From the Boundary: ‘Your witness, Mr Backbone ...’


In 1381, Wat Tyler’s peasants set fire to the Temple in London because it was the home of the lawyers. Sad to say, lawyers have never had a good reputation. The obloquy is often justified; but sometimes not. Too many clients don’t pay, or don’t turn up for appointments or at court, or simply lie. It makes things very difficult for young attorneys trying to make their way. It’s so easy to become cynical and hard-nosed.


Well, I’ve just read Anglican Bishop John Holder’s Charge to Synod, rooted in the so-called ‘Anglican Strategic Plan’, and it appears that he doesn’t like lawyers either. Now I say “appears” quite deliberately, for things are not always as they seem. For example, two Sundays ago I suggested in this Column that Dr. Holder had visited St. Cyprian Church and there delivered his Pentecost Letter to Churches. In fact, the Advocate report (9 May), from which I took that information, was ambiguous. It didn’t make clear that Dr. Holder’s input at St. Cyprian was having his Letter read though not, as I’d supposed from the report, by him. It was a little error which didn’t affect the substance of what I wrote. But it does illustrate the point that we can’t always believe what we think we see – rather like a ruler being dipped in water and appearing to bend.


In his Synod Charge, Dr. Holder maintains that the story of the lawyer in Luke (Ch. 10), like the mission of the 70 and the Good Samaritan story, with the sacraments “keep our feet on the ground” for the purposes of the Strategic Plan. He doesn’t explore this, but the lawyer he describes as an “inquisitive” man who – and this is the key phrase – “knew it all”. Now: what did Dr Holder mean? 


The obvious inference is that he thinks the lawyer – let’s call him Lawyer Backbone – is a ‘know-it-all’. In ordinary language, the sense is pejorative. Luke himself condemns the lawyer. He says he’s a “tempter” who sought to “justify himself”. 


Alternatively, Dr. Holder could have meant that Backbone ‘knew’ the answer to his own question about what must be done to “inherit eternal life”, as is clear from his informed response to Jesus’ counter question, “What is written in the Law?”. We might say he had at least constructive knowledge, since he must have been familiar with both the Commandments of Exodus (Ch. 20) and the special regard for neighbours in Leviticus (Ch. 19). Backbone only needed a little prompt to reveal It. But the problem with that interpretation is that his subsequent question, “And who is my neighbour?” seems to have been a genuine question to which the answer was sincerely sought. So it can’t be said that dear Backbone in fact “knew it all”. 


So what was Dr. Holder’s sense? The lawyer in me would say: “On the balance of probabilities (for we can’t be absolutely sure) it’s the first, the pejorative sense. The arguments ‘for’ are more persuasive than the arguments ‘against’.” But in any event, you see how dangerous it is to jump to conclusions without hearing the other side? It’s a fundamental principle, and we ignore it at our peril. It’s sad that so many organisations, including the Church in my experience, do in fact ignore it from time to time in relation to those in their charge. And, of course, it’s a cautionary tale for attorneys too, as much as they want to believe everything their clients tell them, and especially when they’re representing husbands and wives at war busily trying to slice each other to another world.


Now whichever view we take of what Dr. Holder said, it’s abundantly clear that Backbone deserves our thanks and praise, for the answers his questions revealed, including the ‘Good Samaritan’ parable, are critical for Christian belief. We now know, for example, that our duty of concern and care for others is not limited to what we ourselves have caused, as is the case in the law, when we go about our business. It’s the law of love at work and, like the fragrance of the rose, potentially it has no limit within the means available to us.


So: Backbone was not a know-it-all. He did what all good lawyers do – and teachers who tease us into truth. He asked questions, just as Jesus did. It’s by asking questions that our minds focus on the substance of things and on solutions, the unravelling of knots. Through questions things tend to become sharper. They clear the decks of excessive generality and guide us as signposts do.


What a pity, then, that Dr. Holder does not employ them, like Backbone, in his Charge. My first reaction to it was to feel a sense of excitement, and even hope. But when I asked myself what Dr Holder had actually said to navigate me into the uncharted sea, I had no answer. I felt in the grip of the shifting formlessness of clouds. And I couldn’t imagine that Andy Anglican in his pew would himself have been any the wiser despite, or maybe because of, his abundance of common sense.


For example, when Dr. Holder refers repeatedly to “our understanding of God”, I do wish he’d given us a clue about what it is, if only in the form of interrogatories, to enable us “to revisit and reshape it”. Again, when he very properly speaks of the “exploitation of differences” in Barbadian society and the need to “build bridges”, what differences is he talking about? What, for example, of sexual orientation or gay marriage? The astute use of questions might just have helped us to unravel it all for ourselves. We might even have been left with a more acute comprehension of the ‘thrust’ of the Strategic Plan, whatever it is precisely - and not least because, like the golden calf, Dr. Holder suggests it’s intended to offer us “the way forward”. All the reflective pottering around provides neither metes and bounds nor meat.


I realise, of course, that when it comes to change, it’s not easy being a Bishop. He runs the risk of upsetting people by being too bold, though I don’t think that’s Dr. Holder’s case. But he will remember, I’m sure, the cases of Bishop John Robinson and Dr. David Jenkins, who got into all sorts of trouble years ago by going public on what some would consider heresy. Yet asking lawyers’ questions is a different thing. Indeed, as Lawyer Backbone’s case amply demonstrates, though they may irritate, and whatever their motivation, they may also lead us to the very heart of things – and that can’t be bad, can it?


Go safely, then – until the next time


Strategic Plan from the boundary: Your vocation is “in the streets. You must go back among men, mix with them, live your intimacy with God in the noise of their cities. It will be difficult, but you must do it. And for this the grace of God will not fail you” (Carlo Carretto). 

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