Archbishop Vincent Nicols: 'The experiment of secular society has failed'

 "Many recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed," Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, said in his homily yesterday, at the annual Civic Mass, on the Feast of Christ The King, in St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham. The full homily text follows: For many hundreds of years in most of the churches in this country there was, on the central arch, a painting of today's Gospel: the Last Judgement, or Doom. On its right hand side were the virtuous, being escorted to heaven; on the left, the wicked being thrust into hell; at the centre, Christ the King and Judge. This was, as it were, the backdrop to all life, the overall context in which daily living was experienced. It was the narrative that gave meaning to everyday actions and relationships. And it was shared by all. It spoke clearly about good and evil, about who to esteem and respect; about who to fear; about what to seek. And I can assure you that most often there was a figure of a bishop on the left, among the deceitful and untrustworthy, although often another one could also be seen on the right! In the sixteenth century these paintings were covered in whitewash and removed from sight. Much more seriously, in the last decades they have been removed from our common consciousness by the march of secularism and the removal of religious belief from our shared public life. There are many signs of its absence. Instead of receiving a shared story, a meaning, for our lives, today we go to great trouble to construct one, individually, and at some cost. Advertisers understand this, and constantly sell clothes as 'personal statements'. A walk through Birmingham city centre taught me, just a few days ago, about the 'Goth' fashion, currently popular among youngsters. And just as fashions change, so too the interpretations and meanings given to life vary more and more. And with this comes the uneasy sense that our shared values are no longer stable. The patterns and priorities by which we order our daily living are now quite diverse and our society, we fear, may be fragmenting. When we look more closely at the patterns by which we now live, we can see that some key values shape our thought and action. They are the lynch-pins of secularism: knowledge and reason, scientific progress and technology, and personal autonomy. Practically, they have built up into an assumption we all share: that of affluence, at least in our part of the world. This becomes our actual over-riding preoccupation. Our time is spent securing, by one means or another, the material comfort and choice to which we are accustomed and to which we assume we have a right. But it means that, as a society, we live life on its surface, always seeking the next event, the next fashion, the next spectacle to restore enthusiasm and meaning to our efforts. We have come a long way from the Gospel of the Last Judgement! Yet, as you will know, these paintings are emerging again. There is a remarkable example, just restored, in Holy Trinity Church in Coventry. So, too, I believe, there is the beginnings of a growing realisation that religious belief has a continuing and important part to play in our society. Today many recognise that the experiment of modern secular society has failed. Rationality and technology are not enough, either to hold us together or to inspire us. There is something more for which the human spirit reaches out and indeed wants to give. Could I put it very simply. If everyone in an organisation, be it a hospital, or a bank, or an industry, simply worked precisely and solely to their job description, the enterprise would grind to a halt within days. Indeed, what makes for a successful enterprise is precisely a shared vision, an underlying sense of purpose, a 'team' effort in which personal whims and autonomy are put to one side for the greater, common good. And the same is true for our civic and public life. We need a shared vision, a common aim, a shaping of personal autonomy for the sake of something more important. Yet we seem to be losing the knack of engendering and sustaining that sense of civic ownership, responsibility and pride. For me, and for many, a key element in that loss is a gross misrepresentation of the value and contribution of religious belief. Hard line secularists, and there are plenty, will insist that religious belief is irrational and therefore inadmissible. They are wrong. Faith and reason, certainly in the enduring Catholic tradition, go hand in hand. They will say that technology is our salvation. Yet increasingly we see that because something can be done, it is not therefore good that it is done. They will say that religious belief is, of its nature, opposed to personal autonomy and that the only true authority is that of the individual. But down that road lies the disintegration of shared values and the dissipation of common identity upon which our stability depends. In contrast, it is a consistent experience of centuries that, properly understood, the Christian faith is a high road to profound personal fulfilment, especially once we understand that our fulfilment is never achieved as individuals but only in the context of a wider community. Religious belief has a crucial contribution to make in our world today. That is not to say that many of the features of modern society are unacceptable or corrosive. Far from it. Indeed knowledge and reason are fundamental, as is science and personal responsibility. But so too are the religious aspirations of our human spirit and the Christian heritage of our land. It is time we resisted that secularising mythology which distorts and rejects our past. Her Majesty the Queen spoke eloquently of this last week, at the opening of the new General Synod of the Church of England, when she stated that this time of great change represents an opportunity for Christian Churches. She said: "When so much is in flux, when limitless amounts of information, much of it ephemeral, are instantly accessible on demand, there is a renewed hunger for that which endures and gives meaning. The Christian Church can speak uniquely to that need, for at the heart of our faith stands the conviction that all people, irrespective of race, background or circumstance, can find lasting significance and purpose in the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Today, in the Civic Mass, we celebrate Christ as King. In doing so we hold him to be the key to our fulfilment. He is no despot, no arrogant ruler seeking to impose his will on our reluctant souls. Rather he is, in the language of faith, 'the first fruits', the very best of our humanity, above all in his victory of death. In sharing in that victory through grace, as our ultimate promise, we find our feet again in this life, knowing how to judge things aright and esteem lasting aims and ambitions rather than fleeting fame and power. Of course in our complex and varied world, the Church will always live in an uneasy relationship with society. The spheres in which state and church act are different yet overlapping. But a relationship there must be, and one to which the Churches and religions can bring their 'awkward peculiarity' to debate, decision and action. It is precisely in the particularities of faith that its strength often lies. Generic chaplaincies in prisons and hospitals, ill-defined 'spirituality' with 'spiritual guides or counsellors', are not enough, not if we are to bring to the service of our society all the depth of commitment and self-sacrifice that religious faith engenders and then supports. And that is what we need to do if e are to find a new stability, a renewed sense of common purpose and a reinvigorated commitment to those who a needy and impoverished either here or in the wider world. The Gospel image of the Last Judgement is not simply a story about our endings. Rather it is an invitation to each one of us to live today as one who awaits that immense gathering of all mankind into the presence of God. At that moment the truth of our shared humanity will be made plain. For now we struggle to glimpse it, beyond our divisions and self-interests. But it is this vision, made complete in Christ the King that must guide our way each day. Indeed, this celebration of the Mass of Christ the King invites us to refresh that intention in our hearts and to be encouraged, by our faith and in our personal relationship with Christ our Lord, in putting it into action even in the smallest detail of our present lives. Source: Archdiocese of Birmingham

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