Rules are made to be broken; yet, we kept them. Because the government had asked us to? because we didn’t want to be disapproved of? because this was a new virus, capable of making people seriously ill, and causing their deaths, yet at the same time causing little or no symptoms in others? because keeping the lockdown rules was the only way to keep ourselves, and others, safe? Whatever the reason, it came as a shock when what is now known as Partygate hit the headlines. That those who had asked us to sacrifice so much seemed to treat these rules as ones that they could break. Putting themselves, and their families, at risk, and causing immense pain and anger to many who had suffered throughout the pandemic. That picture of the Queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral was one many would have been able to identify with. The response was born out of the very real pain and suffering people felt.
So are rules made to be broken? Personally, I tend to be a conformer, rather than a rebel, so I was always going to keep those rules, merely because those in authority had asked us to. Yet there are rules that need to be broken, rules that have been broken, or changed as times move on and injustices are seen. At one time, women didn’t have the vote, nor did many working class men. Those rules were seen to be unjust, and now we have equality in voting. Were the Suffragettes right to break the rules they did, in their protest? I suspect, if I’d lived at that time, I wouldn’t have joined them, yet I am grateful for their struggle, that I can now vote, that it is treated as normal for me to do so.
I think the problem comes when we elevate rules to the status of godhood. That this rule should not be broken, and you are a sinner who is going to hell if you break it. That said, there are some rules that should not be broken: for instance, safeguarding guidelines are in place for a reason, to protect the vulnerable, and they do need to be taken seriously. Rules that are broken will have consequences, and those who break them should face those consequences. Yet our God is not a set of rules, but a relationship: we worship the Trinity, a God of love, whose basic rules are summed up as ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’. Both are calls to relationship. If both are kept perfectly, there would be no need for other rules. Yet only God is perfect, so we do need rules to protect and guide us.
But the call to relationship must be ultimately what Christianity is about. It is so easy to create rules that engender in us a sense of belonging, both formal rules, and those unofficial rules that it is more of a sin to break. Rules that affirm us, and our status; rules that keep us safe; rules that enable us to condemn others, whether we would admit it or not. Rules that enable us to judge whether others are sinners are not: do so at your peril (do not judge, as Jesus, warns us). Rules that convince us that we are on the right side - as the Pharisee thought that he was, and as the tax collector knew that he wasn’t. For the God we worship calls us to a relationship, so that we must be much more than rule keepers. We need to grow into that relationship, so that we are inhabiting the spirit of the rules, as much as their letter. Is that not what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount? (see Matthew 5). To love God with the whole of us and to love our neighbour as ourselves isn’t something that we can legislate for. It needs to be a way of life we grow into, so that it becomes second nature to love others as we would like to be loved. Except it’s much more complicated than that: the way I would love may not be the way you wish to be loved. But that is what we are called to: relationship, so that we come to know the love of our God, and respond to that; so that we come to know each other, and how to love; so that we come to recognize the stranger in our midst, and respond out of love, not anxiety or fear or judgement. For God desires ‘mercy, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings’ (see Hosea 6).
A relationship with God, a true, loving, growing relationship with God, will set in place rules that safeguard the vulnerable, that protect them from abusers, especially when those abusers seem to be speaking for God. A relationship with God takes time and prayer and humility. Above all, humility: the humility to acknowledge that we can be wrong; the humility to see that the Church can – and has – got it wrong; the humility to learn from society, when it acts much more lovingly than we do; the humility to realise that we are not God; the humility to see that God is much greater than we are, far more welcoming than we can see; the humility to know how much our God loves. For God desires ‘mercy, not sacrifice; knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’. Can we reach out to the mercy of God for ourselves, for those we meet, for those who have broken the rules?