posted on 05 September 2001
Diocese of Westminster
I thought at first it might be difficult to find a focus for this address. It was rather like a holiday I spent with a priest friend of mine in Ireland. We were in a small town with two hotels in the square and there was a man leaning against the wall and I went up to him and asked which of the two hotels he could recommend for lunch. He looked me up and down before replying 'Well sir, it's like this, if you chose the one, you'd wish you'd chosen the other!'
I have rather a big canvas, namely, the state of the Church in England and Wales. Recently, as some of you may know, I took part in Desert Island Discs in which I had to match the music to my life. I must confess I found it rather enjoyable. I had to think back to my own family and upbringing, my years in the seminary and the period I was a curate, nine years in two parishes, my then being bishop's secretary, a parish priest, rector of a seminary, and bishop - for I don't know how many years! But it occurred to me that the most interesting parts of anyone's life are not necessarily when we are more influential or when we are perhaps older or in a more important position, but rather when we are younger. A chance encounter, the book you read, the person you met, an unexpected grace, perhaps above all, it is the mistakes and the failures one learns more from than anything else. I had an uncle, who was a priest, whose favourite words from any speech he made were from Isaiah 'Remember the rock out of which you were hewn'. So it is with each one of us and indeed with the Church. I used to think, when I was young, that when we priests got older we became holier and in a way I still think this is true. One thing I have noticed about the priests I know well is that, as the years have passed, they have become wiser and more compassionate and that is unquestionably something to do with holiness. But today I want to give you a few reflections on the Church in our countries. I will reflect, at times specifically, on us priests as we all have a crucial responsibility for the future of the Church.
The words that come to my mind are the words of Psalm 137: 'How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? If I forget you Jerusalem may my right hand wither. May my tongue remain stuck to my palate if I do not keep you in mind, if I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of all my joys' (vv.4-6).
'How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?' There is the alien soil of our world to which we are commissioned to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ and of the Kingdom of God. Our world, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, is 'charged with the grandeur of God'. So amid the pain and the brokenness and the alienation there is always a rumour of God, a search for the spiritual and for transcendence. It seems to me that the majority of people try, maybe subconsciously, to remove God, or at least to relocate the divine to the periphery. We have all met people who believe that God does not matter and is too far away to be contemplated anyway. There are many today who think that to believe in God is to limit one's freedom.
We also know that many in our society seek to quench their thirst for real freedom in what they perceive will satisfy their deepest needs. Most people in our countries turn excessively to the freedom of the market place and the consumer society, and, while I understand that to some degree we are all consumers, this is something we all enjoy a bit. However, it's quite clear that a sole reliance on the market place does in the end actually prevent people from taking their destiny into their own hands, from having a firm hold of their lives and their own future. It is our responsibility and that of all believers to challenge and counter this illusory concept of freedom and to proclaim the true freedom gained through faith in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who says 'The truth will set you free'. The market place is a very unforgiving domain. That is why the continuing work to see countries of the developing world overcome their debts is quite a revolution.
I recently gave a lecture entitled A World without a Father because I think very deeply that our Western culture is 'fatherless'. There is no-one to tell it what is right or wrong and that people are accepted, forgiven and loved. I often call to mind the image of a custom in Orthodox monasteries where, at the end of night prayer, the Abbot sits in his chair and the monks come up to him one by one, and he kisses each of them on the top of the head as a sign of forgiveness and of acceptance and love. I am thinking of the song of a God who accepts people in all their frailty and forgives people for all their sins and, above all, loves them with an infinite love beyond all our comprehension.
The unease, even anguish, of our Western world is there for all to see. I could go on about this, and talk also about the rise in New Age and occult practices and the search being made by young people for something in which, or someone in whom, they can put their complete trust. It is strange, is it not, how these old questions, leading to the search for God, come about with renewed force in our alien world.
To give you a few examples, we are all green now because nations have suddenly begun to realise that the Earth is not something you can ravage at will; it has to be cared for. As Klaus Topfer, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said only last week: 'If you cannot combine the fight for a better environment with the fight against poverty, you cannot blame people in Africa for cutting down a tree to burn when they have no fuel.' We are all stewards of this world. People are slowly coming to realise that the world has been given to us as a gift, so the old questions about how we are to care for God's world are again brought to the fore. Or, again, take the extraordinary technological advance of the last couple of centuries, especially over the last fifty years. Yes, wonderful things have happened, but is it not extraordinary and tragic that a situation has arisen where the rich get richer and the poor become more numerous and even poorer? It is highly regrettable that we, with all our technical knowledge, should now be living in a world where millions are starving, while we seem to accumulate more and more and get into more personal debt in the process.
So, we in the West become richer, able to possess what we want when we want, and yet in doing so we do not necessarily become happier. Why is it that so many in our society seek transient happiness through alcohol, drugs, pornography and recreational sex? I remember going to South America on numerous occasions when priests from my former diocese were working there. On my return I would contrast the simplicity of life, relative contentment, and yes even the joy, of the people in Peru with the lack of so many of these qualities in our own society, which seems to blind us with a surplus of all that glitters.
Continuing on the forces coming into play in our alien world, there is also the extraordinary and ever growing challenge of the meaning and source of life as we are faced with genetic engineering, stem cell research, and cloning. Another old question that will not go away is 'where and when does life begin?' Some practitioners say they are just scientists; they have the technology and they can do these things. Others seem powerless to think of alternatives. But again, slowly, many are beginning to realise that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is possibly the only one that can provide any substantial responses to the questions being posed. We have only to refer to the first chapter of the Bible. God made humankind in His own image and likeness. Therefore human life is to be respected from its very beginning to its very end. It is to be reverenced and not manufactured at human whim. Nor is it to be fashioned and used