Thursday 27 April 2006

Who gave God redundancy?

Party conferences are guaranteed to provide headlines. They are the shop window of any political body. It is at such occasions that politicians often choose to promote their most popular and populist policies. Tax cuts are always a winner, and so it was hardly a surprise that the radical proposals unveiled at the recent PD conference attracted more than a little attention. Everyone likes good news and this was really good news. So good that in all the fuss something much more radical got in under the radar.

In her leader’s address to conference Mary Harney made the following statement: “This party remains rooted in the belief that social progress and economic success go together. They’re one and the same.”
Unless I missed it nobody seems to have batted an eyelid! There was a time when such a statement would have been immediately challenged from a variety of quarters, principally the churches who would have responded very negatively to the suggestion that the quality of any society could be determined by economic prosperity alone. Indeed many others who would be otherwise unsympathetic to the role of religion in society would equally question the ability of democracy & capitalism alone to create or maintain a society of shared values, traditions, institutions and interests. It is not often that I find myself looking to Papal encyclicals for guidance but I did come across this in the writings of the late Pope John Paul II. He observed in his encyclical: ‘Centesimus Annus’, “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” ]Centesimus Annus – para 46] Value systems are not the preserve of religion alone but they are a very important dimension of most religious traditions and so it is all the more surprising that this statement caused not even a stir!

The churches were in fact creating a stir in recent weeks but it was about something else altogether. The ecumenical Mass in Drogheda where Fr Iggy O’Donovan and Rev’d Mike Graham concelebrated caused the official hierarchy in both traditions a certain amount of embarrassment as they tried to walk a tightrope between censuring the two disobedient clergy and acknowledging the hugely positive public reaction to this act of Christian generosity and reconciliation. Regrettably, both Archbishops seem to have fallen off the tightrope and having nursed their wounds walked firmly in the direction of censorship. The ongoing debate has filled hundreds of column inches and seems to have become increasingly focussed on the internal divisions within Christendom and the theological justification for these divisions. This is all very interesting but it only serves to make an already cynical society more cynical about the Church and it’s self obsessed behaviour, pushing it further out onto the margins of relevance.
Sadly the Church seems to have, in part at least, accepted this arrangement and spends more and more time on internal relationships and disputes and less and less on the meaningful and challenging encounter with society. That is perhaps why Mary Harney’s shallow definition of society went unchallenged?

Within our own tradition of Anglicanism we have spent the last four years tearing ourselves apart, apparently over the issue of human sexuality and the acceptability of homosexual people holding positions of leadership within the Church. This is of course an important issue with repercussions beyond the Church, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the debate is no longer about homosexuality but rather about who has the Truth and how best preserve it from corruption. In the midst of such a struggle it is very hard for the Church to say anything meaningful or helpful to the World. This sort of behaviour is repeated again and again as Christians of various traditions in a concern for purity and the Truth attempt to isolate themselves from any possibility of contamination. The current Presbyterian Moderator has refused in these last few weeks to attend an ecumenical service because of the presence of Roman Catholics at the service. Another nail in the coffin of dialogue between religion and society! Little wonder then that Mary Harney ignores the transcendent side of life when its chief protagonists do such a poor job of representing it!

Despite all the baggage that the Church has accumulated over the years there are still glimmers of hope! The Church is thankfully becoming aware that it is missing the point when it allows itself to get so distracted by internal division and debate. There is an increasingly vocal constituency within all Christian traditions crying out for the Church to rediscover its role in society. There is also a realisation that there is a hunger for the transcendent dimension of life and its associated values.

Having already quoted the Pope it might be instructive to see how the media of the Roman Catholic Church sees the current situation. A quick perusal of the Roman Catholic religious press in the last couple of weeks is very enlightening. The Irish Catholic (20th April) reports a survey in the UK where “an overwhelming majority of people in Britain believe that Christian values are good for their country and should be maintained.” While only a third of those surveyed believed in heaven and even less in the importance of the Bible, well over seventy percent said that Christian values remained valid and that Christianity should continue to be taught in schools! The same edition of the paper carries a report on a recent statement by Father Gerry O’Hanlon, head of the Jesuits in Ireland, where he identifies a growing realisation in modern society that we cannot get by without “a religious input”. We seem to have no answers he says for the problems of drug and alcohol abuse, gun crime, suicide, failures in the health service and road deaths. In all these issues he points to a lack of ‘vision’ and ‘soul’ which cannot be provided by pure secularism. Another Roman Catholic newspaper, the Universe (April 23rd) carries the results of a study in America that reveals that regular churchgoers live considerably longer than those without a spiritual discipline, sometimes as much as three years longer!

It seems that the Church does have a role to play after all and that there are still those prepared to listen to a Church which can rediscover its authentic voice and again communicate with integrity its message to the world.

It is all too easy to criticize politicians and it has become a national sport on this Island to scapegoat them for every failure and disappointment in our lives. Mary Harney’s sentiments reflect not so much the failure on her part to appreciate the deeper things of life but our part as Christian leaders to share the message with the World. Again looking to our brothers and sisters in Christ I have seldom heard it so well expressed as it was by Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick in a recent address entitled “What it is to be a Catholic now”. In these enlightened times we can happily acknowledge that his address could equally well have been entitled “What it is to be a Christian now”. Discussing this very issue of the Church’s relationship with society he says this:
“The complexity of modern life is both a challenge and an opportunity to recognise God’s presence. ……… No Christian before our time has been involved in multi-national companies, the Internet, the advances of technology, growing urbanisation, globalisation, multi-culturalism; none of these have existed in the same way before. The danger is that large sections of the lives even of believers remain untouched by the Gospel. In many cases individual Christians – still less groups of Christians – have not thought and prayed and talked about what the presence of Christ in these areas might mean. But if that is the case, does this not mean cooperating with the notion that God has only a limited place in our lives and that in large tracts of life God is not relevant? If that is so, there is no use complaining about how secular the world has become and how deaf to deeper values. If that is so, we are creating and maintaining a hidden culture which excludes God and also excludes our deeper selves.”

Bishop Murray has clearly identified the challenge – It is up to those of us who claim to be Christian to respond and restore the vital dialogue between faith and the whole of life.