Today I interviewed Father William who is the Vicar at St John's church in Notting Hill, London. He is a lovely man, warm and thoughtful with a devoted flock and a deeply appreciative staff. In my twenty years of living in London he is the only vicar who has ever invited me to church. And so I went. I was thrilled with the sermon - the essence was the imporance of community to us as individuals. As he says, "...outside our relation, we are not."
This, too, is the heart of that matter, for him, where virtue is concerned.
In summary, Father William believes that virtuous acts are actions we do that benefit other people and that require some cost to ourselves. Paying taxes, in his view, is an act of virtue! Cost to ourselves for what we hope is benefitting society as a whole. What makes it attractive for us to do things for other people at some cost to ourselves, ironically, is what we get in return: a sense of community, without which we will lead lonely, sad lives and risk ending our days in isolation. In addition, being in a community makes it easier for us to do virtuous things for that community - and so the virtuous circle is created.
How do we embed virtue?
It is the responsibility of both individuals and institutions to create and help create connections and, thus, to stimulate the virtuous circle. Individuals must recognise that there may be more people in their lives who will be pleased to hear from them than they may necessarily think. It is up to the individual actively to forge those connections: re-contacting people with whom they may have lost touch and/or more actively connecting with the people in their lives, performing acts of service, however small, with no thought of compensation. Father William challenges all individuals to do what they can for others rather than ask what others can do for them. It is up to the institution to encourage, to facilitate, to provide a connecting point, and to give guidance on the foundations of the relationships as that institution sees them. The institution can have a profound impact on the individual but the individual can never delegate responsibility away from themselves.
I challenged Father William to tell me how he interacts with both his flock and his peers to embed virtue. Responding about his flock, Father William is clear: it is all about encouraging his parishoners to increase the size of their own and the church's community. To that end, St John's is a church in which people are required to achieve things together and are asked to invite their friends and neighbours to church, that being the best way to increase the size of the community. His peers, he maintains, present a more difficult challenge. He believes that the clergy do not always work well together. They are a profession, like any other, and professional rivalry and jealousy often get in the way of developing global solutions.
In summary, it comes down to individuals in their local community. There they have the real sense of caring and being cared for that fosters virtuous behaviour.
For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries please see an earlier post:
Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)