As I watched the tributes to Charles Kennedy in the House of Commons I was surprised – perhaps I shouldn’t have been – by the number of politicians who framed their reflections in Christian language. We could of course be cynical and accuse the political class of resorting to religious language to suit the occasion, but I don’t think this is necessary.
Several referred to Mr. Kennedy’s own ‘well of faith,’ and it was good to know that he was a frequent attendee at mid-week Eucharists in the Undercroft. I enjoyed Stephen Pound’s quip that he and Charles used to sit somewhere near the back just in case there was a collection!
A significant number of politicians,from all sides of the house, finished their refrain with ‘rest in peace,’ or ‘let light perpetual,’ style doxologies. I was left with the impression that Charles Kennedy regarded politics as a vocation and not just a job. Some of my faith, if not in politics,then at least in individual politicians has been restored.
All of the speakers presented a realistic picture of the erstwhile liberal leader. Charles Kennedy was obviously deeply principled and understood at a very deep level what it means to be a liberal and at the heart of his liberalism could be found a deep and unwavering commitment to social, political, international and, yes I would argue, religious justice. He cared for the disadvantaged and was keen to take what he saw as the right course of action, whatever the cost. Right, it seems, for Charles Kennedy was more akin to righteousness rather than political expediency; his stand against the war on Iraq being the most obvious example.
To borrow a line from Harry Pearce in ‘Spooks The Greater Good,’ ‘you can do well or you can do good,’ and oft-times there really is a choice; do well, get promoted and then do the expedient thing, or take a stand, try to do the good thing and, risk ridicule and failure.
Perhaps Charles Kennedy knew, and had taken to heart, the words of the prophet Amos, a prophet who championed doing theology in the public square?
‘Seek good not evil that you may live,’ (Amos 5, 14).
And maybe, in an era besotted with image and ‘success’ we Christians need to re-appropriate the words of the prophet: ‘Seek good not evil that you may live.’
But the politicians also, and rightly, painted a picture of a complicated and paradoxical character: talented yet tormented,(frequently) seemingly at ease yet suffering from a real sense of disease. And surely this is true of so many of us? We are a mixed bag of hopes, talents, convictions and neuroses. Sadly, sometimes the neuroses and disease seem to win.
But do they? Do they in the end? Well several of our politicians expressed the sure and certain hope that Mr. Kennedy will be resting in peace as a pre-cursor to rising in glory. For once I will bow both to their wisdom and to the words of Amos: ‘seek good not evil that you may live.’
Charles Kennedy was a conviction politician and it was his earthly misfortune to pursue his trade (or vocation) in an era where expediency and electability seemed to win out at the expense of virtue; where doing well could be regarded as trumping doing good.
In all our institutions we need to relearn the importance of doing good, and we need to relearn, as followers, that virtue is the real game changer. But will we? Our track record isn’t great, perhaps because our mental models have been corrupted? We like our leaders to look suave and pragmatic. But isn’t this just a little bit shallow? Shouldn’t we take off our rubber rings and learn to swim in the deep end?
As I read David Aaronovitch’s article on Labour’s search for a new ‘leader’ in today’s Times I couldn’t help feeling deeply despondent:
‘First the cart and then, miles behind, the poor old horse. First you elect a new leader and then you decide what they should stand for. Well it’s not what you should do in a well-ordered world, but this is British politics.’
We must make sure in all our institutions – political ones, economic ones, and yes religious ones – that we dismiss the caricature of effective leadership and instead look for people of integrity and courage. People determined to do the right thing, people who couldn’t care less about expediency (or even looks) ,and we must accept that ‘good’ leaders, just like the rest of us, are deeply flawed!
Charles Kennedy ‘rest in peace, and rise in glory,’ Amen.