Kindness: can it be taught?

Today the UK media are, rightly, exercised by a report into the care of the elderly produced by Ann Abraham, the National Health Service Obudsman (find the Guardian’s newspaper report here).

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (starts at around 2 hours 10 minutes of the whole programme) included an interview with a man whose mother died in hospital of dehydration, despite there being a glass and a jug of water beside the bed. Nursing staff did not think  to help her to drink. Subsequent interviews with Jo Webber, Policy Director of the NHS Confederation and Professor Raymond Tallis, former Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, focussed on the “lessons to be learned” and how it was that this and other cases demonstrated a failure of “basic compassion.”

What was striking to me about Prof. Tallis’s contribution was his acknowledgement that this was a matter of ethos, not only within the NHS but within society at large. He pointed to a culture whose priorities value what can be counted and measured, which uses a business model which often undermines professional considerations, and which values glamour at the expense of the distinctly unglamorous need to provide care to the most vulnerable. Referring to trying to change the ethos within hospital to ensure that compassion was paramount, the interviewer, John Humphries, asked, “Can you teach that? You can’t can you?”

Well, I think you can – but not as a classroom exercise.  Compassion and kindness can be taught, but only in an environment where it is being consistently modelled and valued from the top down as well as from the bottom up. It cannot be taught as a kind of add-on extra. One of the joys of my job is visiting one of the primary schools within my benefice. As soon as you walk in the door you can feel that this is a place where kindness and care are valued. It is consistently modelled by the head teacher and the staff, it is consistently reinforced by positive messages and action and the children quickly catch on. It is part of the ethos of the place. If all the NHS do is to include the above case, along with others, in a classroom syllabus it will be forgotten once on the wards. Change in ethos will only be achieved by consistent leadership by example.

And this, I think, is a major issue with the government’s agenda to promote the Big Society. I find it rather ironic that the same political party whose leader told us over 20 years ago that the was “no such thing as society” now recognises the falsity of that statement. In the intervening period, volunteering has decreased seriously owing to a number of factors, including legislation that had good intentions but is felt to be burdensome, increasing other demands on time and energy, population mobility and a decreasing sense of commitment to a geographical location. If progress towards the vision of a Big Society is to be made it will require a considerable and widespread change in our culture to re-establish caring and compassion as genuine values. This needs to take place not only in the outlook of individuals but in the wider social environment. If volunteering is increase it needs a society which values this, employers who will not seek to wring the last drop of time and energy from their employees, but who will encourage them to give some of that time and energy be involved in civic and social good.

This will only come about if it is consistently modelled by our leaders, starting with our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and Members of Parliament, but including leaders of business and other walks and institutions of life. And it will take time and patience. It cannot be pushed through if it is to bring about truly radical and lasting change in our society. If David Cameron is as passionately committed to the Big Society as he claims, than he and his colleagues need to do more than simply talk and legislate. They must be the change they seek.


Interest in question

You know what it’s like – sometimes you are in a conversation with someone and suddenly their response seems out of all proportion to what you thought you just said. Or the conversation takes a weirdly unexpected turn and you wonder, “Where did THAT come from?” The answer of course is that we never know exactly what is going on inside someone else’s head, what connections our words make, or what buttons are there just waiting to be pushed. Sometimes it can feel as though Jason Bourne (eponymous hero of Robert Ludlum’s trilogy) had been triggered to action by hearing a particular word spoken.

I hope Revd Lesley will forgive me if that happened to her in an exchange we had yesterday when the subjects of usury and homosexuality came up. What probably seemed to her a relatively uncontroversial analogy in a genuine, though hypothetical, question about homosexuality led to some thoughts I’ve been having about our relationship with our banking and financial systems.

The issue of usury turns out to be an interesting one in relation to the sexuality issue that threatens to divide the Anglican Communion today. The Hebrew Bible gives a clear prohibition to the Israelites against lending “at usury” to their “brothers” – taken to mean any other Israelite. The Hebrew word used indicates any form of interest (as does the Arabic word used for a similar prohibition in the Qur’an). It suggests that charging interest was considered to be a form of exploitation which was not conducive to good social relationships in Israelite society.

During the medieval period, the Western Christian Church maintained a prohibition (based on a reading of the Hebrew scriptures which replaced Israel with the Christian Church) on Christians charging other Christians interest on loans. During the twelfth century this was enshrined in English law. Of course this made things rather difficult for kings and rulers who wished to wage war but didn’t always have the required cash at hand to pay the troops. No pay, and they began to drift back to their own lands to carry on feeding themselves. Solution? Borrow from the Jews, who could charge interest to Christians. No ecclesiastical or civil laws broken, people able and persuadeable (if not always entirely willing). Job done. No sins committed on either side.

Except, of course, that this charging of interest fuelled a certain amount of resentment against a people who were already branded as “Christ-killers” by then-current Church teaching. Financial and economic resentment was stirred into the theological antisemitism that has remained a toxic mix over many centuries.

Skip forward a few centuries, and interest is everywhere in the financial landscape and no respecter of religious or ethnic groups (with the exception of Muslims, which I will come to in a later post). What has happened? No, seriously, because I’d like to know more.

First, we find that during this period theologians (no less) have identified a number of situations where it is (apparently) OK to lend and borrow at interest. So people start doing it. By the mid sixteenth century laws are passed in England restricting the amount of interest that may be charged. This is not to say that it is immediately accepted as a Good Thing. The Merchant of Venice shows that in Elizabethan England, most people still regard interest as a Bad Thing. But the stage has been set.

Secondly, we find that terminology has changed, in the English language at least. That good old word “usury” has now come to mean not simply (any) charging of interest but the charging of “excessive” interest. So when people hear or read the Bible (Authorised/King James Version at any rate), they may hear or read the same physical word, but what they now understand by it is different. One might say that sin has been redefined. What was once considered unacceptable – an affront to Christian society and to God – has now become acceptable.

So where are all the sermons and articles railing against Christians who take and pay interest on their savings and loans? Where are the placards and picket lines outside General Synod protesting at the way the Church Commissioners do their business? Why aren’t we bothered any more?

Fighting the good fight

Tree enjoyed an afternoon yesterday in the office keeping half an eye on all the Twitter activity relating to General Synod. One particularly poignant tweet asked if anyone there was actually listening and voting, as everyone seemed to be tweeting the debates.

After the heavily tweeted debate on a motion (with amendments and amendments to amendments) about the Church of England’s relationship with ACNA, the Anglican Church in North America, things quietened considerably for the next session which was a presentation by military chaplains. Far fewer tweets, but all very appreciative of the work of the chaplains to our armed forces.

Having spent ten days of his theological training with a naval chaplain, Tree was gratified to hear that Synod had set aside time to consider this aspect of the church’s ministry.  The Chaplains work with people who are largely of an age group that is notable by its absence in many churches.  They deal with difficult circumstances on the cutting edge and provide a Christian presence and witness in what must often seem like very God-forsaken situations.

We have, thank goodness, moved away from the days of the First World War when the chaplains’ role was seen as being to instill “backbone” into the troops and convince them that God was on their side. During my brief attachment I sat in on sessions where some of the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with military life were freely and openly discussed with trainees. The chaplains I met were well respected by the people around them and provided real, and independent, pastoral care. And surely. if the gospel has anything to say, it has it to say to people engaged in this aspect of life that many would prefer not to think about too much or too often.

In a time when we occasionally hear stories of soldiers, sailors and airmen being treated shoddily and with hostility by some of the folks back home, it was pleasing to hear that the Synod gave these chaplains a standing ovation.