Speaking truth to authority, conscience and getting your retaliation in first.

I asked my students to write a short reflection on ethics or values from their early years that they hold on to or think about now. Then I thought I would have a go at my own attempt at it and here it is

I have a vivid memory from my teenage years. Walking out from Church I see my mum standing on the steps of the Church talking, with great, and perhaps fierce passion to the priest who had just led the service. I used to be an Altar Server so would have to do all the clearing up before coming out to join my parents in the gathering that would take place out front before folk went to their homes. Mum was putting the priest straight on something he had said during his sermon. Clearly, he had got something wrong and he needed correction. This is an I often remember. I can’t remember what she was talking about, or where he had gone wrong. But the idea that my Mum, would happily challenge the priest and put him straight in public in that way was quite thrilling. We laugh about that now. But it taught me something about authority, and when you had to put it right. It was also a lesson on the different ways of going about things when you wanted to try and put someone right.

A second powerful idea that I continue to hold onto came from my Jesuit teachers. I went to a Jesuit school – a quite strict Catholic school with lots of walking on the left, lots of emphasis on behaviour and lots of religion. It was a London boy’s schools. We probably needed a lot of emphasis on behaviour. But the Jesuits didn’t just teach me to obey. They taught me that above all other things is conscience. You have to do and say what you truly believe is right, even when others disagree. You must inform it and educate it but ultimately your conscience is uppermost. Not blind obedience but conscience. In relation to this, I remember the quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman,” I will toast the Pope, but I will toast conscience first.” It seems to me that whenever we talk about integrity or values, conscience must be right in the middle of all of that.

A third powerful idea comes from my father. He would always say “you need to get your retaliation in first.” This was commonly in relation to rugby where the key thing is to drive into the other guy rather than let him drives into you, especially right at the start of the game so everyone knows where they stand. First contact sets the scene. Now, of course, there is a contradiction about getting your retaliation in first. It’s like advance self-defence, pre-attack! I know exactly what Dad meant by that. And I have always wondered if he wasn’t really only talking about rugby. I think he has always seen life through the prism of sport. He was a PE teacher. I wonder if somewhere he was also trying to encourage me to be bold in life. Well, that’s what I take from it.

I doubt these are the only things I have taken from my early years. But they are things which I continue to draw strength from. And I tell my children about them.

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