franciscan - May 1999
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999
Changing Mind Sets
by Richard Chartres
‘It is hardly surprising,’ said Bishop Richard Chartres, at the Jubilee of the Greenbelt Festival at the
end of August, ‘that there was difficulty in finding financial backers for the Spirit Zone in the Millennium Dome.
For,’ he continued, ‘people give up their lives for Jesus Christ, or for the teaching of Islam, not for a historical
survey of religions or soft-boiled nature mysticism.’ He contrasted the Christian energy and confidence of many
African Bishops with the gloom of many English Christians and ‘the glumbose voices insisting that this is “the
sagging end and chapter’s close” of Christian England.’
We spend much of our time in a waking dream trapped on the surface of things. It is as if we were trapped in a life-size game of chess. Pawns are being scythed down, the King is off in all directions but his range is only short and the Bishops are approaching everything slant-wise. This is the level of life which makes the headlines, but there is a deep structure which is formed by the rules of the game and the design of the board with its black and white squares. It is easy to be so caught up in the individual moves of the game that the deep structure is obscured, but if the play goes on in unawareness of the rules, then the result is chaos. In our own time, it seems to me the deep structure of the divine creation is once again being revealed.
First: there is a changing mind-set. We are moving out of the fading industrial age, in which the evidence of our senses suggested that machines and solid stuff constituted reality. The Spirit was just some mould grown on the rock of economics and the Church could safely be relegated, as it is in some seaside resort brochures, to the leisure section.
We are in an Information Age and the consciousness bred by the new tele-communications environment is catching up with the picture of the deep structure of the world revealed by scientists earlier this century in their studies of sub-atomic reality. The heart of stuff is non-stuff, more accurately described as energy enfolded in fields of information. It will be clearer than it has been for centuries that human beings are not machines with spiritual decor but psycho-somatic beings in whom the Spirit is a vital part of the whole. Our attitude to health and the practice of medicine is already profoundly changing to take account of this shift in mind-set.
Second: at the same time, the deep, moral structure – which makes for creative life together – is once more becoming visible. The culture of dis-related hedonism, in which we all have rights but no responsibilities, is under judgement. The stable family is the best possible nursery of self-reliant individuals but, ironically, the cult of the individual has undermined its own nursery.
The Holy Trinity offers us a vision of freedom and relatedness. We worship one God in Trinity, as it says in the Athanasian Creed, ‘neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance.’ Freedom and fullness of life flow from attachment and faithfulness. Christian freedom is freedom for relationships and it stands in clear contrast to the way in which the word is used in common parlance as freedom from constraint.
In a world where the game is very confusing, the Word of God continues to wake people up with peremptory moral guidance. We are skilled self-deceivers and, when facing major moral and spiritual challenges, we need to have ingested simple rules of life and principles distilled from the deep structure. Men ought to stand by the mothers of their children. Everyone must understand that the road to freedom and maturity lies through the keeping of promises. ‘One never hears bishops saying such things these days,’ they say. Well, you have heard them now.
To tell the truth, I do not fear the withering away of religion in the next millennium, but I do fear its excesses. There will be a danger of religious fascism and believers must be allies in the defence of freedom of thought and expression, just as they will have to cooperate to defend the most basic freedom of all: the inviolability of human life, which is under threat at both extremes of the life cycle.
Third: it is not only in the realm of human relations that we are re-discovering the deep structure. In our relations with the rest of creation, we are re-discovering the limits to our dis-related exploitation of the environment. In particular, the limit imposed by the sink capacity of the earth, seas and sky to absorb our rubbish and carbon dioxide emissions will cause great changes in the way (and the spirit) in which we live, or it will if we are wise. A monk of Athos said recently: ‘All the doors to heaven and to hell stand open in our time.’
The Church is going to be more and more important, though perhaps not more numerous. Many DIY cults are undeniably
sincere, but short on discerning where faith runs out and fantasy begins. Public open teaching, in touch with
many cultures and centuries, in a community which does not split up when some big personality dies or is challenged
by some other big personality: this kind of Church is essential. Sometimes, of course, the Church can be a disappointment
to those who are serious about the inner journey.
But you cannot see these things without the classic recipe for Christian living:
The Rt Revd & Rt Hon Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London.
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