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The workings of their consciences

24 March 2016

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WATCHING the touching reunion of Iain Duncan Smith with his conscience, from which he had been brutally separated so many years ago, you would need a heart of stone not to be moved. During his time in office at the Department for Work and Pensions, tens of thousands of people were plunged into misery. Foodbanks boomed as never before. His attempts to force disabled people into work by cutting their benefits and outsourcing the dirty work to private companies resulted in at least 1300 deaths of people who had been judged fit to work. And yet he did not resign until the Chancellor delayed the introduction of yet another cut, which he himself had voted for. Pilate at least washed his hands before the execution.

What makes me personally so very angry about this is that some of the causes he betrayed I believe in myself. The idea that a welfare system has a moral dimension, and might, under some circumstances, have corrupting and retrograde effects — or that it could be arranged to work in the other direction — seems profoundly important. The problem is that the really corrupting systems of welfare are not those on which the poor rely, but those found in some places for the comfortable.

Institutions in a certain phase of decadence lose all connection between performance and reward — at least, the performances they reward have nothing to do with original or ostensible aims — and, when this happens, they can be exploited by anyone with sufficient self-belief.

I am not here thinking of the Conservative Party, for whom elections act as a constant reality check. But the career of the Revd Paul Flowers, the “crystal Methodist”, through his own church, through the Bradford Labour Party, and to the top of the Co-operative Bank, and then out of all these to the house in Salford where he was interviewed by Helen Pidd, of The Guardian, provides an astonishing lesson in just how vulnerable such places are to fluent, impregnable self-confidence.

“If I could be terribly blasphemous for a moment, as somebody who tries to be, please don’t laugh too horribly, someone who tries to be a decent Christian person” he responded when she asked him why he habitually hires male prostitutes: “I would like to use that little mantra that is often beloved of evangelicals, though that is not the evangelical camp from which I come at all. They often use the mantra: ‘WWJD — What would Jesus do?’”

It is difficult for me to imagine George Whitefield photographed passed out beside a jacuzzi after a three-day binge, wearing only his underpants, and with potato crisps artlessly arranged on his nipples, which is how Mr Flowers most recently got himself into the papers. But of course they didn’t have cellphones then — or potato crisps.

What I admire most about this interview, apart from the way she lets slip that she once waited outside his house for eight hours after he had passed out and forgotten an appointment, is the deft way Pidd slips the scalpel in so that he doesn’t feel a thing.

Take his explanation of how the rent boys benefit from his trade: “With respect, I often ended up in counselling sessions with them,” he says, and she asks exactly the right question then: “Who was counselling whom?” “I was counselling them, because I listened to them. And lots of them would tell you, if you bothered to ask, that I had a reputation for being a very kind person who listened to people I spent time with, in a way that they were never listened to before.”

It is difficult, actually, on the strength of this, to imagine him listening to anyone, but stranger things have happened, not all of them involving crisps and ketamine.

There isn’t a smooth transition into the Bishop Bell story. But it is clear that the backlash is gaining strength. The Sunday broadsheets, and then the Mondays, all had news stories based around the release by the George Bell Group, which criticised the church-led inquiry for haste and inadequacy.

They did not go into the other reasons set out in the report for disbelieving the allegations: the accuser’s clear memory of being led up a staircase which does not appear in photographs of the room in question, or the way in which she decided, after Lord Carey criticised the attack on Bell’s memory, that she had written to him to complain and been ignored, when her original story was that she had written to Rowan Williams and been ignored about that, too.

All these matters are delicate. No one wants to say that she is a fantasist, though the George Bell Group, by emphasising that they don’t doubt her sincerity, suggest that the problem lies in her sincere recall of events. But the press works in packs, and on worn trails. With the collapse of the Met’s “paedophile ring” inquiry, the trail is heading in a new direction.

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