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Integrity in Public Life, by Vernon White, Claire Foster-Gilbert, and Jane Sinclair

27 March 2020

Anthony Phillips reads counsel for those who guide the nation’s path

THESE three essays on integrity originated in a series of lectures given at the Westminster Abbey Institute in 2017. Faced with the dangers of ever-increasing popularism, they are even more pertinent today for all engaged in governance, including the Church.

Vernon White discusses integrity and the individual. He isolates three characteristics that, working together, constitute what he understands as integrity. “It is partly sincerity, being truthful to our inner selves; it is partly drawing on well-tried external principles; and it is partly being willing and able to see the complexity of some situations and act obliquely,” what he calls “moral irony”. Bonhoeffer’s decision to join in the plot to kill Hitler is cited as an example.

But integrity is not something attained, but, rather, a work in progress, what White terms “a moral conversation”. It is hard work, may involve change of mind, and requires moral courage. It is best worked out not alone, but with the help of some mature or spiritual tradition. It is, though, vital and “deeply Christian”.

Foster-Gilbert acknowledges the value of institutions in protecting us against powerful individuals, but notes that they themselves must continually rediscover their own integrity. This can be achieved only through the individuals working in them.

Institutions and individuals are integral to one another. It is individuals who enhance the institution, which can achieve far more than any individual acting alone. We cannot do without them. But there must be proper delegation, so that people working in them know and feel that they have moral responsibility to the institution that they serve.

Sinclair’s essay concerns the making of public policy. For her, the importance of any public policy is how it affects the individual by promoting human flourishing. It is not simply a matter of economics or party-political needs. Ethical debate is essential over issues such as taxation and immigration, as is listening to the voice of the marginalised. When public policy is seen to be unjust or unfair, as with the poll tax, there will be trouble.

Faced with the widespread disillusionment with politics, Sinclair offers a positive response, advocating three elements by which the democratic process can better be promoted for the common good: trust, integrity, and hopefulness; for those responsible for developing public policy must in the end believe that they are engaged in “hope-ful work”.

The insightfulness of these essays cannot be exaggerated. They deserve the closest attention by both individuals and institutions.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Integrity in Public Life
Vernon White, Claire Foster-Gilbert, and Jane Sinclair
Haus Publishing £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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