Sermon at Evensong of the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2019

On being economical with the truth

The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archdeacon of Westminster

Sunday, 1st September 2019 at 3.00 PM

Even if you’re not really interested in politics, the events that are going to take place over the next few days across the road are going to be immensely intriguing.

Can MPs seize the initiative in parliament and, if they do, will they be able to agree on what to do after that? Many hard words have been said and many accusations made, but I would like to highlight just three:

Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn has been regularly accused of lying about whether he called for Article 50, to be invoked quickly following the Brexit vote.

Secondly, Kenneth Clarke, Father of the House, has accused Boris Johnson of telling blatant lies as he vowed to stage a revolt to stop Britain crashing out of the EU.

Thirdly, the head of Channel 4 News, Dorothy Byrne, sparked a furore last week by saying that Boris Johnson is a known liar.

In a speech she argued that journalists should not be afraid to call lies what they are, instead of using euphemisms like ‘strange claims’ or being 'economical with the truth'.

As you can imagine this speech drew a very angry reaction from The Prime Minister’s supporters. Boris Johnson cancelled interviews with Channel 4 and then one of Theresa May’s former spin doctors stepped in and said, calling Boris Johnson a known liar was not acceptable.

Now days being economical with the truth has become almost a jokey euphemism for the political lie, a cosy insider's phrase for the disingenuousness, that is now accepted as part and parcel of political life.

With so much scandal in the air I would like now to turn our attention to the business of being economical with the truth, or to put it more starkly, not telling the truth.

Let me first paint a vivid picture for you: You’re standing at a fork in the road, and a man runs past. Not long after, another man comes running up, muttering "I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him", and carrying an axe.

He asks you "Which way did he go?" If you don’t answer, the odds are fifty-fifty that the mad axeman will make the right choice.

So you have to lie, and point the wrong way. You may have saved someone’s life, but lying is wrong.

How do we square this circle? Most secular philosophers are utilitarians, and would say you simply have to draw up a balance sheet. The good done by saving a life outweighs the harm in the lie itself. So lies are justified if good comes of them.

But consider this one: A businessman was engaged in a hush-hush takeover that would greatly advance the value of his company’s shares. He was a devout Christian and took a high moral view of business life. 

But when a friend known to be a stock-exchange speculator, asked him if the rumours of a take-over were true, he felt he had no choice but to deny it.

Your utilitarian would have to say that before we can decide whether the lie was justified or not, we have to see what the speculator would do with the money he might make. If he gave it to relieve starvation in Africa, for instance, that was ok.

So on that basis perhaps the businessman should not have denied the take-over rumours. This is where the crude utilitarian argument breaks down; this is what leads to spin-doctoring, and worse.

If the government says that despite severe cutbacks some public services are improving, how do we know whether to believe them or not?

There is an older tradition, basically Judeo-Christian, that says a lie is always an offence against the moral order and therefore never justified, not even a white lie.

So do we have to tell the mad axeman which way his victim ran off? Not necessarily.

People are certainly entitled to the truth and in many ways that is what speech is for.

But now and again someone demands an answer who has manifestly no right to the truth for instance because he wants to use it to murder somebody.

In that case there can be no obligation to tell him the truth. Strictly speaking, it isn’t even lying.

Similarly the stock exchange speculator had no right to the truth about highly confidential take-over talks. What he intended to do with the profit is neither here nor there.

But these are rare exceptions. The rest of the time, the right to the truth prevails.

I find this argument a much better guide than the utilitarian one about ends justifying means. And if it sounds just a bit too ordered and structured, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

But if we return to the political storm across the road (the political turmoil that has now totally invaded our national life) we see it has provoked a degree of understandable cynicism that makes trust an almost saintly virtue.

Lower standards coupled with little regard for truthfulness, makes it more and more difficult for us to develop the kind of judgment necessary for trust to be lucid.

Both undermine the space in which we must all try to learn again the importance of political virtue and what it can mean for politics to be a vocation. It’s now getting more and more difficult for people to find the truth in politics.

Too many people have too much at stake for the lies they are telling with the result that many ordinary people are left accepting things that just feel true.

In such a climate, making rational choices really does become much more difficult.

But a crucial point is this: deep down we know that what we choose determines who we become. Choosing what is good changes us, and empowers us to grow in Christian character.

The more we do what is good, the freer we actually become. With this in mind it’s good for us to remember that the most important of the natural laws, according to Aquinas, is the law that rational creatures should seek and honour the truth.

As Christians we seem to know instinctively that ultimate truth is somehow related to the existence of God.

In fact, it is interesting that those who deny the existence of God are the same ones who say there is no absolute truth and that everything is relative.

But something deep within us says this is not so, something tells us that God exists and that he holds the key to truth.