiley for an answer

Cynicism v. optimism: the film poster

Cynicism v. optimism: the film poster

TINKER Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carré's novel, filmed recently and now on the DVD circuits, is something of a parable. It tells of the uncovering of a double agent at the highest levels of the British intelligence service, and, in the process, of the revelation of the rottenness of the institution itself.

Unfortunately, the theological questions raised by Le Carré in the novel, and in the earlier television serial, have been lost in the remake; this fact deserves some comment, because the issues are of wider application.

Many of us work in an institution, such as a firm, some arm of government, a church, or whatever. We like to think that it is worth working for. Loyalty is not only asked for; we want to give it. We know, of course, that the organisation is not perfect: human foibles, human weakness, occasional incompetence, the odd bad apple; all these are to be expected. And sometimes the harm can infect the rest of the organisation.

Not only are there times when people let down the organisations that they belong to, but also the organisations let them down - not adventitiously, but fundamentally.

JOHN LE CARRE said of his creation George Smiley, the spymaster who uncovers the identity of the "mole", that he believes in an England which never really existed: honest, decent, and with aspirations to fairness. Thus, his wife says to him at the end: "Life is such a puzzle to you." The idea that one of his colleagues is a traitor comes hard, although he is relentless in his attempts to identify him.

Christians, likewise, believe in a world that has never really existed: life remains - if not a puzzle, then a provisional state of things that gives only hints and clues as to how things should be.

Christians may also believe in a Church that has never really existed. In his quest for the identity of the bad apple, one of Smiley's informants, Ricki Tarr, an agent in the field, meets a Russian agent, Irina, who falls for him. She tells him that she knows of a double agent in London whose name she can reveal only to the head of the London station. She, too, is disenchanted with her bosses. She is also fascinated by Christianity. She is found, when they first meet, reading the Beatitudes; she muses on the giving of a whole life to prayer by those who enter religious orders.

Her life is, by comparison, muddy and brutal. She lives by deceit and secrecy, expecting betrayal. The Church of which she dreams, does it really exist? She is not sure - some priests are drunkards, she says - but her yearnings are somehow tangled up in the Britain that she longs to flee to. The effect of Smiley's investigations, however, steadily reveals her ideal to be something of a sham, even as he defends his country's standards of decency, loyalty, and freedom.

Smiley does not quite give up hope, but his is a tragic hope - a deep-dyed but fragile hope - which depends on personal conduct.

In recent weeks, we have seen how some of the country's most important institutions have betrayed us. Banks used to share the same grey image of Le Carré's Circus: dull but dependable. Now we know that personal conduct within these banks has been reprehensible, even criminal.

Not only have the banks been self-serving; we discovered this weekend that they have connived at tax avoidance on an unbelievable scale. Such news not only throws their loyalty into doubt - there appears to be none; it also forces us to wonder whether there is anything left that deserves ours.

AND what of the Church? Irina seeks to recover a lost, or perhaps never-known, innocence. She dreams of a Church that, if we are honest, is not to be found - except, that is, through the eyes of faith and with the forgiveness with which, we hope, Christ looks upon it. Irina sees something more telling than the squabbles in convents, than words uttered by those bored by their familiarity, than preoccupation with the wholly worthless; more telling than W. B. Yeats's "passionate intensity".

Her naïve vision is the constant challenge that new-found faith presents to the weariness and cynicism found among church leaders. Her prayer calls them, likewise, to pray the prayer of longing. In the novel, she is betrayed by the mole, who is supposed to be defending Western freedoms. Christ threatened millstones for those in the Church who inflicted similar harm on the innocent.

THE gloom of the Smiley novels is not overwhelming because there is Smiley himself. Although there is little about him that conforms to the usual images of heroism, his unwavering pursuit of the truth is enough to attract our admiration. But he is of the old order. As for his successors, many of them appear to believe nothing at all, and live according to their beliefs.

Here is the question, then: is basic decency, a dogged refusal to give up ideals about this country and life within it, enough to inspire personal honesty and a search for justice for others?

It is a question that we will see answered over these next few years, as the greater ideals lose their grip in this country. We shall find whether personal standards such as honesty and loyalty are self-supporting. Or do they require something to underpin them, such as Irina's aspirational religion? The makers of the recent film presumably believed the former, and, for that reason, omitted any reference to religion. If that is true, though, I reckon we are in a bigger mess than we thought.

Canon Roger Arguile is a former Vicar of St Neots.

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