Weekend essay
Creed
Ethics
7 min read

After the fall: the Post Office scandal and the search for justice

Falls from grace, like that of the Post Office’s CEO, prompt Graham Tomlin to dissect the problems of justice and mercy.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A tense-looking woman, sitting at  desk, stares into the middle disance.
Lia Williams as Paula Vennells in Mr Bates vs The Post Office.
ITV Studios/ITV.

It was November, and I was in Rome. With the new year on the horizon, newsagents were displaying calendars for 2024. One in particular seemed to show up in just about every street vendor available: the ‘Hot Priest Calendar’.  

It had pictures for every month of young, bronzed, good-looking priests, resplendent in brand new, ironed black clerical shirts, smouldering into the camera. I've no idea whether they were real priests or just models in clerical garb. I didn't buy one, but it did get me thinking of why they had produced it. Was this a recruitment drive for clergy in the Roman Catholic Church? Something for the nuns to put on the wall of the convent? It was hardly aiming to attract women by saying if you become a Catholic you could bag one of these hunky chaps, as priests are, well, supposed to be out of reach.  

I suspect it was just trying to tell the world that the Church is cool after all. That the church is for good-looking, shiny people, not just the regular ones with wrinkles and expanding waistlines.  

The embarrassment and shame are real and proper and yet there is, in my view, something at the heart of it which seems to be mistaken.

I was thinking of this recently while watching the story of the Post Office scandal unfold. This dreadful story is, to be frank, a bit of an embarrassment for the Church of England. This horrendous miscarriage of justice has its heart not just a Christian but a priest. I met Paula Vennells once. While I was Bishop of Kensington, we planned a big conference for all the vicars in the Diocese of London. At the time, Vennells’ star was rising in ecclesiastical circles. People had just noticed that the head of the Post Office not only went to church, but was also ordained, and so she was getting invited to speak at all kinds of conferences. She agreed to come and, to be fair, was gracious, unassuming, polite. There was nothing to suggest she was soon to become the object of public opprobrium that she is now. 

She would definitely not go on a Church Calendar these days. But then who would? The last decade has seen a succession of scandals and falls from grace – Harvey Epstein, Huw Edwards, Russell Brand, Philip Schofield - and Christian leaders are not exempt. Jean Vanier, Ravi Zacharias, Mike Pilavachi – the list goes on – and now Paula Vennells. We Christians hang our heads, as it seems such a deep failure - how can someone profess to be a Christian – even a vicar - and yet do such things? The embarrassment and shame are real and proper and yet there is, in my view, something at the heart of it which seems to be mistaken.  

Celebrities are celebrated because we believe they are different from us ordinary mortals. But sooner or later, it turns out they have the same temptations, their bodies sag, their flaws get exposed. 

Helmut Thielicke was a German theologian who opposed the Nazis during the Second World War and somehow survived. His was a crucial voice in the German church and nation as it struggled to its feet again after the trauma and destruction of those years. The big question Germany faced at the time was how a modern sophisticated Christian nation had been so easily seduced by evil? They also struggled with the question of shame. What were German Christians to do with the guilt that hung over them after the Nazi years? 

Thielicke was a brilliant preacher and drew huge crowds to his church in Hamburg. In one of his sermons he took as his text St Paul’s line, that Christians are “a letter from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, on tablets of human hearts.” He asked his congregation the question: what kind of letter are you? Is a Christian meant to be an advert for God? Is the Christian a shiny product of divine handiwork so that God, like some marketing agent, says ‘Look at her – isn’t she is fine person? Wouldn’t you like to be like her?’ 

When she was being feted by all, we might have said that about Paula Vennells. But not any more. And that’s the problem of celebrity Christians, or celebrities of any kind for that matter. They are used as adverts for the brand they profess, religious or otherwise: “Use this shampoo, follow this diet, believe this religion, like this celebrity does, and you could be like them.”  

Celebrities are celebrated because we believe they are different from us ordinary mortals. But sooner or later, it turns out they have the same temptations, their bodies sag, their flaws tend to get exposed in the extra scrutiny they face in a gossipy age like ours. The hunky priests in the calendar may look good but I suspect their lives are as shadowy and compromised as the rest of us. Every now and again you find a life that is remarkable, but even then there are dark corners. Mother Teresa famously said that she rarely experienced the presence of God and struggled with lifelong depression. If we are meant to be adverts for God, we’re not very good ones. 

Thielicke’s point was that Christians are not meant to be adverts for God but letters from him. And the letter, written on the human heart, says something like this: “Here is a poor, weak human being with their own strengths and frailties, moments of courage and moments of great weakness, struggling to live a good life but failing much of the time. And yet, despite that failure, God still forgives, accepts, loves and stands by them.”  

And forgiveness is not an excuse. It doesn’t say ‘it didn’t happen’, but it says, ‘it did happen’ and it was bad, but a new start is always possible.

It sounds scandalous I know. Hearing about the Post Office scandal, all we want is for the perpetrators to be found guilty and punished. And rightly so. Justice must be done. Paula Vennells and her staff seems to have stuck stubbornly to the laughable view that the Post Office had been infiltrated by hundreds of criminal sub-postmasters, intend on defrauding the public purse. They lacked the sense or courage to question their own IT system, despite being warned it was faulty.  

Yet divine and human justice work in different ways. Not least because God, unlike human judges, sees the dodgy things we all do, not just those whose sins get found out because they are in the public eye. Human justice systems must take their course, crimes must be punished, and attempts made to turn around the lives of those caught in patterns of criminality. Yet underneath human justice lies divine justice, which promises an ultimate judgment, even for those who escape human justice. Yet at the same time, it offers not just justice, but mercy - the gift of a more profound and ultimate forgiveness, which, if accepted, does not override the penalties of human justice, but enables the possibility of redemption in the longer term. 

Martin Luther often used a Latin phrase to describe Christians – that they are simul iustus et peccator - ‘at the same time righteous and sinful’. Like an alcoholic who is never encouraged to say that were an alcoholic, but that they are a recovering one, an honest Christian doesn’t say ‘I was a chronic worrier, greedy, someone who struggles with lust,’ but ‘I am such things, and yet faith in Jesus makes a difference in helping me not to be.’ St Paul once said: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.’  Not I was the worst, but I am. I remember Frank Bruno once saying “I’m not much of a Christian – I’ve been a sinner all my life.” He hadn’t quite understood - Christians are only ever recovering sinners.  

Paula Vennells and the others responsible for the Post Office scandal will have to face justice one day. It may, for some, even mean prison. But, as many in our prisons up and down the country know, lots of people find God in prison - not as a literal ‘get out of jail free card’ – the justice system doesn’t play Monopoly – but a realisation that however bad your crimes, however murky our misdemeanours or sly our sins, forgiveness is possible. And forgiveness is not an excuse. It doesn’t say ‘it didn’t happen’, but it says, ‘it did happen’ and it was bad, but a new start is always possible, and the love and forgiveness of God is available, even for the worst of people - for good-looking priests who struggle with temptation, for celebrities who fall from grace. Or even ordinary people like us.  

 

Article
Creed
4 min read

What would you do with one day more?

A leap year creates opportunities.

Jamie is Associate Minister at Holy Trinity Clapham, London.

Looking straight down on someone sitting in an armchair working on a laptop. They are surrounded by clock numerals and hands on the floor.
Kevin Ku on Unsplash.

We're all going into extra time. If you've found yourself thinking, 'If only I had some more time', then this is the year for you. Congratulations. So how are you going to make the most of the extra day we're gifted? In a leap year, the 29th February square sits quietly there on the calendar, with little fanfare, unless you're one of the unfortunate souls to be celebrating your quadrennial birthday. But it's not just another Thursday. It's redemption time if you've ever flown east across the international date line and wondered where that day disappeared, never to return. 

When you think about extra time in football, the pressure is only heightened, the anticipation and trepidation palpable. Willy Wonka - no, not the recent foppish Timothée Chalamet, but Gene Wilder – famously got muddled when he feverishly announced, 'We have so much time, and so little to do!' Unlike Otis Redding, sittin' on the dock of the bay, wasting time, we have learnt to squeeze more and more into our days, making the most of the time. 

I'm not immune. I've recently begun using an AI app for scheduling meetings and tasks. This app promises to turbocharge my productivity by 137 per cent. Somehow it boasts, 'There are now 13 months in a year'. Of course, there's little way of measuring just how super-duper-extra-productive this is going to make me but so far, I still seem to only have seven days in my week. So, if we were to stop spinning on our hamster wheels of productivity for a moment, and take a look at time (given with this extra day we have the time to do so), how might we make the most of it? 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. 

It's worth measuring not only how much time we have, but the quality of the time we have. We know how to measure time, but how do we measure this measure? Time is of the essence. But what is the essence of time? For Charles Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times went hand-in-hand. The apostle Paul warned the church in Ephesus to make the most of every opportunity, 'because the days are evil'. Is time neutral? Perhaps we should ask the women and children of Afghanistan after the Doha agreement was signed on the last 29th February, with ominous consequences. Every day has the capacity for good and evil, including in a leap year. And if the days are evil, then as we consider how we live, as the King James Version puts it, that we can 'redeem the time'. 

Then there's not only redeeming the time in terms of its quality, but also its quantity. Eventually, one day (quite some time away), HS2 will mean there's 32 minutes 'saved' for those travelling between Birmingham and London. And how many times have you said or heard recently that you've 'run out of time'? Our society treats time as a scarce commodity. There's regret over the time that we have wasted on an unworthy Netflix offering, on doom-scrolling, or that time in the post office queue we'll never get back. 

I recently went to a memorial service of a friend who died in her early 60s. It was not only a sober reminder that we don't know how much time we have, but also an inspiration to live like someone who made the most of her days, by helping others to make the most of their time. 

The essence of time must mean both its quality and its quantity. Richard Curtis' film About Time invites us into the relationship between a father and son who have the power to travel through time. While the lesson learnt is that we have the power to make the most of every day, the bulk of the film is really about the relationship. Any time he wants, the son can escape back to Cornwall and play table tennis or skim pebbles along the water with his dad. These experiences beyond his own linear timeline teach him how to live in his present reality. 

Christianity also invites us to live in the love between a Father and a Son, and from that place we keep time. Jesus spoke about eternal life: not only a quantity of life beyond death, but a quality of life that we can experience beginning today. Sure, we can't escape the reality of any of the worst times around us, but we can invite the best of times of eternity into today. Maybe our relationship with time is so fraught because we were made to live beyond time. 

The wristband on my watch recently fell apart. I suppose you could say I've been walking around without time on my hands. Time doesn't need to be elusive, slipping away from us. Time, just like the day, can be seized and grasped. King David wrote of God: 'my times are in your hands'. A leap year gives us a whole extra day of deadlines, potential ephemeral joys and sorrows. Perhaps putting our hope not in today, nor tomorrow, but into the hands of the maker of time is the greatest leap.