Bishop of London: Our values are being put to the test. We can either be a beacon of hope or a dreadful warning
The capital has become a laboratory for testing whether it is possible for cosmopolitan civilisation to hold together, writes the Bishop of London
2016 has been a very turbulent year. Temperature rises, electoral surprises. Post Brexit, pre-Trump. The barometer’s crazy, the future is hazy. And it’s everyone’s hand to the pump.
As contemporary events unfolded, commemoration of the Somme and the carnage on the Western Front has provoked sombre reflection.
The 20th century began in a spirit of optimism. The ruling families of Europe were related to one another. There had been a growth of international trade and of institutions to regulate transnational problems. There were vast improvements in communications. It was a hopeful picture obliterated by massive failures of statesmanship.
Just after the first world war, William Butler Yeats wrote his poem The Second Coming. He surveyed a Europe in which it seemed: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The poem expresses the bewilderment felt by many over the past year as all the forces we label as “extremist” assault the confidence of the recent past.
I was consecrated as Bishop of Stepney in 1992. The same year Francis Fukuyama published his celebrated book The End of History. The thesis was that with market economics and liberal democracy the human project had reached a consummation.
History has, however, returned with a vengeance.
Some in the world are reacting to change and threat by retreating into ever narrower definitions of their identity. In reality most of us have multiple identities which ideally nest within some capacious sense of our common identity as human beings and children of God.
But insisting on this more generous construction of identity in face of the passion evoked by nationalist or racial rhetoric has proved difficult. Merely invoking the universal concepts of tolerance, democracy and the rule of law with which we probably all agree does not appear to generate sufficient energy to strip extremism of its allure or to transform lives and build a community.
To give shape and meaning to life we need to inhabit narratives capacious enough to permit development and to accommodate new themes. Not only stories are needed but communities to inhabit them. We all need somewhere we belong and where membership gives us dignity and something to live up to.
This is urgent because there are many seductive narratives in the market place offering a home and a cause for the bored or disaffected. You cannot exorcise the Satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum.
We are in the midst of a great debate on British values and identity at a time of mingled promise and peril. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of this month initiated an important debate to which many noble lords contributed on the relation between British values and public policy.
London in particular is a laboratory for testing whether it will be possible for the cosmopolitan civilisation which is becoming a global reality to hold together. We shall either be a beacon of hope or a dreadful warning.
Moving among the many communities in the global crossroads which is contemporary London I am constantly surprised by hope. We can be immobilised by gloom, by privileging extreme voices and exaggerating examples of conflict. But there is much good work going on to cross boundaries and build communities.
Recently with the Cardinal and leaders from every part of the Christian spectrum, I launched #LondonUnited, a social media campaign designed to badge and highlight all those thousands of initiatives which turn strangers into neighbours and which seek to support the needy and the vulnerable. We aim to celebrate the thousands of projects run by people of faith and by people of simple goodwill which are building a modern London as the world’s crossroads open and welcoming to all.
#LondonUnited is not owned by any one denomination but is open to all and there are many such initiatives throughout the UK as we seek to prove that the centre will hold and that the best do not lack conviction.
Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London