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UK Paper Caught In A 'Quaker' Conundrum

UK Paper Caught In A 'Quaker' Conundrum

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.” (from Through the Looking Glass; Lewis Carroll)

A story in a local newspaper in the U.K. caught my eye this week, raising questions on the nature of truth and the craft of journalism.  

The news that the Rev. Philip Young was standing for election to Parliament in the forthcoming General Election is of interest to the retired vicar’s family and friends -- and the electors of Suffolk no doubt. But I expect little notice to be taken of the news.

What I found of interest, from a professional journalist’s perspective, is the descriptors the subject of the story used in talking about himself. Rev. Young is identified as a retired clergyman of the Church of England -- but also as a Quaker and a Franciscan.

Young’s claim raises the philosophical question for journalists: to what extent may a person identify themselves? What shapes reality? Is it the social construction given by the subject of a story, or an outside arbiter -- an eternal truth, natural law, the AP stylebook? Which, to borrow from Humpty Dumpty, is to be master?

This issue arises on questions of gender these days. Is it Bruce or Caitlyn Jenner? The Federalist’s Bre Payton, the Washington Examiner, and other outlets have reported on the contortions Bill Nye -- the “science guy” -- has had to edit past stories to keep au courant with the latest convention wisdom. Gender was determined by chromosomes in 1996 for Nye. Now gender is fluid. Payton notes the science of sex has not changed, merely the opinions of some self-proclaimed experts.

What appears to be taking place with Bill Nye is the Costanza theorem of truth. “Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie if you believe it,” George Costanza claims in the "Seinfeld" episode “The Beard" (Episode 102, 9 Feb 1995).

But is this happening in this article in Network Norfolk?  

Rev Philip Young, former vicar at St Thomas Heigham in Norwich, is calling for a new era of politics where love, peace and justice for all take centre stage. The long-standing Network Norfolk columnist says he is calling for “a revolution of love in our politics so that love and care for each other and for our beautiful planet become the driving force of political decisions.”

So far so good. We learn who Mr. Young is and why he is the subject of the story. His election manifesto is given a serious hearing -- no sarcasm or condescension.

“On seeking to become Member of Parliament for Suffolk Coastal I would seek to take love into the heart of Westminster and of our country. I want to be part of a debate as to how we can best love our citizens and look after everybody. How can we best look after our green and pleasant land and hand it on in a good condition to future generations,” he said.

The article observes that Mr. Young’s candidacy marks a new era in British politics, at least in Suffolk, as until 2001, Church of England clergy were disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons. Bishops continue to be disqualified as some of them sit by right in the House of Lords, as the Lords Spiritual.

And it concludes by noting that Mr. Young will be an independent candidate running in a field that will include nominees of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green Parties. Overall this is a fair and sympathetic story of a marginal candidate for electoral office. It takes the man and his faith seriously -- for it is his faith that has motivated him to offer himself for public office.

Yet, one paragraph is somewhat perplexing.

Philip has lived in Felixstowe, Suffolk, for the last two years since leaving Norwich. He is now a retired priest in the Church of England and helps out at his local church. He is also a Quaker and a pacifist and believes that to work for a world without war is both worthwhile and desirable. He is also a member of the Franciscan Third Order and seeks to follow the way of Jesus as a Franciscan.

How can one be a clergyman of the Church of England and a Quaker? Mr. Young is pictured in his dog collar, and there is no indication he has renounced his orders. If he had, that would negate the news of his being among the first Church of England clerics to stand for Parliament.  

While Quakers have a wide degree of latitude of belief -- from liberal to traditionalist -- there are certain hallmarks of the Religious Society of Friends. They are united in a belief that each person is able to experientially access "that of God in every person.” They profess the priesthood of all believers, avoid creeds, and traditional hierarchical structures.

How does the claim of being a Quaker then stand with the the claim of being a priest of the Church of England? How also does one reconcile membership in a religious order -- Anglican Franciscans, with their structures, rules of life, and hierarchy -- with a profession of being a Quaker? It may well be that the subject of the story finds common cause with some of the teachings of the Quakers, but that is different from donning the mantle of Quaker.

As thinkers from John Locke to Margaret Mead and today’s many “social constructionists” like to say, people are simply whatever they are conditioned to be. This cultural-intellectual trend has led some reporters to shy away from pressing the subjects of their stories to clarify the claims they make about themselves.

If Bruce Jenner can claim to be a woman, even though her chromosomes say she is a man, what harm is there in a retired priest claiming ownership of contradictory schools of religious life?

The question for journalists is whether to repeat a claim made by the subject of the story, or whether to submit that claim to scrutiny. Otherwise the impression is given that the author has confused his terms, miscopied his quotes, or botched the story.

What is the journalist’s duty? To pursue the truth or to allow truth to be pluriform?  The calling of journalism is defeated when any word means “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” 

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