I HAVE been watching day-time TV. This is in preparation for a
lecture, you understand - not because I find myself with no one to
see and no prayers to say at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.
I have been watching the hugely popular Jeremy Kyle, who exposes
disputes, usually family ones, in front of an audience. Under
titles such as "My sister's baby is my boyfriend's", and with
regular recourse to lie-detector tests, the shows attract millions
of viewers every day.
It may be that, for the vast majority of the population who live
without reference to organised religion, these TV shows have become
ways in which to address our innate need to confess and resolve the
messes that we get into, in a way that was once solely the preserve
of the Church. They offer a kind of secularised version of
confession - sometimes accusation of the self, as well as others -
and a yearning for restoration that might be expressed in a kind of
communal, or at least public, absolution.
The narrative in the confessional TV shows is akin to different
versions of the American dream: whoever you are, you can make the
most of yourself. There is no morality attached to ontology: your
identity is neutral in itself, and the goal of life is
self-actualisation and self-fulfilment, even if it is at the
expense of another person.
Personal responsibility is heavily emphasised, the desire for
revenge accepted, and the most ferocious audience reaction reserved
for any whiff of confusion. In among all the shouting and
kerfuffle, often rather beautiful hopes and dreams are expressed:
to try to do right by a child; to try to make up a broken
relationship with a sibling; to confront an addiction; to find
love; and so on.
In front of the audience and with a strong-minded host, however,
there is little room for ambiguity, confusion, uncertainty, or
fragility. What is billed as tough love often turns into a
merciless shrieking rage, which most of us might recognise buried
in ourselves, but rarely allow out in public.
THAT there is a disconnection between the theological language
of confession, repentance, redemption, and sin, and the usual use
of these concepts in public conversations is something that I have
reflected on as I have watched these programmes.
For Christians, sin is the expression of the fractured nature of
humanity's connection with God, and the fractured nature of human
relationships, too. Sin is a way of talking about the separateness,
the as-yet-unrepaired bond between the Creator and the created,
which humans recognise often in an unasked-for yearning.
This yearning comes unannounced, in the presence of great art,
or on a clifftop, when we are in love, or in church. It is a desire
that things should be better, or that we should be kinder, or that
everything should be more peaceful somehow.
Such an often inarticulate yearning, combined with the
frustration of living with things as they are, is something that we
might recognise as part of the human condition which is given
particular expression in Christianity: something like living in the
I WANT to suggest that this gap, which we know about and live
in, is something that Christian practice addresses unflinchingly
and compassionately. It is given expression in the Anglican
teaching about confession that "All may, none must, some
Yet the gap that all people live in is often pejoratively called
hypocrisy by a risk-averse version of secularism which joylessly
assumes malevolent intent in what is often (but is obviously not
always) more like confusion, distress, or simply getting stuff
wrong, hurting others, and hurting ourselves in the process.
The abandonment of trust in God leads us to fear the small
deaths of shame and isolation which remind us of the last death we
will inevitably know: the death of our body and the end of our
This is not to say that in reality Christians are any better: to
be honest, this fear is not uncommon in church life, too. It is
evident in a functional atheism that assumes, deep down, that God
is not here, or, depending on our spiritual experience, assumes
that God is either too far away or, conversely, too like us to be
trusted with our deepest desires and bravest intentions.
What occurs to me as I watch is that our theology of God, either
spoken about in Christian con-versations, or unspoken in public
discourse, is at the heart of this. Without a theology of God which
is bracing enough and kind enough to deal with our fundamentally
fractured lives, living in this gap becomes intolerable. And so we
arrive at a hyperbolic, fearful scapegoating of those parts of
ourselves or others which we condemn.
IF THERE is a hysterical or overly punitive atmosphere around
wrongdoing, inside or outside the Church, it can be an indication
that we have lost our perspective on the movement of time itself.
Sound and fury, expressed in the present, can be at heart an
expression of powerlessness about the past, a howl of rage that
what is done is done with no mechanism at our disposal to be set
free. The New York Times columnist and writer of spiritual
bestsellers Anne Lamott puts this well in her one-liner "There are
three things I cannot change - the past, the truth and you."
The Church does have ways to express God's releasing of us from
our powerlessness: the rhythm of confession, forgiveness, and
absolution - God of us, and us of one another. But finding ways to
communicate this in our often merciless public conversations is one
of the great challenges that we face.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James's,
Piccadilly, in London.
This article is based on part of the Eric Symes Abbott
Memorial Lecture, delivered last month in Westminster Abbey and
Keble College, Oxford. The complete lecture is available on a
podcast at www.westminster-abbey.org/events.