Thursday, January 03, 2008

If in doubt, legislate?

There are calls today for new laws on data protection, after HM Revenue and Customs lost 25m sets of bank details. It's ironic that these people are empowered to haul me over the coals if I can't back up my tax self-assesment with a detailed audit trail of my expenses, but if they lose my tax form and the accompanying cheque they get off scott free.

When I initially heard the story, I thought it was just another case of knee-jerk legislating, assuming that anyone who lost this kind of info was already on the wrong side of the law. So it does make sense. But it does raise the question of what are the limits of the law? What happens if we legislate against every form of workplace incompetence?

The Anglican church in the USA is currently disintegrating as individuals, parishes and dioceses take their stand on either side of the sexuality debate. The complex but frail structures of tradition, prayer, church family and mutual commitment haven't been strong enough to hold it together, and there are now threats from the national US Episcopal Church (ECUSA) to use civil law to reclaim property and assets from breakaway churches. Contrast the Roman Catholic church, which has a much stronger structure of central authority and law, and has avoided the serial splits which have beset Protestantism since the Reformation.

Is legalism the price of unity? Anglicans elsewhere have been trying to find a form of words, and a quasi-legal structure, that will be strong enough to hold the Anglican church together without turning it into a church run primarily by law and only secondarily by grace. So far they've not succeeded.

This is tricky. At a micro level, families need rules to help them to function well, and marriage itself is a covenant relationship which recognises that there will be bad times as well as good. There will be times when the rules are appealed to, and times when the promises you made at the altar are the one thing that is keeping you together and helping you to work things out. But to live by law all the time would destroy a loving relationship. At church level, the same kind of dynamics apply, with the added complexity that the church is an organisation as well as a family. Paul tells the Corinthian church off for going through the civil law courts to sort out disputes between Christians: "the very fact you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already" (1 Corinthians 6:7)

I don't know if there is a 'tipping point' in a society, a community, a church, or an organisation, where law rather than relationship starts to become the principle way of regulating relationships and life. Once this happens, you are in deep trouble. I can sense it happening more and more in the UK. We have more laws, (and more CCTV) but are the shoplifting capital of Europe and are fighting the Irish for the binge drinking crown. When does the rush to legislation and surveillance stop? How do we keep law as the protecting and enabling framework for healthy relationships (for which the 10 Commandments are a prime example), and keep it from becoming an end in itself, with the Pharisees/Stasi waiting in the wings?

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