Much of the public discourse about ‘conservatives’ treats those who are conservatives as a bloc. In all the discussions about diversity in the work place, no one asks how many conservatives there are in university humanities departments; I doubt if even the most rigid quota system would produce many conservative lecturers in gender studies; being an ‘out’ conservative in academia is a hard row to plough. Academics studying left-wing thought can do so in their senior common rooms; those working on the right cannot. But like all political opinions, conservatism occupies a spectrum. I keep being told Mrs Thatcher was a conservative. Here was a woman who refused to accept the orthodoxy, common at the time, that the job of a British Government was to manage the process of decline peacefully, who seems to have regarded all professions with deep suspicion as conspiracies of the experts, and who took the decision to let market forces do whatever it was they were going to do to communities whose way of life was based on declining industries; although in practice less ideological than she was in rhetoric, she was still more ideological than any other leader of the British Conservative Party. Her social attitudes were, of course, deeply conservative on matters of personal morality (even if the practice of some of her favourite Ministers was less so), but I was not then, and am not now, convinced that previous Conservative leaders would have recognised her as a Conservative; there was, at best, a deep admixture of radicalism, in her thought and practice.
Most people are conservative in some aspects of their lives. even in a profession as profoundly liberal and reformist as academia, the suggestion that you change something can be met with the sort of resistance that the most diehard peer of 1911 would have envied. People get attached to places and to ways of doing things. They develop routines, they systematise, and they develop rules. Even when the Son of God comes to make all things new and to call for repentance and amendment of life, men manage to develop that into a routine with systematised rules and set ways of doing things; transformed by the Holy Spirit – well abide by the rules and we shall know it is so. We can see how very early in the history of the Church that conflict developed if we read St John’s letters. Even in a community founded by the Beloved Disciple and with him as its spiritual leader, there were those who claimed their own revelation gave them a superior access to revelation. Without some source of authority and order, chaos develops – and that is as true for disciples of a religious revelation as it is of States. Marvellous though it would be if all men and women of good will could simply agree, splendid though it would be if all who claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit agreed on what they had been told, in this fallen world it is not so.
One of the many charges levelled against the Catholic Church is that in its period of secular triumph, it seemed not to witness much to the Lord Jesus who loved the marginalised and the outcasts as well as those in the mainstream, and indeed, that some of its leaders behaved more like the Pharisees the Lord excoriated. There is too much in that charge for comfort, and it should prompt from us not indignant responses which show that some Catholics always bore witness to the teachings of the Lord, but a reminder that it is the latter, and not the former, who should be our guides.
The tensions we see in the Church in our own day are echoes of ones that we see as early as St John’s Epistles. Development is a feature of any organism which has life, but in a revealed religion, the question is by what authority do we determine the authentic from the modish? Indeed, there is always the question as to whether the two have to live in conflict. Jesus’ words, and actions, implied there will always be a tension between the ways of this world and God’s ways, and for His Church, the vote of our ancestors in the faith should always count in the balance. Does that mean that the Church is conservative with regard the the mores of any particular era, or simply make it a witness to eternal values? The Kingdom is at hand, we none of us know the hour when our soul might be demanded of us. We all have a choice to make.