Commentary on ‘Identities are reduced to politics’ by Angela Tilby, Church Times, 6th November 2020: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/198908

Hugh Bryant

Angela Tilby has written about being made to feel uncomfortable. She says, ‘We are all gradually being persuaded that to make anyone feel “uncomfortable” is tantamount to a hate crime’.

What she is talking about is not comfort in the sense of warmth or a nice armchair. The contrary – what it is to be uncomfortable, in the sense she intends – is the opposite of being ‘comfortable in one’s own skin’; and that ‘skin’ is not the characteristic of an individual but of a group, of ‘class, colour, ethnicity, or religion’.

In other words, it’s not a good thing to make people feel uncomfortable on the basis of those generic characteristics, of what they are, as opposed to anything which they may have done or said. Tilby says, ‘This is why I regularly feel uncomfortable at hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

What brought me up short in her article was this reference to a feeling of discomfort at ‘hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

This is something I have often wondered about. For instance, I have often wondered about people who profess to be Christians in positions of power, who, in the exercise their power, do things which would seem to contradict Jesus’ commandments, (usually the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself).

A case in point, I have thought, was Prime Minister May, who is said to be a regular churchgoer, but who created and promoted a policy of a ‘hostile environment’ for intending immigrants, leading to various inhumane consequences including the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal. What did Mrs May do in church? Was she asleep there? I wondered. The policy which she promoted was something which hurt people, which ruined innocent people’s lives. How could a practising Christian justify doing such a thing?

What is a preacher to say? I think that Canon Tilby is really aiming not at certain hymns and prayers, but rather at what is said from the pulpit. I’m not sure what hymns she has in mind – ‘Fight the good fight’, or maybe the suppressed verse in All Things Bright and Beautiful: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate …’ It might well be uncomfortable to sing that, and it might well be uncomfortable – certainly for the rich man – to hear it. Is there anything wrong in this? Specifically, does the hymn ‘glare unforgivingly at social injustices’? If it did, I feel, contrary to Canon Tilby, that it is a good thing. The injustices deserve to be glared at.

To pray for wrongs to be righted isn’t ‘preachy’, I would suggest. If the prayer is of the ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ type, it’s clearly inappropriate, not because it makes anyone uncomfortable, but because you can’t tell the Almighty what to do. Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done. Thy will. Or see Psalm 115: ‘Our God is in heaven; He does as He pleases’.

Some would say that this is political, and therefore to be avoided. I have to reply that Christianity – and, for that matter, Judaism – is political. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), for instance, is a revolutionary manifesto in twelve sentences, and there are many other examples. Jesus would have us sell our possessions and give money to the poor: would have us welcome strangers: become servants, rather than the masters that many of us are.

It is said, however, that a Church of England congregation often represents the Conservative Party at prayer. Bishops and clergy, by contrast, tend to vote Liberal Democrat or Labour. Perhaps this is because the ministers actually read, study and inwardly digest the liturgy and Bible lessons which they lead, whereas their flock follow, if not blindly, seemingly without much appreciation that acceptable worship does not involve a prosperity gospel!

But what if light dawns, say during a well-expressed sermon, and the hearer realises that the evil which the preacher is criticising – the social injustice, even – is something in which they, the listener, are complicit? This may indeed be uncomfortable. But surely it is all right, for ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29). Unless our devotion is tested in that fire, it may not be worth that much.

But is it a ‘hate crime’ to make someone uncomfortable in that sort of way? The essence of a hate crime, I would suggest, is to do harm to someone because he or she represents a racial or national type and for no other reason. Because someone is black, or LGBTi, say. What Canon Tilby is suggesting is that some hymns or prayers, in praying for relief from certain types of oppression or inequality, themselves oppress some people (or make them uncomfortable).

That would require the person discomfited to be in some way oppressive or otherwise reprehensible, as opposed to their doing something oppressive.

Canon Tilby mentions being a woman; but I cannot think that ipso facto she is worthy of chastisement as such – if at all. If she is being made to feel uncomfortable, it is not because of what she is, but because of something she may feel she ought not to have done – and that she resents being reminded of.

Put another way, as the Roman Catholics say, hate the sin but pardon the sinner. So a prayer or a hymn directed against social injustice is not a ‘hate crime’. It invokes the aid of the Almighty against the evil but does not condemn the person who does that evil. It is not directed against what that person is; but rather it may well call down condemnation on what they do.

14th November 2020