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Angela Tilby: Anglicans should listen to AC-12

14 May 2021

BBC/World Productions/Steffan Hill

DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), DC Chloe Bishop (Shalom Brune-Franklin), and Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) in BBC1’s Line of Duty

DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), DC Chloe Bishop (Shalom Brune-Franklin), and Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) in BBC1’s Line of Duty

I WAS so intrigued by the downbeat final episode of BBC1’s Line of Duty that I have started viewing the long-running series from scratch. Although, like many viewers, I would have preferred a more triumphant ending (Online Comment, 5 May), I am beginning to appreciate why the ending was so bleak.

Here is a police unit that has set out to find corrupt police officers. Yet the good cops are all challenged and compromised by their own issues, past and present: a broken marriage, an inappropriate fling, an addiction, an explosive temper, money problems arising from a risky investment, loneliness — the moral gatekeepers of AC12 have them all. They survive, somehow, by treading what is sometimes a fine line between professional probity and personal instinct.

Line of Duty reminds us that all institutions depend on getting the balance between written code and ethos. The two sometimes conflict. There is no perfect balance, and there are no perfect people.

I have been wondering what this says to the Church. Twenty years ago, my then colleague at Westcott House, the Revd Dr Victoria Raymer, who was trained in law, used to say that she thought that all ordinands should be taught ethics. There wasn’t much of it then, and, even today, there is very little genuine ethical teaching in ministerial training. Inclusivity and diversity are not ethics. Going on about “Kingdom values” is not ethics.

Ethics is about understanding moral principles and weighing options. Ethics acknowledges that getting things right is often difficult and sometimes impossible. Today, we put our trust in risk assessments, hoping that paper procedures can save us from the strain of ethical discernment. But they can’t. Ethics treads a difficult line between what is legal (or illegal) and what is humane.

Like the cops of AC-12, ordinary clergy have their fair share of mental-health issues. They know that they are called to the highest standards. They also know that, if they fail, they might be subject to disciplinary action, which would ruin their credibility for ever. It doesn’t help that they are increasingly deprived of trust by their superiors, while being expected to repeat loyally those aspirational little slogans that dioceses like to put out about themselves. They know that pastoral ministry requires endless compromise, political nous, and the insight to read the human heart.

The Church used to understand all this, being more aware than it seems to be now of human frailty. But panic has prodded us into a new kind of legalism, with all its caution, watchfulness, and excessive paperwork.

Perhaps we could learn from AC-12. The best moment, for me, was when Ted Hastings exploded (as I hope to do when next driven bonkers by church bureaucracy): “Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey! Can we just move this thing along, before it drives us all round the bloody bend?”

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