My memory is occasionally, and sometimes frequently, faulty. People appear in places they couldn’t have been. Events are recalled in the wrong location (such as hearing on the car radio the result of the 1994 FA Cup final outside Blackrock Shopping Centre in south Co Dublin when we did not move to Dublin until five years later). Conversations are imagined, or rewritten, or disappear altogether.
Such faulty recall is not a good basis for quoting people, but in my very fallible memory Clare Short, the longtime Member of Parliament in Britain was on BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘Desert Island Discs’. Reflecting on her years of experience as a combative Left Wing MP, Ms Short recounted an unexpected moment. Encountering the Right Wing Tory MP, Nick Budgen, like Clare Short an MP from the Midlands, a strange compliment was received. ‘Clare’, said the politician who was diametrically opposed to everything for which she stood, ‘this place needs people like us; it needs grit’.
Chairing a meeting last night, where one man raised a series of objections, could have been written down as a negative experience, were it not for the fact that I knew the challenges and probing comments were part of his character. At the end of the meeting he came up to the front and apologized for being troublesome. In response, I recounted the Short-Budgen exchange and added, ‘we need grit in church life; we need troublesome people’.
Time was, when being Protestant had more substance to it; it meant being a dissenting voice, disagreeing, sometimes, in the view of some, being disagreeable. Church life now is characterised by a dull blandness. The main item on the agenda of the Church of Ireland General Synod in two weeks’ time is assenting to the Anglican Covenant – an agreement to agree with each other. It is the sort of stuff that would have been meat and drink to satirists in former generations, but the church is now such a spectral image of its former self that it is no longer worthy of satire.
There is a lack of grit, a lack of people who might exchange robust words, but still remain civil afterwards. There is a correlation between the church’s preoccupation with its own affairs – particularly its increasing obsession with obscure details of liturgy – and a deficiency in grittiness. Gritty people disturb cosy consensuses, they ask awkward and unpleasant questions.
Changing diocese last year, I resigned from our General Synod, believing it inappropriate to be elected by one constituency and then moving to another. Were I to have gone, it would have been easy to have predicted those who might have said anything robust: Canon Michael Kennedy from Armagh, Canon Stephen Neill from Killaloe, Canon Patrick Comerford from Dublin, Rev Ian Cruickshank from Cashel, Mr Dermot O’Callaghan from Down, perhaps a few others. I would probably have disagreed with much of what they might have said, but there would have been no lack of grit, no concern to adhere to some vague and insubstantial notion of consensus. But aside from the handful of dissenting voices, there is a greyness and a blandness, a lack of Shorts and Budgens; it is no wonder no-one listens.