Recently a parishioner paid me what they obviously thought was a great compliment: “We do so love you, Father, because you leave us alone.” Suddenly my imagination transported me to the moment after my death, when the Lord would require me to give an account of my priesthood. “Well, I did my best to leave people alone.” Somehow, I couldn’t see Him being overly delighted by that response. “Well done, good and faithful servant, for not troubling my sheep: enter into the joy of my Kingdom where everyone is eternally left alone.” Hmmmmm…
I hope that what the parishioner meant was that I don’t burden people with unnecessary rules and regulations. I don’t frown if they come in late for Mass, or insist on the first communion children signing in at Sunday Mass, or get too disturbed by crying babies. I don’t correct people if they say ‘Cool’ or ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘Amen’ when receiving Holy Communion, though I do call out people I don’t know if they walk away with the Host instead of consuming it where I can see.
Recently there has been a discussion, very welcome as far as I am concerned, about reducing the number of announcements made on train journeys: ‘tannoy spam,’ as it is sometimes called. Let’s make a ‘bonfire of the banalities’ suggests one Government minister. Yes, and please start with the infamous ‘See it, say it, sort it.’ But I fear this is only an obvious symptom of a much bigger problem in our culture: the mushrooming of bureaucracy as a response to whatever the latest disaster or crisis has been. Needless to say, the Church is not exempt from this, and I suspect that lay behind my parishioner’s remark.
The spread of bureaucratic demands in Health and Safety, Data Protection, Safeguarding and many other areas is, I suppose, ultimately our attempt to respond to evil, whether coming from specific individuals like child abusers, terrorists or reckless drivers, or from what Hamlet memorably called “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” – illness, accidents, natural disasters, etc. The pandemic spawned a whole raft of bureaucratic measures, some of which were probably inevitable, others more questionable.
Teachers, health workers, police and priests are all deeply affected by this, their workloads increased at times to breaking point. When I am tempted to complain about having to spend a day dealing with minute points of health and safety in our property, or getting another Safeguarding Certificate as a school governor when I already have one as a parish priest, I console myself by thinking of the much more intolerable burdens that teachers have to carry in order to comply with record-keeping requirements and compilation of data to measure the school’s performance. Small wonder that it is becoming harder and harder to find Catholic headteachers for our schools. And that’s before you try to get through to HMRC or your energy company to correct a mistake on your latest bill…
I don’t think anyone in their right mind would object to enforcing proper electrical safety certificates in a community house such as ours, or having a functioning fire alarm system for the Church, or providing hand sanitiser for those who want it, to pick some random examples. What is worrying is when we as Christians go along with a mentality that sees these things as a valid answer to the problem of evil, as somehow bringing us salvation, to use an old-fashioned word.
This was particularly evident on a worldwide scale during the pandemic. What kind of a message did it send out to close our Churches at the first opportunity? That physical health is more important than spiritual health, that the sacraments are not really all that important, that Catholics are not intelligent enough to make their own decisions about the safety of going to Church or the risk of infecting others? That we do not trust God to protect us provided we take reasonable precautions? Like so many other things, bureaucracy is not wrong in itself, but in a society that has forgotten God, it is hard to apply it in due proportion and stop it becoming a runaway train with endless tannoy spam. One of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “start with the end in mind.” The end that Christians have in mind is eternal life and salvation from sin. Bureaucratic measures have their place in achieving such an end, but they are way down the list compared to faith, hope, charity and a life of virtue nourished by the sacraments. Bureaucracy substitutes procedures for formation in virtue, which is like receiving a stone when we ask for bread or a scorpion when we want an egg. Now who was it who used that image?