In Praise of Integrity

We as a nation are in a crisis of trust with respect to our institutions. Parliament is being scrutinised over the behaviour of its members in the way they sometimes mistreat the young people who work for them. Show business has brought up numerous examples of sexual harassment and abuse which have taken place over the years. Even the church seems not to be immune from examples of exploitative behaviour. It is as if all our national institutions are falling like dominoes one by one, plagued by the accusation that they are morally rotten. The individuals who work within them seem apparently not to have what we would call integrity.

I wrote a post with the word ‘integrity’ in its title two years ago when first reviewing the report about Peniel. It was then quite apparent that abusive behaviour of all kinds had been experienced in that church over many years. The accusations that were made seemed to far more to do with finance and emotional abuse than the issues in our current scandals. Peniel did of course have stories of sexual exploitation. In this post I want us to think more about the word ’integrity’. I took the trouble to check the word and once again it is a word which does not appear in traditional translations of the New Testament. Our English word comes from the Latin ‘integer’ which means whole or complete. The Latin word is used in English to describe a whole number as opposed to a fraction. There is one biblical passage which carries an idea close to the notion of integrity. Jesus says: ‘be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect’. It is suggested by one commentary I have read that a good translation for perfect is contained in the idea of having integrity. While perfection is a hard target for us to aim at, we can aim to be men and women of integrity.

In thinking about integrity, I find myself, first of all, describing it by a series of negatives. Integrity implies that an individual does not lie. It is hard to see integrity in politicians who are found to have lied for their own personal or political advantage. It is also difficult to see integrity in a behaviour that uses another person as an object. People are never objects to be used and exploited. They are always subjects and the way we treat fellow human being is to honour that subjectivity and treat them with respect. Hierarchical systems such as we find in the church or in political life make it more likely that people can become pawns in complicated power games. In this respect the church fails its members because it does not seem to understand how people within its structure are being disempowered for the advantage of the influential and powerful.

A further indication that a person lacks integrity is when they betray trust. Another word for trustworthiness is reliability. We want other human beings, particularly our leaders, to be reliable and trustworthy. When they fail in this standard we find ourselves floundering, not knowing how to proceed. The recent open letter from Gino to the Archbishop of Canterbury was a cry for help in a situation where trust had been betrayed and confidence in the integrity of others could no longer be depended on.

Having dwelt on the negatives, the ways that integrity is undermined and destroyed, we can begin to see what a man or woman of integrity might look like. The problem is that this integrity in individuals is hard to retain when the individual has become part of the hierarchy of a powerful institution. Institutions easily corrupt people. What begins as a compromise to protect an institutional reputation can easily end up by destroying and individual’s integrity. A bishop who protects one of his clergy from an accusation of sexual misbehaviour has become a colluder in an evil act. In the process his integrity has become compromised and destroyed. This sort of behaviour was endemic in the Roman Catholic Church. Over the last 20 years we have learnt of massive cover-ups and suppression of the truth. The one responsible for the collusion is not the erring priest but we have to lay the blame at the feet of the institution the bishop serves. President Trump has successfully morally compromised every single official and subordinate that he works with. The corruption of his own integrity and of the office of president has also had a massive effect on the whole of American society. The people of integrity that still remain are those not under his control. We especially remember Robert Mueller the special investigator. We must hope that his integrity and that of the whole justice system are preserved and protected for the future of the United States.

When Jesus told us to be ‘perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect’, I believe he wants us to be people of integrity. While we can never claim to be people without sin, we can aspire to honesty in speech, possessing respect and honour towards other people and being the kind of people that others can rely on. In writing this I can see how I personally have never been placed in a situation where I might have been strongly tempted to abuse power. A parish priest does have some power. Some do manage to become corrupted by it. Nevertheless, most can resist the modest temptations that the role produces and thus they preserve their integrity. All I can say is that it is extremely important to pray for leaders in the church and the nation. We must ask that they do not become seduced by the temptations of power. Institutions of any kind are dangerous places. The positions of leadership not infrequently damage their holders. I hope that anyone reading this blog becomes fully aware of these dangers.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

One thought on “In Praise of Integrity

  1. ‘The Hebrew word ‘shalom’ also carries connotations of wholeness, which is linked to integrity. I found this definition on the website ‘myjewishlearning’:
    The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is derived from a root denoting wholeness or completeness, and its frame of reference throughout Jewish literature is bound up with the notion of shelemut, perfection.

    Its significance is thus not limited to the political domain — to the absence of war and enmity — or to the social — to the absence of quarrel and strife. It ranges over several spheres and can refer in different contexts to bounteous physical conditions, to a moral value, and, ultimately, to a cosmic principle and divine attribute.’

    I understand the the Greek word ‘eirene’, often translated ‘peace’ carries a similar meaning, at least in some NT passages. I’m no scholar of Biblical languages, but if this is true then the Bible has a lot to say about integrity.

    Thanks, Stephen, for reminding us how much the Church needs integrity, and how often we fall short.

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