It is the Tea Party in the United States. Will it be flower power in England? Dating from 1089, Gloucester Cathedral is a sprawling jewel of stately Christian architecture, its agglomeration of spires, balustrades, stained glass, and fan vaulting bespeaking a settled, ancient respectability. But who knows what evil lurks behind that seemingly staid exterior? That’s what worried the Dean of the Cathedral. So, bending to bureaucratic pressure from London—really, its from the statist Zeitgeist—he has insisted that everyone who volunteers to work in the cathedral undergo a criminal background check courtesy of the Criminal Records Bureau. The slightly doddering chaps and ladies who greet you at the door, for example: most of them aren’t too swift on their feet anymore, but better get them all checked out at taxpayer expense just in case any pedophiles are among their number.
That’s the main—at least, that’s the announced—worry: pedophiles! You never know when or where they will pop up. As a precaution, the Dean (probably again bowing to “official” pressure and possibly advice from the Cathedral lawyers) no long permits guides, no matter how thoroughly vetted by the crb, to accompany visitors to the crypt except in pairs. (Is that policy really sensible? Has the Dean never heard of ménages à trois?) The focus of the crb’s interest is not just Gloucester, of course. Their tentacles extend over the whole of Great Britain. Millions of people—millions—have been subjected to the checks. Anyone who works with, or near, children excites their interest. And everyone, like the greeters at Gloucester Cathedral, whom they have tapped for background checks has meekly complied with barely an ovine baa.
Until now. Having satisfied himself that the geriatric Cathedral greeters and guides did not conceal any pedophiles—or at least, having satisfied himself that he was indemnified against criticism by capitulating to this latest instance of state intrusiveness—the Dean turned his eye (which we assume to be beady) upon the fifty-odd cathedral flower arrangers. He should have thought twice. This doughty group of ladies of a certain age is not to be trifled with. At least twenty-three members of the Gloucester Cathedral Flower Guild are refusing to go along with the insulting, pointless, wasteful exercise. Led by Annabel Hayter, a sixty-four-year-old housewife who chairs the Guild and has volunteered at the Cathedral for fifteen years, the rebels have been engaged in an eleven-month standoff with the authorities. Matters came to a head last month when officials from the Cathedral went to Hayter’s home and told her to cease and desist. “‘They say I offered my resignation but that’s rubbish. I was fired,” Hayter said in a story in The Daily Mail.
This was not the first time Cathedral workers were asked to submit en masse to a criminal background check. The first time was five years ago. “I agreed,” Hayter said, “because we had only three months before a flower festival.” This time around she and many other volunteers put their collective foot down. “Why do I have to show my bank statement and my passport to some official?” Hayter asks. The flower arrangers don’t even work with children or “vulnerable adults.” Ah, but they share a bathroom with the choir, which consists of young, ergo “vulnerable,” boys. The flower arrangers and the choristers are not even in the cathedral at the same time except for once a year on Maundy Thursday when there is a special service, but no matter: you can’t be too careful!
Or too intrusive. It’s not just “pedophile paranoia” (as one disgusted commentator put it) that troubles the Dean. He recently ordered a “risk assessment” of workers at the Cathedral and, lo and behold, the flower arrangers were at risk! “I asked to see it,” Hayter said, “but they told me it was private and confidential chapter business.” As the Mail points out, crb checks have become more and more surreal:
Cleaners, home helps, Sunday school teachers, children’s football referees, weight-loss instructors and St. John Ambulance volunteers are among the nine million people subject to the vetting procedure. . . . There have been instances of fathers being banned from attending their children’s sports days because they haven’t undergone proper checks. Some parents have found themselves barred from helping at school nativity plays.
The tab for this insanity? We don’t know what it costs British taxpayers, but charities and voluntary organizations have spent £350 million complying with the inquiries.
The Mail describes the crb checks as “pointless,” but that is not quite accurate. They are preposterous. They are also, as Hayter remarked, “insulting.” But they have a very serious point. It’s not the ostensible point, i.e., to protect children from marauding pedophiles—no, the real point is to advance the arbitrary extension of state power into everyday life. If an entity called the “Criminal Records Bureau” demands that you undergo a background check, the presumption is you might be—anyone might be—a criminal. It’s a matter of “guilty until proven innocent” (which no one really ever is).
It’s also a matter subordinating life to state bureaucracy. They decide who needs to be checked and who doesn’t. Many other cathedrals in England, for example, have (so far) escaped the scrutiny of the crb. The arbitrariness heightens the uncertainty which heightens the sense of helplessness which increases the dependency on the state. Later in this issue, we publish several essays on the future of the Anglosphere and its defining values. Individual freedom; limitations on state power; a uniform and transparent application of the law: those are among the core values of the Anglosphere. They are everywhere being traduced today, but something strange has begun to happen. In the United States, ordinary citizens have banded together under the once-ridiculed banner “Tea Party.”
The ridicule, if not the dislike, shifted noticeably in November when this loosely affiliated group demonstrated that its opposition to big government and rule-by-elites was more than an entertaining political sideshow. The case of Annabel Hayter and the Gloucester flower-arranging ladies has garnered widespread press coverage in Britain. “The trouble with the English,” Hayter said, “is that they’re like sheep: they’re told what to do and they just do it.” But she didn’t. Neither did several of her colleagues-among-the-blooms at the Cathedral. Perhaps the absurd assault on freedom and dignity has finally gone too far. The Tea Party has opened up the possibility of serious political change in the United States. Perhaps flower power will do something similar in the United Kingdom.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 5, on page 2
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