Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 13 February 2011

13 February 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

On his visit to this country last autumn the Pope spoke to members of both Houses of Parliament and others in Westminster Hall, and he expressed some concern at what he described as ‘the marginalisation of religion, particularly Christianity, ... in some quarters’, where it was suggested that ‘the voice of religion should be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere’. He pleaded rather that religion should not be ‘a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation’.

In the three Sunday Matins addresses that I have left to me this month I want to look at three values that Christians among others have argued for, and to reflect a bit on their importance for our national life and that ‘national conversation’ that the Pope so rightly spoke of. If we can be clear about the values we seek to uphold in any national conversation that might provide a useful starting point of any discussion.

The first value, which I want to consider today, is that of integrity. That is certainly not something that is exclusively Christian in character, indeed interestingly it is not a word that occurs in the New Testament at all, although there are a certain number of uses of it in the Old Testament; Job, for example, was described as a man who held fast to his integrity, and the psalmist spoke of walking in integrity. But in our world today there are clearly many people of different faiths and none who are rightly described as men and women of integrity. But exactly what we mean by the word and how it is expressed might vary according to our starting point.

One dimension that is obviously central to integrity is simple honesty. Those who are acting with integrity will seek to speak the truth, as least the truth as far as they know it. But a moment’s careful reflection will show that is not on every occasion always easy to do. For example, an individual may know some facts which he or she has been told in confidence, and where it would be a breech of that confidence to tell the unvarnished truth in a more public forum. Or there may be times when revealing a truth known to someone to a wider world could have serious and adverse repercussions on many others; it was perhaps a situation like that in the sphere of public policy which led to the widely reported remark of Sir Robert Armstrong in 1986, at the time Secretary of the Cabinet, about being ‘economical with the truth’, perhaps reflecting the words of Edmund Burke ‘Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever:’ said Burke, ‘but, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth.’ Perhaps part of the test of whether someone is acting with integrity in such circumstances is whether they do not reveal everything they know in order to protect other innocent people, or whether they conceal it simply to protect their own reputation. But clearly telling the truth, or at least not telling deliberate falsehoods, is part of integrity. How widely that is practiced in our national life it is probably impossible to tell, but certainly if someone is caught out not telling the truth their public reputation suffers very considerably, and truth telling seems clearly to remain a prized public virtue, and not just for those who would profess and call themselves Christians.

But integrity has a wider dimension to it than just that. The word comes from the Latin adjective integer, which means wholeness, and it implies that a person of integrity is someone who acts with some sort of consistency of character not just once, but all the time. We expect a person of integrity to act in one area of life in a way that is consistent with the values they hold dear in other areas of life. For a person to be considered someone of integrity there has to be some sort of moral core and consequent consistency in what people say and do. And for those who profess and call themselves Christian that must mean some sort of behaviour that is consistent with their Christian profession. To profess to love God and love your neighbour, but then to treat your neighbour in some dishonourable way, does not look like behaving with Christian integrity.  So, honesty and consistency both seem to be elements in integrity, although of course there might well be a proper discussion about what elements of traditional Christian profession are still binding, of which the debate about attitudes to homosexuality in our own day is the most obvious example. It seems to me to be quite possible for a Christian person of integrity to challenge traditional Christian conventions as long as he or she does so in an honest way.

But there is one other dimension to integrity as it might be conceived in a Christian context which may sound less obviously purely moral or even quite so public, and it deals with the relationship between integrity and an obviously related word, integration, both words coming from that Latin word meaning wholeness. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung wrote with a deep understanding and respect for the Christian tradition, even if some Christians would not consider him exactly orthodox. And he spoke of what he described as the shadow side of our personality. There is the respectable image of ourselves that we like to display to the world about us, but hidden away in our personality he believed are other forces often less respectable and less publicly shown, but which are essential elements of our personalities as human beings, and it was those that he described as being our shadow.  Jung held that to be fully and completely ourselves we had at the very least to be aware of our shadow side, but also gradually to come to terms with it, so that rather than being simply a destructive force that can erupt and destroy our public reputation it can be integrated into our beings so that it becomes not destructive but creative. The notion is well expressed in Michael Tippett’s oratorio ‘A Child of our Time’ where at one point the child says ‘I would know my shadow and my light, and so shall I be whole.’

I believe that Jung and Tippett are on to an important element of integrity in a Christian context. Being men and women of integrity is not just about being truthful and consistent; it is also about having sufficient self-knowledge to know the darker forces that are there in each of us, and to integrate them into our personalities so that we are whole people and not just cardboard cut outs of some sort of public virtue.

Integrity, I would suggest, is not something to parade, but something to find and to grow into. And indeed growing into it may take a lifetime.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure