If you have been following the news, you will have picked up on Allegra Stratton having not only attended a Christmas event in Downing Street last year in contravention of the rules, whilst everyone was locked down and unable to see their families, but also on video making light of the whole situation in a mock press interview defending the event.
You can view the original clip of that rehearsal briefing, four days after the Downing Street party, and the teary resignation that came yesterday in the video thread below:
The issue is quite a simple one. Whilst the government were telling the country to obey certain rules, there were a number working for them disobeying them. They then lied about what they had done. They then lied to the Prime Minister (allegedly) who defended them as having ‘kept the rules’. It then came out that they had actively broken the rules and were willing to lie about having done so. I suspect it is the crime of making the Prime Minister defend what is fundamentally indefensible that finally cooked her goose.
What has surprised me, however, is the speed at which her teary resignation led a number of people to immediately claim to feel sorry for her. She is now being publicly shamed for this transgression. And the spectre of mob rule and cancel culture lurk in the background. Isn’t this just more evidence of our graceless society that offers no way back, even for the penitent?
I think, however, these takes are suffering from an over-correction problem. It is true that social media has helped to fuel something of a graceless society. It isn’t solely, or necessarily primarily, responsible for that but it certainly is at play. We live in a society now that is quick to ban, slow to forgive and rarely offers any way back for the publicly shamed. These things really do sit uncomfortably for those of us who know the reality of grace from a God who has every right to be upset and angry with us, but who nevertheless offers forgiveness freely to the repentant.
The problem is that same God, whose grace we love, is also a God of justice. Whilst there is grace for the penitent, there is also consequences for sin. Whilst the Lord offers a way back to him, he doesn’t do so at the expense of justice. Indeed, sin has consequences, even if grace may provide a way back to God from the dark paths of sin (as the old hymn put it).
What does this mean in Allegra Stratton’s case? What concerns me is the immediate response of some that this is public shaming and further example of the graceless, unforgiving society that we have created. My question to those who think that is simply this, then what should happen? Should her breaking of the rules everyone else was asked to follow, at great cost to many, and her subsequent lies in the face of doing so, have no consequences at all because she was teary at the consequences? Her tears did not appear to be genuine repentance, for she did not fess up until after the video was made public and after she had lied to her colleagues and the Prime Minister (allegedly). Her tears appeared to bee regret at what was now unfolding.
Does that mean I am peddling the graceless, unforgiving societal norms to which we have become accustomed? I don’t think so. Because unless the current societal approach to misdemeanours, which seems largely to consist of a casting out with no possibility of returning ever again, I do not believe these things ought to be final. I do believe genuine repentance should lead to the possibility of restoration. However, unlike a number of comments I have read, I do not believe in cheap grace. I do not think that because somebody welled up with tears and said sorry that there ought not to be any consequences. Repentance can come, a means of restoration might be available in time, but I cannot see how it is remotely just to simply overlook these things because somebody uttered an apology having been caught out.
Let me give an alternative example. If I – as a minister of the gospel – had an affair on my wife, it would not be credible for me to merely utter an apology and expect to keep my job. That doesn’t mean the Lord is forever finished with me if I am genuinely repentant. It doesn’t mean that there is no way that I can ever be restored to church membership again. But the reality is, I will (rightly) lose my job if I do that. It is not ‘cancel culture’ to face the entirely appropriate and just consequences of that course of sinful action. If I happened to lose my family because of it – whilst there might be some hope that genuine repentance might lead to some form of reconciliation – it is not graceless and unforgiving for that to happen. It would be entirely just. These are simply the natural, and appropriate, consequences of my sinful choice.
In the same way, I struggle to feel all that sorry for Allegra Stratton. I have no doubt she regrets what she has done because it has, in the end, cost her dearly. But given that she has erred – and seriously at that – it is just and right for her to lose her job over it. If we are arguing that a teary and somewhat feeble apology ought to stay the consequences, it is hard not to perceive that as cheap grace. It is grace that costs nothing. It is, ultimately, unjust. At the same time, I do not believe this means she can never ever repent and return to some sort of post. The issue of our graceless society that says one wrong move and you’re done forever is a real one that creates a climate of fear. One slip up and you’re out, never to return, is not a happy place to be; even if you haven’t yet let your foot slip. It feels like only a matter of time until the axe falls. This is no response either.
As is often the case, it is a matter of finding a balance. Nobody wants to live in a society free of consequences for even the most egregious sin. How unjust would it be for the father and step-mother of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes to simply walk free because they cried and said they were really very sorry? There would, entirely rightly, be uproar at the injustice. At the same time, nobody wants to live in a society that insists one wrong move and you will never again be allowed back into public life. One private, off-colour comment, one youthful indiscretion, one deeply regretted and repented action, but you are forever cast out. This creates a climate of fear and shows a deep lack of grace.
As such, I think we need a balance. This means that actions must, necessarily, have reasonable and proportionate consequences. In certain cases, and in certain roles, that will inevitably mean losing your job because of your choices. At the same time, such things ought not to be the final word. Whilst there may need to be a suitable and appropriate time where such consequences play out, there must be room for repentance and restoration. Even prisoners are eventually let out of prison and, if we can bring ourselves to consider it right to let people back into society who were once deemed a danger to others, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable to eventually allow people who have said and done unwise or inappropriate things back into public life.
But we do need both. It is no good merely calling for justice without grace; that is torture. It is no good calling for grace without justice; that is unfair. Rather, we need to hold justice in tension with grace. Actions inevitably have consequences but those consequences need not be the ultimate and final word.