Volume 10 Number 3
Save the Family to Save Civilisation
01 June 1997
The Right Revd Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London
There is a great debate today about moral and spiritual values in our national life. In the past we could take for granted a huge capital of moral and spiritual culture, in both education and public life. Today a gulf has opened up between knowledge and wisdom. We need to get away from the delusion that just because somebody is informed, that knowledge will automatically translate into wisdom.
Incomparably the most serious thing that is happening is the disintegration of the family. It is no longer seen to be so essential, economically or socially, as it was. It has been enfeebled and undermined, despite the realization that it is the main vehicle for communicating a moral and spiritual ethos between generations.
We cannot have any morality without relationships. As these get frailer and frailer, and people's commitments get more and more threadbare, spiritual and moral ways will also be enfeebled. We are only just beginning to reap the whirlwind.
Gusts of indignation followed the Dunblane massacre and the murder of London headmaster Philip Lawrence. Mrs Lawrence now has a prophetic power because, though she is not an authority, she has suffered. Yet we find it almost impossible to turn indignation into long waves of transformation.
We are in an austere period of rediscovering, immensely painfully, all the things that used to be obvious and implicit in the structure of life, including family and church life. Now the only gospel that people respond to is the progressive removal of constraints on the freedom of consumer choice. That goes for morals as well: 'Why can't people be promiscuous? It's not hurting anybody else.' And so we have an ideology, and an economy, which is bent on undoing all the connections which give energy, substance and form to moral and spiritual tradition.
Moral and spiritual tradition was never summed up by transactions; it was always embodied in social relationships. You cannot have morality without community. Yet community has been undermined to the point where everybody is merely a consumer.
The media is one example of this 'conversion' of society to a model of individualistic consumption. The media have become entertainment packages to be sold to individual consumers. We are not very interested in truth. As one of President Reagan's aides said rather meekly, 'The definition of truth is what entertains the audience at the time.'
Politics has also been emptied of meaning. The 'wide blue water' between Britain's two main political parties seems to have been who could lie the most effectively about the scary tax proposals of the other party. Politics is no longer about principles. It is about management. It is about the individual consumer getting an even more prosperous deal, simply because our vision is only focussed on consumers and their choices. That is no basis on which to foster a spiritual or moral culture.
If we look at the debate about spirituality in schools, the most that influential people are prepared to say is that spirituality is about developing openness and tolerance. This is profoundly vacuous. In our post-modern world, we have inherited a prejudice about prejudice; against any continuity, any established moral and spiritual position.
When our divine relationship is so weak we expect too much of one another. We put inappropriate demands on each other. This can lead to a huge oppression, in our unrealistic expectations of human relationships. It can also lead to great disappointments. Then we find it easier to love whales or pandas rather than our fellow human beings.
But this love of the environment and the natural world can also be good in some ways. People start falling in love with the Earth. God can then work, as he has done throughout the centuries, through his signature in the natural world. And in loving the natural world, people discover the sacred. But to discover the sacred we also need silence.
If we want to be of part a long wave of transformation, rather than a series of gusts of generosity or indignation, we need to be serious about the family, about faithfulness and the marriage vows. We have to prepare people to be critical of the picture that is offered to them of an individual consumer paradise.
What can the church do about all this? The sheer level of loyalty to Christian churches in Britain is nothing short of a miracle. Every Sunday, some three to four million people attend church. Few others associate on the same level in the public realm for such a positive purpose. The decline of other associations, such as mass political parties, is far more striking.
The most important thing the Church can do is to help people form 'schools of relating', to support people in stable family life and in good parenting, and to be faithful to their marriage vows. That is why in my diocese our major effort is going into training the next generation of Christian leaders. The most important thing they can do is to make clear how central the family is to transmitting spiritual and moral values.
There is no family life without sacrifice. There is no communal or economic prosperity without people being prepared to give themselves up for a cause. If we can address these issues effectively, there is immense cause for hope.
by Richard Chartres