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"Change and decay in all around I see": Challenges facing the Church in the New Millennium

Posted on: October 31, 2000 3:53 PM
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Lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury


Thank you for welcoming me here this evening on my first ever visit to the Diocese of Sodor and Man. My wife and I are delighted to be with you as guests of the Bishop.

In the 18th century your former governor, Sacheverell, wrote a history of this Island in which he recorded for posterity the various and manifold virtues of the Manx. 'The first,' he said, 'is a perfect unanimity in matters of religion' - which of course I am most relieved to hear! He also wrote about you, 'But above all they have been famous for their hospitality to strangers.' Although I have only been here a few hours, I can already attest to the accuracy of Sacheverell's scholarship, as we have indeed been welcomed most warmly. A final quote from Sacheverell's history, however, gives me some concern. He cites an earlier author - Hector Boetius - who claimed that for centuries 'Man was the fountain of all honest learning and erudition.' So it is before a most learned and erudite audience that I am speaking. I trust, therefore, that your hospitality will extend not only to your reception of my person but also to your reception of my lecture!

The topic you have asked me to speak on this evening is '"Change and decay in all around I see": Challenges Facing the Church in the New Millennium.' Now, I must admit that when I first saw that title I thought, '"Change and decay in all around I see"' - well, that's not very cheerful, is it?' For I am well known as a perennial optimist -- I always try to look for the positive in things. So I was at first a bit reluctant to take up an address titled, 'Change and decay in all around I see,' because when I look around I see so much more than change and decay.

But then I remembered that the title you have given me is in fact a line from the well-known hymn, 'Abide with me.' The first two verses of the hymn run like this:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

Once I remembered the context of the title, then I was able to find my way forward in this address. Because while the hymn-writer does see change and decay all around him, this perception is bounded by the vision of One who 'changes not.' Despite the darkness of the day, despite the growing weakness of life, despite the expected loss of everything he holds dear, the hymn-writer still knows that One abides with him who exists beyond night, beyond death, and beyond loss. 'O thou who changest not, abide with me'! And so, in like manner, my meditations this evening on 'change and decay' will be bounded by the same vision, the same conviction that the One who changes not abides with us.

Now, in the short time I have available I cannot begin to describe all the changes and challenges facing the Church in the new millennium. Let me discuss three changes and three challenges which have particular importance as we begin to think about the Church and its role today.


I. The Collapse of Global Ideology

In the last ten years we have witnessed the extraordinary collapse of Communism both in Central Europe and in many other parts of the world. The recent events in Yugoslavia have been a vivid reminder of what happened on a wider scale such a short time ago in Poland, Germany, and Romania. China still retains its own particular form of Communism and we still see the potential of some kind of revival of it in Russia, but Communism itself has been almost completely discredited as a political theory. In many countries where it once ruled, Western capitalism has now triumphed, not because people have accepted capitalism as a better ideology, but because it is hoped that it will deliver the goods. That same pragmatism is found in different forms in many of our Western democracies, whatever their political colour. Likewise the religious quest can often centre in the search for 'what works for me' rather than what is true or false. Admittedly, alongside these we are seeing the growth of both religious extremism and nationalism, but as yet no global ideology has appeared to take Communism's place, nor is any likely contender on the horizon.

Sociologists do sometimes talk about the process of globalisation, yet even here this is a process rather than an ideology. Globalisation is sometimes depicted as the process of 'hamburger-isation'. If you go to almost any major city in the world you will find evidence of it. Even in the medieval high street in Canterbury we have several chain stores identical to those in cities throughout the world. International trade, enhanced communication and above all the worldwide electronic media feed the process of globalisation. Globalisation hugely increases the forms of international contact that have hitherto been growing slowly through the centuries. Yet it still does not give us all a common ideology. If anything it serves to remind us of just how divided and fragmented we seem to be becoming. E-mails and the Internet draw us closer together but reliance on them rather than face to face communication may alienate rather than unite. Globalisation, indeed, has much to offer our world but aspects of it may destroy local culture, local industries and important regional differences if we are not careful.

II. The Relativising of Values

One of the themes I have returned to again and again since becoming Archbishop is my concern about the dangers inherent in the privatisation of morality. A society that loses its commitment to certain core moral values becomes one in which everyone does what is right in their own eyes. This tendency pushes religion out of the public arena into the private domain and, as we are beginning to find out to our cost, such extreme relativism can have disastrous consequences for all of us. For to claim for all citizens a morality which is purely self-referential is to claim a freedom which ends up as being no freedom at all. If there is no point of reference beyond myself or beyond yourself, then reason, justice and law become exploitable by the powerful and the influential -- and the weak have nothing left to appeal to. If we have no word for sin we shall soon find we have no words left to describe responsibility. As the ancient Roman adage puts it: 'What are laws without morals?'

In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor the Pope expressed the sharp dilemma that this causes for society today. When morality is privatised, almost the only moral principle that is held in common is that of 'autonomy'. Each and every individual must be free to choose. Each must choose on the basis of his or her individual rational will - that is the secular moral philosopher's dream -- without any recourse to tradition or convention. Yet, the Pope rightly points out that many social scientists have been arguing for years that individuals are not free to choose at all - that our lives and ideas are thoroughly determined. So we have the extraordinary dilemma in secular culture that individual choice becomes the hallmark of modern (or rather post-modern) morality, yet individual choice is apparently no longer possible. Secular morality demands individual choice, whereas much secular social science apparently denies that such choice is even possible. All we seem to be left with is a rather bleak and despairing relativism: the chaos of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

Hear the concerns of David Myers, an American sociologist writing about his own country: 'From 1960 to today we have been soaring economically and sinking socially… we now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and doubled what money can buy… and we have less happiness, more depression, more fragile relationships, less communal commitment, less vocational security, more crime and more demoralised children'.

He could so easily have been speaking of our society also.

III. The Loss of Hope

In the Litany of the Anglican Communion there is a petition seeking deliverance from 'sudden death' and the prospect of dying unprepared. Recent ferry and train accidents have once again brought home to so many of us the uncertainty of life and the fact that, in a world made so apparently safe through modern technology and medicine, there lurks the possibility of being wiped out through chance events. Fears of global warming, over population, and natural disasters abound. The spectre of war is ever present. And yet resurrection hope is central to Christian faith and Christian morality. The history of Christian thought has asserted that hope in God is pivotal to what it is to be a human being. Death is not the end of life but the door through which life in all its fullness comes to us. How this contrasts with modern assumptions! A tacit atheism prevails. Death is assumed to be the end of life, bleak though that thought is. If we need hope to clutch to our breast at all it will be in such greatly scaled down forms as our longings for family happiness, the next holiday or personal fulfillment. Our concentration on the here and now renders thoughts of eternity irrelevant.

Nothing reflects this loss of hope so much as the exaggerated demands we make upon medicine. If you talk to almost any doctor you will soon discover this. Many General Practitioners are bombarded with demands upon their time and the desire for pills for every ill. All of life's problems at the personal level have apparently become medical ills to be treated by medical means. Once people who felt fed up or mildly depressed, as we all do at times, talked to their neighbours, to their older relatives, or to their parish priest. Today they are much more likely to go to their GP instead. Yet a busy surgery never was intended to carry such a burden. And many GPs feel thoroughly weighed down by it. On this showing, many people are acting as if doctors can cure all ills and even postpone death forever. But of course doctors know they can do no such thing. Only a society that has lost real hope could imagine that they could.

Other themes could easily be added to that list, but even this abridged description of the changes facing us carries searching and serious questions for the Churches today. Christian mission and ministry must adjust to a world which is markedly different from the one of even fifty years ago, and finding appropriate forms of presenting the Christian message and living in community must be among our most urgent priorities.

But before moving on to discuss the challenges I see arising out of these changes, let me pause to say that things are not as grim as they may seem. There is a brighter side that will give us confidence as we seek to find appropriate forms for the Church and as we seek to come to terms with these changes.

For one thing, despite the massive changes just mentioned religion is still with us and has persisted much more strongly than people expected. That is true of all the world's religions and is certainly true of Christianity when looked at from a global perspective. My travels in Africa and the Far East have taken me to areas where Christian Churches are growing very fast indeed, but even in Europe there are plenty of signs of real life. The myth is still perpetuated that over the last few years the Church has been pretty well marginalised in a society defined as both 'secular' and 'pluralist'. I reject that myth both historically and culturally.

Only last week-end I was in the diocese of Peterborough and I saw something of the real strength of the Church in its service to others and outreach into the community -- ranging from a wonderful Mothers' Union project for the homeless through to an impressive furniture turnaround for those on the margins. Last Saturday evening I spoke to over 100 church youth leaders and then later to some four hundred young people themselves. I was delighted to see them secure enough in their faith and to be creative in the ways they expressed their worship. Statements about decline do not do justice the numbers of people attending church now at other times than Sundays and the wonderful work going on day by day in all our churches. Those young people and their leaders - and there are many similar examples - were responding creatively to the call to express our faith in fresh ways in each generation - and we know that this is a continuous process. Sometimes we address the same problems as our forebears, but with new solutions appropriate to the people and the time.


Bearing these things in mind then, how should we be shaping the Church to respond to this new situation? The challenge facing us, I suggest, is to rediscover three things -- core values, community, and stewardship. Each of these is crucial to a rediscovery of authentic Christianity and each offers an important challenge to our quick-changing culture. And, indeed, they overlap with the concerns of many of our friends and colleagues outside our churches.

Let me take each of them in turn:

I. The Challenge to Bear Witness to Eternal Truths

Abiding values are fundamental to our relationship to God in Christ. If a post-modern, globalistic world finds itself increasingly fragmented, without any single ideology held in common and with all values regarded as relative, then the Church has a key role to play in offering a radically different vision. She is called to be apostolic -- that is to say, she is summoned to go out and to witness to her relationship to God in Christ. It is from this relationship that we derive our abiding values.

I want to return briefly to the problem of relativism. Charles Taliaferro in a recent book Consciousness and the Mind of God offers a powerful corrective to the intellectual mind-set which implies that any one who thinks 'freely' and 'rationally', is bound to reject the religious view of the world and, especially, the notion that there is a personal God who cares about us. He writes: 'The radically materialist conception of reality threatens more than theistic religious belief; it also threatens ethics and our very self-image.' His contention is that while the private individual is free to accept or reject God and those consequent claims that go along with such belief, we should be aware of the price that society will pay by destroying what is a kind of 'immune system' of the body politic. If intelligence is nothing but the operation of chance-evolved cerebral chemistry, then in rejecting universal values why should we suppose that there are enduring values of any other sort that we should be bound to?

I am struck by the similarity between this argument and that of Professor Gillian Rose of Warwick University who died several years ago. In her moving little biographical book Love's Work she challenges the thinking behind what she calls the 'unrevealed religion' which is so widespread. 'Unrevealed religion' is, in her picturesque phrase, the dependant of her German cousin, 'Enlightenment rationalism'. What is the nature of 'unrevealed religion'? It is the rejection of commitment to belief. Gillian Rose says: 'It is the very religion that makes us protest: "But I have no religion"'. Unrevealed religion has hold of us without evidences, natural or supernatural, without any credos or dogmas, liturgies or ceremonies. There is a lot of unrevealed religion about. And yet Gillian Rose, an agnostic Jewish philosopher, requested and received baptism by the bishop of Coventry just a few hours before her untimely death from cancer.

Does revealed faith offer anything better to us? Both Taliaferro and Rose undoubtedly think so and challenge any culture that is founded on unbelief.

I believe the Church can back this up with clear evidence. A few years back Leslie Francis researched the link between religious practice and moral values. 30,000 teenagers between 13-15 were interviewed. The research showed an undeniable connection between belief and behaviour. It showed, for example, that only about half as many people of no faith are concerned about poverty in the Third World as compared with practising believers. Three times as many non-believers feel there is nothing wrong with a minor dishonesty like travelling without a ticket. Perhaps most significantly of all, practising believers are almost twice as likely to feel their lives have a sense of purpose. As David Hay says, 'Without a clear sense of the purpose of life it is very difficult to see how anyone could have a consistent ethical framework'. [David Hay, The Tablet 3rd Feb. 1996 'Morals and Religion']

It is abundantly clear to me that the Church's witness to abiding values that we have received from scripture is central to our mission in the world.

II. The Challenge to Rediscover the Sacramental Nature of Community

I read an article in 'The Times' a while ago which argued that the future of the Church lay in preaching. It claimed that in a world which voted with its feet, it will be gifted communicators who will fill churches. Well, I for one am not against preaching! And we must of course encourage those entrusted with the ministry of preaching to be better at it.

But I disagree with the idea that preaching alone is the answer. Preaching is but one element in the life of the Church, not its most important feature. For the Christian, God's call to love is a call set in the context of community. Specifically, it is in worshipping communities that we are nurtured and it is in these communities that we can most fully express our love for God and praise him. Whereas a post-modern world looks ever more fragmented and lonely, the Christian Gospel calls us back into communities in Christ.

As some of you will know there has been for some time an interesting debate about whether people find faith through believing or faith through belonging. In other words: Am I a believer because of reasons or because I go to Church?

While I am inclined not to accept this rather too neat 'either-or' there is compelling evidence that for many people the falling away from church life is more likely to undermine belief than intellectual arguments. That is to say, that nurture, sharing and belonging are essential to our growth as persons.

Here lies the paradox for the Church. Worshipping communities are central to Christianity, yet local Church communities all too frequently fail to live up to our calling to be powerful agents of change and renewal. All our Churches face similar problems arising from a fear of change, faithlessness in God's power to direct the future and an inability to seize opportunities to become real centres of community. The answer, I believe, lies in rediscovering the sacramental nature of Apostolic Community. In other words, at their very best churches point beyond themselves to God. And there are indeed splendid examples of churches making real contributions to social and community development.

Let me offer just two.

In an essay titled, 'No Abiding Inner City,' Samuel Wells tells the story of St Elizabeth's -- a small parish in North Earlham, Norwich. St Elizabeth's was founded in the 1930s as a mission in a local authority housing estate, but did not become a parish in its own right until 1991. Samuel Wells, the vicar, says that

The new church experienced a terrible spate of vandalism for its first five years. Windows were smashed, cars torched, stones thrown at the congregation, motor bikes driven round and round the church during services, services frequently disrupted.

In other words, there was at that time a profound alienation between the new parish church and the local community - its young people in particular. In response to this, St Elizabeth's Parish reached out to their persecutors in creative love. Wells says, 'The church has put most of its energy into offering a great number of local children and young people a mixture of hospitality and constructive projects to engage their energy and interest. There have been youth clubs, football teams, dance clubs, trips away, sleepovers and discos. Over time these have helped many to see the church as "theirs."'

The result is that at St Elizabeth's children now outnumber adults at the Sunday morning service by about two to one. Not a single one of these children brings a parent with them. The church has adults, and the church has children - but the church has no nuclear families. Those adults who endured the time of persecution the church went through some years ago emerged with a remarkably positive try-anything approach.

A shared enquiry and shared discovery helps the adults break out of comfortable modes of thought, and offers the children adults who listen to them and take their questioning journey of discipleship seriously. This is not a "family service," for there are no families: it is the body of Christ in communal discernment.

My second illustration comes from Ramsgate and from a church on a very poor housing estate. The church is always packed and now has a second morning service. Yet this is not a middle class area with a church going tradition. It is poor, it is alienated from middle class England. If there is a secret to its growth, it is the vicar himself who just loves people. His vicarage is always open; he visits and he knows his district. He has built up a great relationship with the mayor, the town authorities, and the social workers. No wonder people want to be with him.

Such stories of the Church as sacrament can be multiplied many times over - but, sadly, the other side is also present. Churches which are shut six days a week; churches which have little ministry to the young or have nothing by way of programmes of social care. Such churches are maintaining buildings but have lost a presence; a presence rooted in the sacramental nature of God's action in the world.

I do not doubt the enormous challenge facing all our churches these days to respond to the pressing needs all around us. But creating community should be our special gift - what 'we do best.' As the body of Christ our task is to witness consistently to God's love for the world shown in Christ. The Church, therefore, should always aim to be present seven days a week in our communities, reaching out in faith and with hope. That suggests that we must be prepared to look at our resources, not with eyes eager to maintain what we have cherished in the past, but with eyes eager for mission and new opportunities. In saying that I am not advocating a 'root and branch' approach to our institutions or suggesting that what worked in the past will, of necessity, not work any longer. For instance I am still convinced about the power of worship to draw people to God and of effective preaching as a tool for teaching and evangelism. But we must respond to the fact that Church worship and preaching on their own can no longer be treated as the entire arena for mission and service.

The mobilisation of the whole Church of God for service must, therefore, be a priority for us all. While the Church needs a professional ministry of clergy it must find ways of affirming and valuing the contribution of all Christians - including those out in 'the world.' If we do not address this and other challenges that are coming our way we may well face the judgement of Prof. Jurgen Moltmann that 'A church that cannot change becomes a fossil church. It becomes an unimportant sect on the edge of a rapidly changing and progressive society. Men and women run away from such a Church. Only the old, the tired and the resigned retain their membership'.

III. The Challenge of Stewardship

Finally, a key challenge we are facing is stewardship - and here I want to focus particularly on our stewardship of creation. This is a beautiful but fragile planet of ours and the Bible - from Genesis to Revelation - has a strong doctrine of environmental and ecological concern. Perhaps at times we have focused so much on the salvation of souls that we have tended to ignore the rich teaching of scripture: this world is important; it is a gift of a generous God and we are his stewards. As Christians we have much to share with those who are rethinking our relation to the environment.

In my experience it is often children who show most insight and display greatest concern about our fragile home. I go into many schools and find strong and passionate evidence of their care for nature. Children, more than most, are aware of the damage we are causing to nature through pollution, global warming and the galloping over-consumption of our natural resources.

There is both challenge and opportunity here. I recall several years ago when I was in Adelaide, Australia, I visited an ecological project which was the shared enterprise of an Anglican church, the local council and the local community. The Church needed a new car park and they combined this project with one which was designed to save water. Something which is very necessary in the driest state of the driest continent on earth. Thus a wholly unique environmentally friendly car park was designed, born out of a real sense of environmental stewardship.

Closer to home we have an exciting Christian environmental project in Southall, West London. Sponsored by 'A Rocha' - an international organisation whose name means 'the rock' in Portuguese - a derelict piece of wetland in a highly urbanised area has been chosen as the spot for a nature reserve and Christian environmental education centre. This project will not only protect the land and the various birds and animals and flowers that live there, it will also teach children and adults a Christian view of creation and our obligation to care for it. And this is just one example of the work being done by churches all over the British Isles to safeguard the environment. I welcome the way in which Bishops have come together under the leadership of the Bishop of Hereford to encourage each other and to share ideas and experiences of the work being done in their parishes and dioceses.

In 1998 the Lambeth Conference reaffirmed the special responsibility of humans to care for the earth and live in harmony with the rest of Creation, and that I believe is a gospel concern. The picture of our Lord which emerges from the gospels is of a person who was interested in the whole of life. He came from a rural community and knew all about the birds of the air, the flowers of the field and the animals with which he shared his surroundings. He was not the caricature that the novelist Nabokov described as 'a blond bearded faddist in a towelling robe' but one who got dirt under his finger nails through sawing wood and laying bricks. He was someone who loved life. And so should we. We are all called to rejoice in God's creation; to care for it tenderly and to respect it. After all, there are challenges enough. Our world's population is now over the six billion mark. In 10 years' time, we are told, it will leap to 8 billion. By 2030 the world's population will have doubled. We in the first world will have to learn to live more simply so that others may simply live.


This lecture takes its title from the hymn, 'Abide with me.' The author, Henry Francis Lyte, lived from 1793 to 1847, and was the perpetual curate of Lower Brixham, Devon. His other famous hymn is the rather more upbeat 'Praise my soul, the King of heaven.' 'Abide with me' was probably written in 1847 -- the year of Lyte's death -- and so may well reflect a growing sense that his 'life's little day' was indeed ending:

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

Of course, Lyte's world was beginning to change beyond recognition. In the city of Oxford at that very time the Oxford Movement was beginning to change the church and would in due course change it for the better. But that could not have been predicted at the time. In just over ten years time Darwin's 'Origin of Species' would revolutionise science and create a new world view. The railways were beginning to open up society and many were fearful of the changes.

But as I stressed at the beginning of the lecture, the pessimism of Lyte's hymn is held within an overarching confidence in God's goodness and power. And not only God's goodness and power, but also the promise of God's faithful and unchanging presence. What initially strikes us as bleak and despairing turns out, on closer inspection, to be hopeful and optimistic.

In the same way, I have tried to strike a balance between a clear-eyed perception of the realities we face as we enter the new millennium and the equally real assurance that 'if God is with us, who can be against us?' As Martin Robinson writes, 'The feeling that we are in the grip of malign forces which we cannot alter stands in complete contrast with the gospel hope that we proclaim.' We Christians are an Easter people - we live on the right side of the resurrection of Christ. We know that Jesus overcame the powers of sin and death, and that the stone has been rolled away. We also know - in words reminiscent of 'Abide with me'-- that he promised to be 'with [us] always, even to the end of the age.' And so, the changes and challenges facing the Church in the new millennium - as formidable as they are - cannot compare with the power of God's presence.