The controversy around #PartyGate continues to rumble on. The Metropolitan Police have begun their investigation. Last week, Boris Johnson was reportedly sent a questionnaire by the police. Well, I understand that he likes a quiz. Whilst we await the outcome, people continue to speculate about what the implications will be if the Prime Minister is found to have broken the rules and handed a fixed penalty notice. Part of the debate is about whether or not he should then resign.
Some people have argued that this wouldn’t in and of itself be a resigning matter, no more than if the PM or a cabinet minister received a fine for breaking the speed limit or parking in the wrong place. One reason for this is that fixed penalty notices arise from strict liability cases, those are ones where your intent and motives are irrelevant, all that matters is whether or not the law was broken. It is therefore possible to break a rule unwittingly. You may be ignorant of the rule or you may not realise that you had broke it.
It is possible therefore for the Prime Minister to have broken rules unintentionally and in ignorance. There are two ways that this could have happened. First, he might be ignorant of the specific criteria in the rules. Whilst these were laws enacted by his government, this doesn’t mean he would be alert to every technical detail (though you would hope that his advisors around him would be). Those rules were enacted under the watch of departmental ministers. Even still, it would have been civil servants who would have drafted the detailed regulations.
It is also possible that Boris was ignorant of what was happening. He may genuinely have believed that he was attending work meetings at which there just happened to be alcohol, quizzes, tinsel and birthday cake. You and I may be dubious of the claim but it is at least possible. However, the police are uninterested in such matters with an FPN. They don’t care if you believed the rules said something different, they don’t care if you believed the event was something different. They will make a ruling on whether the events constituted parties and if people were present, those people broke the rules.
In such a context, the Prime Minister may well feel aggrieved to have to pay a fine (if he does) but that’s no different to what others have faced. However, it would seem harsh if this were the basis for forcing his resignation. However, that’s not really the prime reason why his job might be in danger. The question is whether or not Boris Johnson lied to the House of Commons about what happened, what he knew and what he was involved in. Now, if he was genuinely ignorant, he could argue that he wasn’t lying, though that raises questions about his judgement. However, the arrival of an FPN in the post is going to make it harder for him to make that claim.
So, in the context of all of this, those who want to see Boris Johnson stay in power are continuing to argue that the accusations against him are trivial. Here is Andrew Lillico on twitter.
That all sounds well and good. It is true that each individual misdemeanour on its own doesn’t sound too bad and some things are questionable. However, that is only the case because we are treating each in isolation. If all the PM had done was to make a speech at an after work get together that might be excusable, similarly if he’d been there for birthday cake. If he had been away and others had hosted a party in his absence, then we’d be saying “that’s nothing to do with him really. Other heads should roll.”
The thing is that the accusation isn’t that he has just done one thing in isolation. WE are rather looking at trends and habits that reflect a culture. In the same way, we are not treating troop movements, exercises, and bellicose speeches from Vladimir Putin in isolation but rather are looking at all of his actions and words towards Ukraine together. You have to look at the whole picture that comes together. It’s that which Boris Johnson will eventually be judged on either by his own MPS or by the public in an election.
Now, my purpose in writing, as usual is less to think about the machinations of internal Tory Party politics but to help us think through implications for church life. You see, I believe there is a danger that we can at times be drawn into the same trap of looking at individual behaviours in isolation and then allowing people to play them down in order to excuse themselves.
I’ve seen these in pastoral situations where over a period of time a person has done certain things that could be sinful, may well have been unhelpful to their relationships with others but individually might be explained away or excused. The risk then is that elders and pastors respond to each incident on its own and accept the person’s word that it wasn’t a big deal. Yet, what you are actually seeing is a pattern of sinful behaviour, building up and escalating over time. One day you are hit with the shock when serious sin comes our and/or sadly their behaviour which has been straining a relationship finally causes the relationship to break: a marriage ends, a small group falls apart, a church splits.
I think we have also seen this played out in some of the church abuse scandals. Leaders are picked up on for individual episodes but each time, they plead ignorance or play down the seriousness of the misdemeanour and other Christians around them accept their word because we don’t want to be legalistic and judgemental, we want to be seen as gracious and because we want to protect a ministry, gifting and calling. Then one day, it all becomes too much and the dam bursts.
It’s important therefore in church life and pastoral ministry to take a step back and not just to look at the specific incident. This will involve looking at the wider picture in terms of a person’s life and relationships. Are we spotting specific behavioural patterns? Is there a particular culture forming? It will also mean that we won’t accept attempts to play down, trivialise and excuse sin. In fact, the very fact that we believe in grace and justification is why we don’t have to settle for excuses. It’s the Gospel that enables us to confront the seriousness and deadliness of sin.
I do not know what the eventual fall out of #PartyGate will be. However, I hope that we will learn lessons from it that will help us to encourage, growth, holiness and safety in our churches.