Sue Gray’s Report, Party Gate and church culture

We now have the Sue Gray report (or at least a heavily redacted version) available to read giving us a little bit more of an insight into Downing Street life and culture during the pandemic.

One question that has come up as we’ve awaited Gray’s findings has been about the rights and wrongs of the Prime Minister himself commissioning the report, receiving it and publishing it.  Doesn’t that make him the judge and jury over his own wrong doing? That’s led to quite a few very funny memes. However, the serious response is that at the time he commissioned the report, it’s intention was not to investigate whether Boris Johnson or even cabinet colleagues were guilty of wrong doing. You see, that wasn’t really the nature of the original claims.

Rather, what we were looking at was a situation where eit was rumoured that civil servants and staff had organised events at Downing Street that were outlawed under the COVID restrictions.  The Prime Minister’s position was that he wasn’t aware of such incidents however, he would commission an investigation to see what might have happened.

Technically, if there was a scandal, it wasn’t about the Prime Minister and politicians getting involved in rule breaking. It was a civil service scandal. And so, it should have been the case that if wrong doing was identified then those who broke the rules should have been held liable under criminal law and those who were responsible for managing them would also have had questions to answer.

Of course, even from the start, there were claims that the PM bore some culpability.  Partly, this was because some immediately connected anything at Downing Street with the Prime Minister personally, partly because people thought that it would be difficult for Boris to be unaware of what was happening under his roof and so had at least turned a blind eye. Finally, it was partly because rumours were circulating that the PM was far more involved than he was letting on.

Then further stories and pictures began to emerge which would appear to implicate the Prime Minister. He was present at some of the events and giving his blessing. The claims to have been unaware that these events were parties or that he was ambushed by a cake felt about as credible as when his previous opponent tried to explain away being present at antisemitic events.  Was Boris present but uninvolved in these parties?

So, the situation is a little different now to how things started out. However, I hope that this doesn’t distract those investigating and reviewing from some important questions. To be sure, it matters whether or not the Prime Minister has broken the law and lied. It matters legally because if he has broken the law then he should face the penalty like anyone else, it matters constitutionally and politically too because there should be consequences to face. I don’t think this is just about whether or not a cake was brought to him or he went to a party. It does cut to the heart of his character and of his willingness to abide by the same rules he sets for others.

However, whilst those questions need to be addressed, that shouldn’t prevent the spot light falling on wider civil service and Downing Street culture. If Sue Gray’s report and the police investigation confirm the rumours and the leaks then we are looking at a situation where the culture enabled people to turn a blind eye to rules, where they acted above the law, where the culture meant it was difficult to distinguish between work engagements and parties.  All of that is concerning whether or not the Prime Minister endorsed, organised, was present at or aware of these events.

It’s important because I suspect that we may be seeing cultural and structural problems within the civil service that have deeper roots than we would like to admit.  This isn’t just about one or two rotten apples but potentially reflects a culture going back years.

However, this doesn’t get the PM off of the hook and in fact raises other serious questions. He may not be alone in contributing to such a culture but I would argue that he potentially has.  We must consider the possibility that the attitudes and behaviours of our political leaders will set the tone for civil service and indeed wider culture.  It is telling that the criticisms of culture seem to align with the personal criticisms that a number of our leaders and representatives have been accused of.

This situation reminds me again of the sad challenge that we have faced in recent years and continue to face within evangelicalism.  Over the past few years, we’ve heard some horror stories about scandal within the church with a number of senior leaders accused of public sin and particularly of abusive behaviour, some of which would have broken criminal law.

A lot of attention has been focused on those individuals and the risk has been that we’ve become focused on a few rotten apples. Yet, the truth is that rotten apples grow on trees. We can’t just assume that we are dealing with a few lone wolves.  The scandals demand that we ask questions about wider church culture.

Again, here we see the interplay between culture and personal. You see, we might argue that those people accused of abuse are both products of the culture and part of the cause. They are products of a culture where they have learnt and got away with sinful and criminal behaviours without being confronted. The culture gave a context for sin and abuse to happen. However, in so far as they set the tone and even instructed and led, discipling others in the same behaviours, they are part of the cause.

It’s important therefore that as we continue to reflect on scandals including Ravi Zacharias, John Smyth, Bill Hybels and Jonathan Fletcher that we ask two questions.

  1. In what ways were their teachings and practices shaped by the culture around them? Who were their role models? Who were they accountable? What did they read? Who did they listen to? Who did they learn from?
  2. In what ways have their teaching and example had an impact on the rest of the church? What were they saying? What were they modelling? Who were they influencing.

There remains therefore some vital work still to do for the care of Christ’s church.

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