This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
I am not a Puritan. Neither my churchmanship nor my personality incline me towards Puritanism.
My waistline bears witness to the fact that self-denial is not hardwired into my lifestyle choices. Any interest in other people’s lives is primarily for my own personal prurient pleasure and not for their moral improvement.
As such I am not a fan of that period of the year when we take a look at our lifestyles and our waistlines and decide to endure a period of personal abstinence in the hope of improving ourselves and, thereby, adding to the span of our days.
They wish to impose on Whitehall a world where it is always January and never New Year’s Eve
No, I don’t mean Lent. Lent is — rather counter intuitively — something Cavaliers have always been rather keen on. I’m talking about that month of misery where the Puritan runs rampant: January. (Although now we’re in budding March, let’s hope it is safely behind us). Fresh from making new year’s resolutions, we are driven towards gyms, told to keep off the booze, and — for the fully initiated — even denied hearty, wholesome meat.
“But what about Lent?” I hear you cry. What marks the difference between a good Cavalier following the injunctions to fast in the Book of Common Prayer and a secular enthusiast tucking into an anaemic nut roast (with a side of broccoli), all washed down with a Coke Zero for Dry January, Veganuary, and all the other Puritan feasts of the season? The answer is context.
The context of Lent isn’t fitness, or long life, or anything like that. Its purpose is sacrifice, as we prepare for that darkest day of the year — Good Friday. Its focus is not, unlike January, ourselves — it is God. Which is why there are all manner of days of Lent when you mustn’t fast: Sundays, and Feast Days, such as the Annunciation.
Because these are days of such celebration — the Day of Resurrection, the marking of the first step towards the Incarnation — that a fast would be utterly inappropriate, no matter what damage it does to your run of days without booze, beef, or any other thing of joy.
Context. Which brings me, rather clumsily, to the Prime Minister and “Partygate”. The revelations about the parties being held in Number 10 throughout lockdown have left our Puritans with their tails properly in the air.
The eagle eyes of those who harbour the terrible thought that somebody somewhere is having fun, have the “drinking culture” of politics firmly tied up and surrounded by kindling. They wish to impose on Whitehall a world where it is always January and never New Year’s Eve.
The focus of this sacrifice should not be yourself
This would normally be enough to have me wading in on the other side. But, as a Cavalier, I can’t help thinking what we needed in the pandemic was the spirit of Lent. There are times when sacrifice is genuinely in order — and one of those times is when you have imposed the greatest restrictions on British civil liberties in the peacetime history of our nation.
When you have forbidden the population in your care not only from partying with their friends and colleagues (and please don’t underestimate the psychological cost of that decision) but also from those other even more important relational acts: saying farewell to a dying mother, seeing a confused father in a care home, meeting a newborn grandson.
And so we return to context. The purpose of a fast from socialising during those dark days is not necessarily because pleasure is bad but because you have denied this pleasure to others.
And the focus of this sacrifice should not be yourself. You might perfectly reasonably assess that everyone in the building had had Covid, and as you were working right next to each other anyway it wouldn’t make a difference. The focus is on the people you lead, who were not free to make these judgments because of laws you had brought in.
When taking up a burden, especially when it’s for somebody else — God, or your neighbour — it is never difficult to find reasons to lay it down again. I gave up alcohol for Lent in 2020, but this discipline did not survive the first week of lockdown — I confess I swapped it for giving up seeing my friends and family.
You can see how the progressive justifications will have worked in Number 10. A few drinks on a Friday with a few people who are working late turns into picnics in the garden during the week, turns into a small leaving drinks with a speech, turns into a 2am finish with a DJ and a suitcase of booze. I’m not a Puritan, I don’t condemn the instinct.
What I have to condemn, as a Cavalier, is the context. The failure to apply a self-denying ordinance, while legislating for a state-imposed ordinance. The focus on self and the perfectly understandable desire for human interaction, over others, who were denied the same for months on end. Context, in this case, is everything, and the electorate may feel that sometimes to understand all does not remotely incline them to forgive all.
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