Public policy versus Christian principles

Faith & Reason
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The Independent Online
One definition of a moral leader is one whom people are unwilling to follow. In all the discussions about hypocrisy and education which have dominated this week, no one seems to have made the link between Philip Lawrence, the headmaster killed outside his school, and little Joe Dromey, Harriet Harman's son.

Philip Lawrence has been almost canonised in death, and quite deservedly. He seems to have been a very good teacher and a much-loved man. His death, stabbed to death outside his school while defending pupils from a gang of bullies, was a genuinely inspiring tragedy. There can hardly have been a parent in Britain who did not wish that their own children were looked after by such a man. This reflection, however, will have been followed almost instantaneously by another: that if I have any choice in the matter, my children are not going to attend a school where it is necessary for the headmaster to lay down his life to defend them from other children, however infrequently this necessity may arise.

Such a decision might disappoint Cardinal Hume. He has fought bitter battles with Catholic parents in London about retaining the comprehensive character of Catholic secondary schooling. Some of these may be due to the conviction, natural to any former headmaster, that the last people who should have anything to do with education policy are parents; more, I suspect, derive from a belief in community. If Christianity is a universal religion, then Christian schools, like families, should teach people to live together who would not if they had any choice in the matter share the same continent, let alone the same classroom.

Only last week, Bishop David Konstant of Leeds told a conference of Catholic independent schools that if forgone tax cuts meant that fewer parents could or would choose to have their children privately educated, this was "a sacrifice that should be made for the greater good of the whole community".

Joe Dromey's elder brother attends a Catholic school in the archdiocese of Westminster, so Ms Harman's decision must be seen as a slight on Catholic education policy as well as on that of old Labour. Like the rest of us middle-class types, she believes that even if society depends on the labour of heroes like Philip Lawrence, it is better for our own children to rely on the efforts of more average teachers.

That the Catholic Church finds itself to the left of new Labour in this matter is yet another illustration of the extraordinary divide between what the churches actually believe and practice, and what public opinion believes of them. The image of Philip Lawrence after his death was of a staunch defender of traditional values and moral absolutes against relativism. Yet the two don't go together at all. The moral absolutes propounded by Christian teaching have very little to do with traditional values, and this becomes increasingly clear as the churches in the West slide back into a pre-Constantinian state of ineffectual purity.

The values that keep society going and which get governments elected are not universalist at all. In a modern, well-polled democracy, getting elected depends on promising your supporters more at the expense of the worthless parasites on the other side. Families show a marked and frequently unreasonable preference for their own members. William Temple said that the Christian churches were the only institutions that existed for the benefit of people who are not members. It follows that public policy cannot be conducted by wholly Christian principles, since the political world is composed of institutions which do exist for the benefit of their members, and shrivel if they forget this.

This is not a startlingly new conclusion. It belongs in that wide list of things that the English churches now believe without anyone else noticing that they believe them. Yet the ironies to which it gives rise are only likely to multiply as the next election approaches. On education, on immigration, and on taxation the mainstream churches turn out to be as close to Arthur Scargill as they are to any of the mainstream parties. And getting close to Arthur is not what most people would understand as following the Messiah. There must be something extremely strange and incoherent about our notion of community when this can happen, even if it happens largely unnoticed.

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