When our granddaughter was seven, I began teaching her English spelling and grammar; and crashed almost immediately. We struggled for weeks, with her becoming more and more resistant. One day, we had bitter tears over the spelling of a word; one that didn’t follow the rule that she’d learnt only the week before. And I had my light bulb moment.
Our problem was that we had a kid with a black and white view of the world trying to cope with a subject that came in shades of every colour of the rainbow. She knew that rules were made to be obeyed, and here was her own grandmother was telling her to break them. Was I lying to her? Was I a subversive? How could she trust a world in which the song said ‘i’ came before ‘e’ , and all around her were words that reversed the proper order of things!
We banned the word ‘rule’ from our English lessons. English had patterns, I told her. Different words fitted into different pattern groups, depending on where they came from. Patterns had various effects on meaning. The more patterns she learned, the more clearly she would be able to communicate with others. My craft-talented grandchild, already familiar with the concept of using a pattern to make something, and of adapting it to make something else, immediately understood. And we never looked back.
That whole episode was a revelation to me. I’m a congenital fence sitter – a shades of grey person. I have no trouble with the concept that the term ‘rules’ has multiple meanings. But there are many people out there who struggle with the idea. The rules are the rules, they’ll say. And give the same weight to the rule ‘do not kill’, the rule ‘say grace before meals’, and the rule ‘cover your head in church’.
It seems to me that there are layers of rules, rippling out from a solid centre. There are laws built into the fabric of our universe – the laws of physics. There are rules for decent community living – do not kill, look after your old people, protect the weak. There are cultural traditions – don’t sit without being invited (or sit straight away so that your head is lower than your leader, depending on your culture). There are social habits – put the knife on the right of the plate, and the fork on the left. There are family practices – open the Christmas presents after breakfast. There are game rules – such as for card and board games, and sports – that set the parameters for two or more people to carry out the same activity.
Rules are a good thing. They help people to get along with one another. They let people know what to do and what to expect so that they can put their energies into enjoying the activity. But if you behave as if the rules of Scrabble are backed by armies of angels or the civil justice system, you’re heading for a disappointment.
It seems to me that many of the arguments between the Church and its critics (internal and external) circle round and round the term ‘rule’, miring the discussion in mutual incomprehension because one or both parties fails to understand what level of rule they’re talking about. Married clergy – clearly not an immutable law of physics, nor a rule for decent community living. Is it a practice, a habit, or a tradition? What about the election of a Pope? The Order of the Mass? The governance of a diocese or a parish?
(The title of this piece comes from the joke ‘I don’t drink as a rule; as a habit I do, but not as a rule’.)