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Bishop Martin Seeley reflects on trust – and how it can be lost and won

Trust is fundamental to pretty much everything we do. The greater the trust, the better the world is, and when it breaks down the ramifications, in whatever aspect of life, are far reaching.

Trust is at work in everything about us – our families, friendships, workplace, whether we order online or purchase in a shop, when we call the electrician, or call the police. It is there when we drive our car, when we get on a bus, when we ask for help from a neighbour, see the doctor, send our children to school, when we vote.

Trust is an essential component of every dimension of our lives, and we take it for granted, just assume it is there, most of the time, until, of course, something happens to destroy it. We know how long it takes to build trust. We instinctively look for signs to help us decide whether someone, or a company or organisation, is trustworthy.

The Right Rev Martin Seeley Bishop of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
The Right Rev Martin Seeley Bishop of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich

We rely on others whom we trust, we rely on our first or second or third impressions, we rely on how they behave in small matters before we trust them in something bigger.

Think of how friendships develop, growing in trust over time.

And we know, too, how quickly trust can be dashed.

“Trust arrives on foot, and flees on horseback.”

Losing trust is devastating, because it is so hard to rebuild, and may indeed be impossible to do so. We see that friendships, in marriages, where trust has been broken.

I have been thinking a good deal about trust this past couple of years, as we move through the experience of the pandemic, and as we see where trust has risen and fallen across our society. I have been thinking specifically about it first of all in the life of the Church. After all, faith, any religious faith, is based on trust – having faith is not the same as knowing something for certain. Prayer, for example, is an act of trust. Faith is a form of trust, trusting that what you have seen in others and they have told you about the faith, what you have read in scripture and other books, and what your own experience suggests, is true, true enough to base your life on. Thinking about the essential place of trust in my faith has helped me become alert to the essential role of trust in our lives, from the mundane to the sublime. And plenty of writers on the subject identify factors that are essential for trust to work, on any level.

I’ll just mention a couple of those factors: goodwill, and integrity.

We trust those whom we believe are on our side, have goodwill towards us, or we believe are working for good, for the greater good. We trust those who, if you like, will be good for us.

There is this positive ingredient in trust. We might be able to rely on someone who is persistently unkind to be unkind – it would be a surprise if they weren’t – but we don’t trust them to be that way. We trust those who are persistently kind.

And we can also think of all sorts of examples where we suddenly begin to wonder whether this group or organisation really shares our concerns, our values and goals.

The second factor for trust is integrity. We trust those who live and act with integrity. They do what they say they are going to do, or at least attempt to do it, and behave in ways consistent with the values their role requires of them. Which means not lying.

By the time you read this, the Government civil servant Sue Gray will have published her report on the allegations of parties held by government officials during lockdown restrictions. I can’t quite see how she will tell us much more than we have been told already, but perhaps she will cast light on who might have been responsible.

The spotlight has been turned by the media on the prime minister, and that may well turn out to be where it needs to shine. But what has struck me through all of this is that a great deal more people in various settings seem to have been implicated than just one man. And it makes me wonder about the sense of responsibility to be trustworthy felt by those Government officials who may have been involved. It does take more than one person to have a party. What happened to their sense of serving the good of the nation, and their sense of integrity and truthfulness if – and I mean if – it turns out they thought having a party the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, in strict lockdown, was appropriate?

And what happens to any of us called to public office – I recognise requirement in relation to myself – to make us think that breaking rules out of sight is ever acceptable, and will not be subject to the strongest discipline?

So the question I am left with is, if these events did take place even partly as they have been reported, how did this decay of trustworthy behaviour happen? And now, how will trust be restored? After all, trust arrives on foot, and flees on horseback.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich