Thursday, April 15, 2010


Pint for the gentleman; white wine or fruit-based drink for the lady. Those are the rules, and if we didn't have any rules where would we be? France. If we had too many rules where would we be? Germany.

So says comedian Al Murray in his Pub Landlord persona, often adding a third line, such as:

...and if we had a rule that every child under ten had to stitch three footballs before breakfast where would we be? China.

Funny man. But we all live our lives by various rules. As I drive home along Trendlewood Way a large, flashing sign illuminates should my speed dare creep up to 31mph. It's the rules. Then there are disciplines - self-imposed rules such as not leaving dirty washing on the floor or studying the Bible before the racing form.

What rules are we subject to? The law of the land. Local by-laws. Employment contracts we have agreed to; I do this and you pay that.

Some rules remain on the statute books but have passed into obscurity and are only dragged out to be laughed at. Apparently:

It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament.

It is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls of York, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow.

In the UK a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants, including in a policeman's helmet.

So there.

In the New Testament already we see people being defensive about rules. Jesus upset the scribes and pharisees by an apparent lack of respect for laws. Matthew writes his gospel from the perspective of one defending the law (of Moses). Paul writes in Romans 13 of the need to submit to the authorities who he describes as God-given.

Much has been made recently of the centuries old dilemma of distinguishing between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Philip Pullman's new novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has sparked it off, helpfully.

But is the church, as Pullman might put it, an organisation running totally contrary to the spirit of its accidental founder, designed to control people?

It can be. Those of us with leadership responsibilities have to take seriously the need to empower, not disenfranchise, the people we lead.

Looking through the Canons of the Church of England recently (I obviously have too much time on my hands) I found many rules that I habitually break to do with my mode of dress, the content of the church services I lead and my pattern of daily prayer. I break them willingly, deliberately and with a view that not breaking them would be detrimental to the growth of the church which the spirit of the canons is designed to promote not hinder.

If you architects want to know where to put the footpaths on a new housing estate, do not build any until people have lived there for six months. Then look at where they have trodden the grass down and put the paths there.Rules, in many circumstances, should not restrict behaviour but describe it. So let's build some new paths.

Easier said than done. Last time a motion was put before General Synod to relax the rule about the wearing of robes by clergy it was thrown out. Democracy has arranged that the small number of churches which are growing, by and large the robeless ones, are not able to carry a majority on synod and so the status quo is voted for by the majority of synod people who like their clergy robed. Likewise the relaxing of the formality of what are known as eucharistic prayers in church.

So I don't robe at Trendlewood Church, often don't even wear a dog collar, and have invented a form of eucharistic prayer that the children can use. Lock me up.

And if Gordon Brown should visit York this election campaign, someone hand him an ornamental bow and arrow as a gift from the city.

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