Towards the end of last year, the head of the government’s historic child abuse inquiry was forced to step down because she was on ‘dinner party terms’ with an establishment figure whose actions she was mandated to scrutinize.
At the time, I raised my eyes at the notion of being on ‘dinner party terms’ because it seemed so brilliantly middle class and establishment, but my smug ironic smile came back to bite me when I realised how frequently I’d alluded to the same concept myself. When meeting new people and working out where our worlds intersect, I’ve definitely used the ‘people-I’ve-met-at-dinner-parties’ category to situate others within my social network. Never quite the revolutionary I aspire to be.
I found myself contemplating how fair it is to judge people on the company they keep. Is it ok to assume that having dinner parties with someone automatically means we sing from the same hymn sheet? Can you disagree with the people you share meals with? And is it actually possible to offer an impartial critique of the actions of people you actually know?
While the bar is understandably high in the case of child abuse investigations, I know that I for one would rather not be judged by my dinner party associations. It tends to be at dinner parties where those awkward moments crop up. Conversation drifts into The Immigration Issue and inevitably someone will turn to me, as one who ‘works with refugees’, and say “Emily, what do you think about all these Polish people?” I never know where to begin my response. Should I go down the route of trying to differentiate between internal European migration and the particularities of asylum seekers to show why I’m not necessarily an all round immigration expert, or should I capitalise on my moment of perceived expertise to try to introduce a new perspective into an unhelpfully polarised debate? It must take more than dipping crisps into the same tub of hummus to really unite us.
And it’s at dinner parties where I tend to feel most conscious of the school I went to and the job I do, where I realise that class still exists and that society, in London at least, is very much divided along socio-economic terms. It’s often at dinner parties where I wish I’d got a really good answer to the person who ends a superficial conversation by staring wistfully into their glass of malbec and saying that they wish they could do what I do as if there’s a deep secret to making career choices that value time, enjoyment of work and a commitment to the common good as much as, if not more so, than money. And it’s at dinner parties where I feel like an actor and a fraud, wishing that I could be honest with both others and myself about the fact that I’m actually really jealous that they all own property in zone 2, go skiing every year and don’t think twice about getting taxis.
Don’t get me wrong. I generally really like going to dinner parties and am always up for nice food and wine, for getting to know a new and different set of people, and engaging in intellectually-satisfying and enjoyable conversation. It’s just that I don’t think I’d like to be judged solely on the basis of the people I’m on ‘dinner party terms’ with.
Dinner parties are one thing, but what do I do with those other meals where my association with people becomes way more complex? Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread. Dinner party angst multiplied.
I share that one bread with people with whom I often strongly disagree. We emerge from different echelons of society, have made different lifestyle choices and often have different political opinions. And yet these are people to whom – like it or not – I am now inextricably connected, by and in One who came to break down dividing walls of hostility. Unlike those who I’m on ‘dinner party terms’ with, these are people I see week after week, who I am mandated to love and be bothered about, whose flourishing is inextricably connected to my own, and whose corporate witness is part of the plan.
It’s so not how I would have done it, but I can appreciate its brilliance when it actually works; when imperfect people are brought to the same level, stripped of the attributes which society reckons bestow worth, then raised up, welcomed, valued and united. It’s beautiful in theory but it’s just not easy when you disagree quite fundamentally on how a shared faith translates itself into practice.
So many questions! How do you foster open debate about the areas that lack clarity and what is the best format for voicing dissention without walking away? How do you discern the truth then speak it in love, seeking to edify rather than to bring down? How do you value unity and peace while also saying ‘not in my name’ to decisions with which you disagree?
Join us, said a friend, in response to my blog posts which he described as open letters to that particular community. These blog posts had charted my issues, from my disagreement with our measurements of progress to my dislike of ‘our’ English flag. Don’t just write, he said, bring those perspectives into the internal discussions we’re having.
So I did. But what, I wondered, would be the pitfalls of putting myself into contexts where these issues are discussed and my voice asked to speak. Would I just be buying into the establishment and would it be harder to critique from the inside? Would my perspectives be amplified or would their challenging edge be eroded?
A friend laughed at me the other day for even asking these things. Over the meal he kindly bought me, funded by his unapologetically profit-maximizing role and founded on a friendship which proves that areas of divergence don’t have the last word, he teased my self-induced quandaries and reckoned that I should just accept that I am part of the establishment and not worry so much. The problem is that I just can’t.
I can’t because I’m sure it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Weren’t we supposed to be a radically counter cultural community where otherwise marginalised people are bestowed the most honour, where the poor are fed, where strangers are welcomed in, where mess is redeemed? Shouldn’t this be a place where the things that make me feel out of place at a dinner party don’t matter because my worth isn’t be based on what I do or what I have? Doesn’t our worldview transcend all this superficial stuff and give us confidence to live by faith because we have, for all eternity no less, everything that matters?
But it all just looks the same. I’m no more at home here than I am out there. I’m tired of the same topics of conversation which bombard me during the week. Tired of talk of house prices, marriage, career aspirations, aspirations to social mobility and holiday plans. Tired of it all being about us and seeming so mediocre on the grand scheme of things. Tired of discussing the gaps in our budget and how to increase the support of high net worth individuals but, in doing so, somehow disparaging the small offerings that are all that others can bring. Tired of feeling like I’m part of a club which is only actually enjoyable if you have children to outsource on a Sunday. Tired of my inertia. Tired of me.
It’s all just the same except here it seems to hurt more because this should be home (or maybe I’m hoping for too much). Tears prick my eyes because I long for authenticity, whatever that really is. (Or maybe this actually does feel like life in its fullness for everyone else?). I’m sure there is brokenness out there but I can’t see it. (Or maybe I should jump on the healing bandwagon that says I should expect it all now and pursue that more wholeheartedly?). This is where I want to grapple with injustice, disappointment, regret and paradox with other people who are also trying to figure out the now and the not yet; to be fed, realigned, and cheered on. Surely the feast we celebrate together shouldn’t be trying to mirror the trappings of our culture to impress society’s crème de la crème but should be full of those who came in from the highways and byways because the establishment didn’t want to be there.
And if we look just the same as the establishment, what right do we have to challenge it? Like the head of the child abuse investigations who was deemed too close to those she was investigating to carry out her great commission with integrity and impartiality, should we be called to step down too? How can we advocate for an alternative paradigm when we’re so heavily invested in this one? And how can we get back on track to being an incarnated, culturally-located, and yet distinctive, community which is so beautiful and compelling that we wouldn’t even need to try because everyone would already want to be there?
I know that I’m hungry, but I just can’t eat here right now. I know that this, whatever this really is, will replenish me, but it sticks in my throat. And, for possibly the first time ever, I find myself struggling to remember the point or see the way forward.