November 2004

Post-it notes


Much talk of questions of culture in the Church and the world seems to revolve around being not where we were before; we are post-Cold War, post-Thatcher, boom, post-‘Cool Britannia' and post-9/11. The mapping of our location is usually a critique of where we were once said to be. I therefore thought it might be useful to jot down a few brief notes to characterise some of these identities and how they influence our perceptions of faith and culture.

Post- Conciliar Clearly the Second Vatican Council was an event and process which profoundly influenced the place of the Church in the World. Not least the conciliar teaching on Liturgy ( Sacrosanctum Concilium ), the Church ( Lumen Gentium ) and the World ( Gaudium et Spes ) moved us to think in terms of inculturation , indigenisation, being God's pilgrim people and the proper autonomy of cultures, arts and sciences with which we should be in respectful dialogue.

Yet we are now after the council. This is no longer the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. Many of the issues which were so important then, do not seem so high up the agenda and questions which were not even thought of then are now pressing. Pope Paul VI was quite right to seek to mend the ‘split between faith and culture' by approaches of dialogue which emphasised the positive in human cultures outwith the Church. However, Pope John Paul II is also right to distinguish between the vision of the Church and the vision of the world, not least when he compares the culture of life envisioned by the Gospel with the ‘culture of death' so often encountered in the world.

Post-Ghetto The Catholic Church in England and Wales has often understood itself as a tightly knit community protecting itself against a society which is antagonistic to it. However, there is an openness these days which cares little about any person's religious affiliation and has seen Catholics at ease in leadership in many key social and cultural institutions – Government, the BBC and many other locales of ‘the great and the good.' Progress in ecumenical relationships has welcomed Catholic voices into the Public Forum and the opinions of Catholic Bishops: not least Cardinal Hume was often appreciated and Cardinal Murphy O'Connor will be listened to – even if often argued with and distorted.

On the other side of this coin, the cultural Catholicism by which many communities, often first, second or third generation immigrant communities, defined themselves is less strong.

Post-Christian or Post-Christendom . Many of our ecumenical partners have explored at some depth the place of Christianity in a culture which once had Christianity as a primary cultural identity but which now sees itself in different terms. This demands some caution. In the 2001 census nearly 72% of the UK identified themselves as Christian. Even in allegedly secular France opinion polls asking who is the most admired woman or man have consistently placed a woman religious and a priest at the top of these popularity stakes – an example of ‘latent Catholicism' according the Observer . Yet it is apparent that very much fewer numbers of people believe in Christ or belong to his Church than did some generations ago. The need for a primary proclamation of the Gospel is more pressing now than it has been since the times of Augustine of Canterbury.

Post-Modern Much, maybe too much, has been written about Post-Modernism – indeed I've contributed to the mountain of comment on it myself! Post-Modernism enjoys ‘the end of the great narratives', playful eclecticism, absolute relativism and breaking the rules. No traditions, no conventions, no authorities are binding. Post-Modernism may not prove to be as powerful as some have suggested, but it does have some uses as a handle on our current cultural context.

Post-Industrial On the radio the other day, the weather forecaster had the temerity to refer to the ‘Industrial North' which prompted an amusing rant from the Liverpool born Presenter. The truth is that the old economic geography has changed. The stable certainties of my youth (which I hasten to add was not that very long ago) have changed into a world where people no longer have a job for life, communities can seldom be characterised by the major industry and social mobility, service industries and transferable skills have become the norm.

Post-Secular Sociologists will argue long and hard over secularisation and whether or not it exists. Certainly the easy presumption of the inevitable disappearance of religion and spirituality has not happened. But there has been change, much of which can be described in terms of decline and religious indifference. However, the strong version of secularism as an ideology does seem to be itself in decline. Theologians of the (mainly Anglican, mainly Cambridge) school of radical orthodoxy and others, including some influential philosophers, have promoted a way of thinking theologically which is post-secular. There is a renewed interest in spirituality and the spiritual life. While over-optimism is to be guarded against, now is a time with windows of opportunity for the supernatural, spiritual and specifically religious elements of our faith to receive a hearing.