Arbishop John +Armagh, Trinity Monday 2022
Monday 2nd May 2022 @ 10:05 am
I do have a habit, when possible, of sharing the sermons that are delivered on Trinity Monday each year at Trinity College. Trinity Monday. As this last Trinity Monday was my last as college chaplain, it serves as a good reminder of much of what has happened over the last 14 years.
Delighted to share what was an inspiring and challenging message to the university – ‘what sort of ancestors will we be?’
A sermon preached in the Chapel of Trinity College, Dublin on Trinity Monday, 25 April 2020.
Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach) 44
St Matthew 7:7–12
I want to begin, not with either of the Bible readings but with the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. So apologies to anyone under fifty. One of the sketches in the show had Eric and Ernie dressed as Roman senators. Ernie asks Eric “ Brutus, have you the scrolls” and Ernie replies “No, its just the way I’m standing”.
However, its not the feebleness or otherwise of the joke that’s important, its the fact that the programme was watched by over twenty–three million people, and almost all of us who watched it (and yes I was one of them) would have laughed our heads off. We would have got the joke.
The programme was shown at a time when in most democracies in western Europe, social capital was high, institutions were strong and there were many shared national stories. In today’s world even Ben Sirach would be hard put to name historical figures about whose virtue broad agreement could be reached.
And of course social media is the single biggest contributing factor to this atomisation of the public space. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that social media is largely to blame following the turn it took when it became less about people connecting with other people, and more about people performing for likeminded people– dissolving social capital, chronically suspicious of institutions and (to use the jargon) refusing any meta–narrative.
The effect has been, as one commentator has put it, to turn nations into ungovernable protest movements.That in turn has led to governments in democratic countries, for instance in the UK, India and until recently the US, who may chose to manage these divisions by deepening them rather than by healing them.
And it is important, in fact vocational, for a number of reasons, that civic society, including Churches contribute to public debate on these matters.
The first reason is that politics is about the art of living. Ultimately the subject matter of politics is everything that happens in individual and social life and, in a properly functioning democracy, all citizens are themselves political actors to a greater or lesser degree.
In addition, from a Christian point of view, there is no aspect of my life over which God does not say “that is mine”.
Successful parliaments and governments are those who become both the source and the expression of that creative social and spiritual interaction. If I could borrow a phrase from Professor Anna Rowland’s lecture in the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street a couple of weeks ago, they will create “…participatory and genuinely co–created social bodies…guided by a vision of human dignity and a just distribution of the earth’s goods…”
And that leads me to my second point, if Professor Rowland’s description is to become a social reality, governments need middle bodies– an engaged civic sector, including the Church– who will not only rage and lament, but will encourage and struggle for the common good in partnership with those who govern. “Who” as a friend of mine says “ will let the good things grow”. We may not have much agency around the just distribution of the earth’s goods, but we do have the ability to sharpen a vision of human dignity.
Social and political flourishing depends too on institutions such as this one, because intellectual rigour and academic independence are essential to national truth telling and to the critical nurturing of national stories. Governments should perhaps resist the urge to cut the university sector square for the sake of bureaucratic neatness and corporate conformity. There can be strength in cherishing something that has developed organically over many centuries, even if looks a bit untidy in its governance. There’s no harm in a little bit of corporate re–wilding
To give another currently significant example, in some senses, there is nothing as messy as the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, with what one of its architects called its “ugly scaffolding”. However it was designed to address the very problems which I have just been describing, and which now face many democracies, where there is low social capital, a suspicion of institutions and no shared story.
The power–sharing in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is an attempt to encourage political actors to see what other people see, and hear what other people hear, without necessarily agreeing with them. It is a great irony that just as Northern Ireland was beginning to look like a working social democracy, half of the democratic world started to look like Northern Ireland.
Universities and if I may say so, the Church, have also a particular role to play as two of the custodians of the big long term questions, especially in the face of a relentless and short term electoral cycle. An addiction to power and to access to the back stairs of government buildings has meant that Churches have squandered that vocation in the past. We are happily now rid of that type of power and even if we have failed a whole generation (and more) we have an opportunity to redeem ourselves in the future, and as communities of faith we need to remind ourselves often that there is no context in which the Holy Spirit is not present and active.
However for the Churches to achieve this or to contribute to it we must once again become properly and truly trans–generational bodies, who have the patience and humility to learn from those who we have marginalised in the past, particularly the young. Or as it was put to me recently by a young woman who is both an ordinand and climate activist “How will young people know that the Church loves them”? And in answering that question will we discover the way in which the Church can again become a holy people in the world?
It would be easy to miss the hinge moment which it seems is facing much of the western world including Ireland. Will the door to a sane and sustainable future swing open or slam shut? In five years time will it still be the case that four out of ten young people are afraid to have children because of how they envisage the future. Are we really prepared to say to them “Sorry, but that’s the best we could do for you”?
You can be fairly certain that something significant is going on in the world when the German language comes up with a new compound word to describe what is happening. Although the immediate occasion for coining the word “Zeitenwende” (historical turning point) was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it nevertheless sums up this hinge moment that we are stepping into.
In another context I described the build up to this moment here in Ireland as “a time between times”; a moment of reflection of turmoil and of deep dug change which gives birth to a new age. It will have continuities with the old age, but it will also have the strangeness of the future.
But perhaps most importantly, there is nothing inevitable about what the new age will look like. As with all periods in history it will be influenced by certain immutable factors, but it will take its decisive shape from the conscious choices which you and I make now. We should understand these choices as ultimately deciding our legacy to those who come after us. What sort of predecessors do we wish to be?
The way in which different generations see the world and experience it are, in many ways, profoundly and necessarily dissimilar. The things that really matter to young people may be based around the same principles (of truth, love, justice etc) but they are necessarily not the issues that mattered to their parents. This is as it should be. Our burdens or concerns should not inevitably be theirs too. Our stuff should not be their stuff.
. We pass on some memories, ideas and attitudes because they have been important to us. But just as our children and grandchildren need to be left in freedom to make their own families, so we need to afford them a certain liberality to understand the past and to shape the future on a broader canvas. No matter how recognisable shared stories need to be, they are never static. Maintaining the common good across generations (which is what strong institutions can achieve) is not the same as playing a game of pass the parcel. Instead it is an imaginative endeavour of tending and amending the script, so that, for the time being it reflects the layered reality of life as it is. “The ineluctable modality of the visible”.
And my generation has a positive part to play in creating this sense of realty and of liberality. Young people do not need “permission” to think differently (they have that permission inherently) but I think they would benefit from some encouragement, particularly the encouragement that comes with being listened to across generations and being taken seriously. And we take them seriously by admitting our own failures and adjusting our behaviour to reflect that.
Can my generation face up to asking ourselves what are the things (including a high degree of material security) which we are prepared to forgo and to pay for in hard cash . Or will we remain in the advanced state of self absorption which has prevented us from lifting our eyes from the text books of our traditions to see a further horizon?
One of the cornerstones of Christian discipleship is the practice of self limitation for the good of others. It derives from the fact that Jesus Christ did not consider his equality with God as something to be taken advantage of, instead he took the form of a servant. Even in the act of creation, God who is entire in the Trinity of his being, makes a space for something other to exist and thrive. Or to put it more straightforwardly, not insisting on our own privileges is in the nature of God. Perhaps by not foisting our priorities, taboos and shibboleths onto another generation we will leave a space for something truly new to happen.
That parallel between the nature of God and intergenerational courtesy may seem a bit far fetched and a long way off from the dust and clamour of ordinary human life here in Ireland in the year 2022, a view from the balcony rather than from the marketplace. However self limitation is an eternal principle and no family or society or nation or collective of nations will last for long if it is ignored. All other foundations are reefs of sand.
So, what sort of ancestors will we be? Which bits of our stuff will we choose to hand on to our children and grandchildren as we help them in their colossal vocation of creating life enhancing political and social and religious life in Ireland? Perhaps, as always, the question is best summed up in the simple pictorial language used by Jesus when he asked:
“Which of you when your child asks for bread will give him a stone” (Matt 7:9).
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