What would you make of someone who demanded that you perform what you both knew to be trivial, meaningless tasks, but issued vague threats about what would happen if you did not carry them out?
What would you think of yourself, if, as a result of these demands and threats, you found yourself going along with what was required?
And what would you think of a social group — a family, say, or an office — where one of the members ‘ruled the roost’ in this way, whilst the others were compelled to comply?
Wouldn’t you think it all a bit dysfunctional? Wouldn’t it, in fact, smack of bullying? And wouldn’t you worry about the effect it might be having on you or on the others? And if you were asked to advise in such a situation, wouldn’t you say that for everyone’s sake this behaviour must be challenged and resisted?
I raise this because on the 1st July this year, the government introduced legislation which involved us all in just such a situation. That was the day on which every ‘enclosed public space’ had to put up a sign, of regulation size, wording and location, saying it was illegal to smoke there.
Now I am utterly against smoking. It is an unpleasant habit with horrible consequences. And more than anything else, I rejoice that it is now impossible for someone to smoke in a restaurant.
But I have never, ever, seen anyone smoke in a church, nor do I think this has happened on more than a handful of occasions in the last hundred years. And if someone did smoke in a church then I, or someone else, would ask them not to.
Being compelled by law to put up a sign telling people not to do something they wouldn’t dream of doing, and others wouldn’t think to allow, is therefore ridiculous. And everyone knows it.
It is so ridiculous that one church near Colchester changed the wording to ‘Thou shalt not smoke in church.’ It is the same mentality of helpless protest against the system which once prompted my brother’s section in the RAF to line up their aircraft so that the letters on the tail fins spelt a rude word. You do it because you can’t do anything else. The triviality of the gesture actually reflects the frustration at the imposition.
You may think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but suppose instead a member of the PCC had come up with the proposal, a couple of years ago, that the church should put up an A5 notice at every entry point, bearing a red, circular, 70mm international ‘no smoking sign’ and the words, ‘NO SMOKING in this church’, and there should also be a similar sign posted by the door round the back where the vicar goes into the vestry. How do you think that would have been received?
Indeed, what sort of PCC member would have come up with such a proposal? Surely only the most ‘jobsworth’ obsessive. The average PCC would have treated them with patience and good humour, and then moved to the next item on the agenda.
Yet that is precisely what the Department of Health has required of us all, and it will use the law to ensure compliance.
And we, knowing it is ridiculous, have gone along with it.
But it is more than ridiculous, it is demeaning. And being subject to demeaning acts has damaging effects. What is even more worrying is that both the Anglican hierarchy and the Department of Health know what is going on.
According to an article in a recent edition of the Chelmsford Diocesan Noticeboard, national church representatives actually met with the Head of the SmokeFree team from the Department of Health, together with a consultant on publicity matters, to discuss the whole matter. Imagine what it normally takes to get together a meeting on this scale. And all for what? To discuss signage banning what never happens.
Apparently, The Department is keen to work with the Church of England on this matter. Yet this surely indicates not a willing attitude, but a descent into Kafkaesque insanity.
The end result, I fear, is that we are, without realizing it, subtly corrupted. Of course it is silly. That is the point. What is not silly is to make a fuss about it.
Surely what we should all do is just say, no thank you, we don’t smoke, and we don’t put up silly signs about smoking. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it? And what is really scary is how scary the thought is.
Revd John P Richardson
15 November 2007