Honesty and Deceit. Why do we care?
Just three years and four months ago (on 7th February 2020), a tearful Phillip Schofield ‘came out’ as homosexual on ‘This Morning’ – the ITV show he co-hosted with Holly Willoughby. He spoke of his wife of 27 years, Stephanie Lowe, and their two adult children, saying they would always be a family and asking for people to be kind to them. He said he had been speaking with them about his homosexuality for some time and that: “We have gone through this together. We have been very open and very honest”. He also told how his mother had greeted the news when he told her in person with the words, “I don’t care”.[i] His family, and Stephanie’s, had, he said, “stunned me with their love, instant acceptance and support”. In his written statement, posted to Instagram, Schofield wrote: “"Every day on This Morning, I sit in awe of those we meet who have been brave and open in confronting their truth - so now it's my turn to share mine. This will probably all come as something of a surprise and I understand, but only by facing this, by being honest, can I hope to find peace in my mind and a way forward”.
The reason he had chosen to ‘come out’, Schofield said to Willoughby, was not to do with external pressure but a need to resolve internal struggle for honesty: "All you can be in life, is honest with yourself. And I was getting to the point when I knew I wasn't honest with myself. I was getting to the point where I didn't like myself very much because I wasn't being honest with myself”. He told her he was not in a relationship with anyone else and insisted that finding a new partner was low on his list of priorities. Holly, said she could feel the relief, hugged him and said, “I will be by your side forever”. Subsequently, she posted a photograph of her and Schofield on Instagram with the words: "Never been more proud of my friend than I am today”.
Schofield was widely praised by celebrities for his courage and honesty in coming out.[ii] In a BBC Radio 4 interview on Saturday Morning Live several months later, Schofield was asked by Rev Richard Coles how he imagined the future with his new understanding of his identity. He replied, “I don’t actually know if I’m honest – and that’s what I try to be. I have no clue. I’m living every day as it comes. We all are. We all love each other. We all see each other. We’re all talking to each other. We’re immensely loving and it’s kind. […] As a family we’ll take that forward.” It was a beautiful picture of a family supporting a man in doing what our culture tells us we should do – being true to our inner selves.
The key words in Schofield’s statements to Willoughby, to Coles and on Instagram were ‘honest’, ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’. His declaration that he was being honest with himself and others resonates with our contemporary culture, in which authenticity is the buzzword.[iii] Schofield was the poster boy for a cultural conviction that we must be true to ourselves, not only internally but also in public. This is what American sociologist Robert Bellah calls ‘expressive individualism’, which he defines as the belief that, “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized”.[iv] This is a development from the already-established mantra of self-actualisation, which adds to the principle that we should discover our true selves the conviction that we can only do so by expressing what we find to the world. According to this principle, it may be painful for his family, but Schofield had to express his unique emotional core by coming out.
There was just one problem. Schofield was lying.
On 19th May 2023, Schofield stepped down from his role on This Morning and other ITV commitments. Speculation of a rift between him and Willoughby had been brewing for a while and it appears he decided to come clean because he could not suppress the truth any longer. In a statement to the Daily Mail, he admitted that he had lied to his employers, colleagues, friends and family as well as to the media.[v] He had been engaging in an “a consensual on-off relationship with a younger male colleague at This Morning”. He stressed that this relationship, although “unwise”, was not illegal – although he met the man when he was a teenager, they were not sexually active until he was over the legal age of consent. He promised to “reflect on my very bad judgement in both participating in the relationship and then lying about it”. His excuse for lying previously was that he wanted to protect the other man.
In the wake of this news, Schofield has been dropped by his talent agency, by commercial brands for which he had advertised, and by the Prince’s Trust, for which he was an ambassador. Accusations by other celebrities about a toxic culture in This Morning have resurfaced and ITV has said it will bring in a barrister to conduct an independent investigation into how it handled the matter.[vi] The broadcaster previously investigated allegations of an affair between Schofield and the male colleague in 2020, but both parties repeatedly denied it at the time.
What are Christians to make of all this?
In one sense, this is a story of one man and his dishonesty. We should surely feel compassion for Schofield’s daughters (now in their late 20s) and their mother, who are innocent victims of his deceit. We may also be concerned about the culture in ITV, and perhaps the media industry more widely, but we should await the findings of the review before reaching conclusions on that front. We can only hope that investigation will explore questions this case obviously raises. How do teenagers get openings into and advance within the industry? Do older employees able to abuse their positions of relative power? Is sex a currency for advancement as it has been in Hollywood?
The story certainly raises questions about culture within media organisations, but it also challenges the wider culture in modern Britain. Expressive individualism rests on the assumption that truth and morality are relative. No external authority can tell us who we are or what is good for us. We must explore our inner selves and express what we find. But if that is true – if there is no absolute standard of right and wrong - on what basis should Schofield be judged by himself or anyone else for his dishonesty? We seem to know that betrayal and deceit are categorically wrong. Even Schofield’s claims that he lied for a good reason – to protect the other person – has not been accepted.
Someone might say that the reason our culture still objects to dishonesty is because of our belief that being true to oneself is the pathway to fulfilment. But our tendency to lie when we stand to lose from the truth is an indicator that the whole project of self-actualisation is fatally flawed. We cannot self-actualise because our hearts are deceitful. Accurate self-knowledge is illusive. We need people outside ourselves to help us see what is true. The primary justification given by our culture for rejecting external sources of identity and direction is that they tend to want to oppress and dominate us. We have good reason or fearing this, given the long history of ways in which people with power have abused it. But the alternative, it seems, is that we lack any verification of what is true and we become ensnared by self-deception or trapped by the need to convince others that we are basically honest and good. Instead of trusting authorities, we try to trust ourselves, or at least to convince others that we are trustworthy because we are true to ourselves.
Our cultural obsessions with self-actualisation, authenticity and expressive individualism rest on confidence in human nature that is misplaced. We should not be surprised when we discover that someone lied, even when their insistences on honesty seemed so sincere. It should not shock us because, if we are honest, we are all caught in this web of dishonesty and we cannot even tell much of the time whether our motivations are good – not wanting to hurt others – or bad – brute greed and selfishness.
In reality, our motives are almost always mixed, but in our culture of expressive individualism another driver is perhaps more powerful than either altruism (other interest) or egoism (self-interest). That is the desire to be accepted and approved. Without an agreed standard of right and wrong, we have ditched the concept of guilt as merely a marker of internal conflict (this was Sigmund Freud’s explanation) but in its place shame has come to dominate. We feed off the approval of others (social media likes, shares and followers) and dread their rejection (being unfriended, unfollowed or blocked). Scofield rode the wave of approval when he ‘came out’ and now his deceit has come out he is reaping the harvest of rejection.
In short, our contemporary cultural values keep us enslaved to the opinions of others even as we tell ourselves we are being true to ourselves as individuals. The whole construct is a great deceit within which many lesser deceits are perpetrated.
I wish I could say that Christians and their churches were free of all of this. I cannot. I have seen too many examples – some up close and others in the headlines – of leaders who live with a loose relationship to the truth and who trade of reputation rather than integrity. I also know that my own heart is a battlefield between truth and lies. But I am convinced that the Christian worldview (what I will call the ‘gospel’ below), founded on the Bible and centred on Jesus Christ, gives us a coherent answer to the confusion of our culture. It does so because it explains our problem and because it gives a genuine solution.
The gospel explains why we recognise dishonesty as fundamentally wrong – because it is counter to God’s will and commands – and also why we are incapable of complete honesty. I should add that it also tells us that marital unfaithfulness and any sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman are sinful and derive from other lies that grip our hearts. And it condemns situations where people manipulate others or abuse power relationships with others. The gospel truly holds us to account. And the Bible is clear that we have no mission of achieving authenticity through an inward quest. Our hearts, it tells us, are fundamentally deceitful. In the words of God through the prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds”.[vii]
Our problem is not merely that we deceive others, but that we are caught in self-deceit. We cannot see ourselves as we truly are until we see ourselves in relationship to God in his holiness. Only God can know our hearts and justly judge our deeds. He has told us in the Bible what is right and wrong, and when we measure ourselves by that standard, we realise that none of us can boast of being true to ourselves or to anyone else. We are crooked. Our root problem is not the shame we feel when others catch us out or disapprove of us, but our guilt before the holy God who created us.
But that is only half the story. The gospel takes sin seriously, but it also offers the genuine possibility of forgiveness and cleansing. That is something our culture cannot do. Despite the inconsistency with its professed relativism, our culture still treats some behaviours as shameful. But it offers no way back from that shame, because it sees that shame as a result merely of hurting others or being found out by them. The Christian gospel acknowledges the seriousness of our sin’s effects on other people, but it positions us in a vertical relationship with God as well as horizontal relationships with others. And the God before whom we are not merely ashamed, but guilty, offers us forgiveness if we will confess our sin and trust in him. The promise of the gospel is that those who do so have the record of their sins removed and are made clean by God. They stand not in shame but in grace – embraced in the undeserved favour of God.
This is the good news of the gospel. There may not be a way back for Schofield to our television screens (although who knows in time whether some broadcaster will call upon him) or into relationships with people whose trust he scorned (although it may be that they will forgive him). But there is a way back for him, and for all of us, to the God who created us. As a Christian, following the heart of God, I have no desire to condemn Schofield to shame. He has sinned, but I hope he comes to know forgiveness from God. Through the Lord Jesus Christ, sinful people can return to God.
To do that, we just need to be authentic. Not our culture’s version of authenticity, in which we are the measure of ourselves, but true authenticity (a tautology, I know!) in which we measure up against God’s truth, recognise we fall far short and step into his amazing grace.
[i] The video clip of Schofield coming out on screen and audio of the interview with Richard Coles are available here: https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/13966298/phillip-schofield-mum-coming-out-gay/ [ii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51414010 [iii] Authenticity has been identified as a key value in modern Western culture by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (1992) The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [iv] Robert Bellah (1996) Habits of the Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press, p.333–334. [v] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12129347/Phillip-Schofield-ADMITS-affair-young-Morning-runner-married.html [vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-65769939 [vii] Jeremiah 17:9-10