Faith and Reason: Where you stand and how far you can go: Continuing our series on the Loss of Virtue, Brian Mountford, Vicar of the University Church, Oxford, argues that it is those living on the edge of chaos who most need rules to follow.

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The Independent Online
FROM the local primary school teacher to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, many people have asked whether the moral fabric of our society is falling apart. Has the go- for-it individualism of the Eighties left Britain without a moral base?

I have just been reading some words of a Church of England bishop. 'Incomparably', he says rather stuffily, 'the most imperious challenge which today confronts Christianity is the moral chaos of our generation.' But that was written a lifetime ago, in 1931. And no doubt if you search through the speeches of religious and political leaders over the years, you will find periodic fulminations against the moral decay of the nation.

But the Christian view of morality is basically optimistic. The idea is that human beings are made in the image of God, and that therefore we all have the God-given potential to be good, as if it were part of our spiritual genetic coding. It is therefore as important to look for signs of encouragement in our moral life as to catalogue our moral failures.

What I suspect has happened is that we have become a society that is too shy, or too embarrassed, to talk freely about goodness and relationship. We talk plenty about the celluloid love of the film and video screen, but not about the unselfish love, and the self-sacrificial concern for others, that is so admirable in the life of Jesus Christ, or, to a lesser degree, in St Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is almost as if the cult of macho, go-for-it individualism has brainwashed us to the point where an admission of sensitivity is an admission of personal weakness, although the spate of articles prompted by the recent death of the footballer Bobby Moore showed how much people admire the virtues of honesty, fairness, sportsmanship, and consideration for others which his career exemplified.

In Oxford I am involved in running a drop-in centre for homeless people, whose story raises interesting ethical questions which illustrate an innate human potential for good.

On the one hand considerable public compassion is aroused, especially in winter, by the pathetic sight of men and women living rough, which results in generous giving. But there is always an underlying dilemma about how best to help, nicely expressed in a story about CS Lewis. Lewis was once walking across Magdalen Bridge with his college chaplain when a tramp asked him for money. Lewis obliged, and as they walked on the chaplain objected that the money would only be spent on drink. Lewis replied, 'Well, I suppose that is how I would have spent it myself.'

On the other hand there is the moral response of the homeless themselves. Recently there was a violent incident which caused our particular centre temporarily to close down. A user had ripped the handrail from the wall of the stairs and propelled it like a javelin into the kitchen area below, narrowly missing some volunteers. The result was that the organisers and the users got together to talk through their grievances.

The organisers admitted that they were afraid of violence and were not willing to be sworn at and abused, nor were they willing to accept glue-sniffing or drug-taking in the centre. They said that they found difficulty in enforcing the rules, and felt that their only resort when there was threatening behaviour was to call the police, even though they knew this could aggravate the situation.

The users, for their part, said that there should be clearer rules, which they wanted written up on the wall in big letters, and consistently applied, with rule-breakers being banned from the centre. This desire for a rigid moral code came as a shock to volunteers who believed that personal relationships would be made easier rather than more difficult by a flexible approach. But the users wanted the protection of knowing where they stood, and how far they could go, as if any ambiguity in the rules presented an irresistible temptation to put them to the test, for personal gain or simply for the fun of taunting authority.

They also said that the organisers were condescending, treating them as objects, not people, failing to understand their culture, not trusting them even to stir their own tea, let alone to be involved in the running of the place by, for instance, helping to sweep up afterwards. This perceptive insight came as a body-blow to an organisation which considered itself to be putting into practice the Christian principle of hospitality and service.

Furthermore, the fact that they put such emphasis on this point, rather than gratefully accepting the food and shelter that the centre provided, reinforces the widely reported observation of the Archbishop of York that those who believe that they have no stake in society are less likely to feel themselves compelled to contribute to the common good of that society. The need to have the dignity of belonging and being valued is, it turns out, as important as material welfare itself.

This conversation cleared the air, and the centre was able to reopen on a new basis of mutual understanding. It was apparent that social breakdown had occurred because the organisation had been reluctant to talk about moral responsibility, and that, when it did, moral concern came pouring out like a therapy from a well of moral resources which had arrogantly been thought to be absent since the behaviour of many of the people involved was periodically anarchistic.

So this small example, drawn from the morally challenging underworld of homelessness, suggests that talking about goodness and relationship is not necessarily different from doing something about it, but that often talking is doing, as evidenced in a related field by the increasing demand for 'family therapy', where, for example, the problems of child abuse are confronted by bringing together parents and children from several families to talk through the tensions that are bringing them such unhappiness. Admitting your problems to your peer group can both be cathartic and lead to the acceptance of the necessity of rules, and the practical advantages of treating each other with respect. It is an extension of the biblical adage 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', which may seem obvious, but is so often ignored.

We see here, then, positive indications of the resilience of both instinctive and practical morality, and my contention is that these natural resources can be leavened by the application of Christian moral insights - characterised by the sovereignty of love, and the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, which perhaps more than any other ethical vision has the power to elevate legislation to its ultimate goal of social harmony and fulfilled human relationship.