Alerted by a colleague, I watched an online video presentation of well-known talented actor, television host and brilliant 21st century enlightenment thinker Stephen Fry. He was participating in the Intelligence 2 debate in front of a live audience at London in November 2009. The subject was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force of Good.” He went on to ‘marshall his ‘facts‘, as well as oppose the subject under discussion, which was what he had been invited to do. He declared ‘he genuinely believed the Catholic Church was not a force for good in the world’. His address can be viewed on the Daily Motion website. It is one that all who are interested in the advancement of humanity should watch.
Mr Fry agreed the past informs the present. The future, well it can only be shaped by humankind as it learns to freely share its thoughts, ideas and failures as it continually progresses. Televised community debates, such as this one, are certainly helpful. While we may want it to be so, people from all walks of life and backgrounds, as well as different cultures often do not think, behave and react to events in the same way. There are clear historical and geographical reasons for this. When we are endeavouring to understand people’s reactions to society, its mores, concerns and decisions, we still need to take into account, at least a little of what has gone before. It is the only point everyone can then move forward from. But we need to have everyone on board, or at least getting somewhere near to the front page first. The Australian ‘sorry’ story informs this thought. Clearly all Australians are not on the same page in regard to its indigenous population. We still have a long way to go before we can say that we have adequately addressed their social inclusion. While we might pat ourselves on the back for being a ‘booming economy’ in the world, we should pause and think about how appallingly we have, and in many cases still do treat, and continue to socially exclude the original people of this vast land whose wealth we all enjoy.
For those who think it is important to believe they are helping transform the quality of other people’s lives, the term ‘move on’ has become an impatient retort. Many seem to find it boring that they should stand still long enough to try and enrich someone else’s life journey. Or, is it that they are wanting to prove that they just don’t care? What are the consequences for our culture if we all stop caring about other, because we would rather be out partying or watching a football match? If we don’t know why then we all really are in deep trouble.
The debate Mr Fry was involved in, as well as its topic, had a particular resonance for me because from the year 2000 – 2005 I was privileged to live in the precinct of a great cathedral. I say privileged, because that is how in hindsight and with all my perceptions and experiences revisited that I believe it to have been. It was certainly an enriching time in my life and I am very grateful for it.
A strange destiny brought me there, and an even stranger one awaited me. Nothing in my previous life for 55 years could have possibly prepared me for the amount of pain and suffering that I found in what appeared to be, at least on the surface, a place of peace. As someone unknown from another city it seemed to me like it was another culture at the time and it was quite a journey. From the very first day what I discovered was an enormous amount of anger, mistrust, distress, pain, misery, as well as a complete lack of the one component that should have been immutable; trust.
Faith it also seemed, had been completely eroded and in its place was what seemed like a kind of haunting despair. Gossip was rife and damaging. This was not only just among those who came to the cathedral to worship for one reason or another, but also among those who administered to their suffering as well as those actively involved in the running of the cathedral at every level of its hierarchy. While I was there I had plenty of encounters of the first kind that emboldens me to make that statement.
They came because many still see the church as a beacon for hope in the world, despite the majority being non believers themselves. This is all about how long a perception can last in society, when passed down from one generation to another through family memory.
Many were in dreadful trouble, and often in the most appalling of circumstances. A badly battered black and blue bruised young girl, who arrived just on sunset, instantly leaps to mind. She, like so many others, had no one to turn to. She said she was 19, but by then through experience I knew that she was definitely under age. Like many others she was completely without the support of a family, friends, or anyone at all really who would offer even a flicker of care, hope or love.
More than often the condition people like this young girl found themselves in, battered, bruised and abused had been caused by a family member. The ultimate betrayal of trust.
They all had one thing in common. They were trying to find someone who would listen, someone who would give them some understanding, someone who would offer some compassion but also someone who would give them some practical assistance.
What they all needed, and wanted too was ‘unconditional love’. And did I mention ‘the church’ is supposed to be all about ‘forgiveness’. We were not there to judge, just to offer our help.
A church is about its people, not its buildings. And, there are great many of those people who are truly authentic I am very pleased to say. However as an institution the church in our contemporary age seemingly has almost made itself irrelevant for a society in search of truth. This seems incredible, but not surprising, as so many people use the church as a place to hide out in so they do not have confront, converse about or, be challenged by any of the issues facing the rest of society on a daily basis.
As a consultant ‘Advisor to the Arts’ at the cathedral I remember hanging a triptych in the cathedral over Easter. The artist had questioned contemporary societies attitude to the oppression of children. He hadn’t pulled punches on, or about their plight.
Images of children in desperate circumstances, recorded at a time when mans inhumanity to man was at an all time high, were at the least very confronting. Apparently after the Good Friday services some ‘Christians’ objected to the Dean that something so graphic would be hanging on the cathedral’s walls over Easter.
Easter, it seemed to me, was the most appropriate time to hang this work of art. It was very hard to believe their objections won out and that on Easter Sunday the work had been put away late on Good Friday so that it wouldn’t upset anyone else. The objectors were all reputed Christians, who were apparently looking forward to a happy day enjoying lots of turkey and chocolate, rather than facing the challenges that their saviour Jesus the Christ had left them when he died that day on a cross so dreadfully, and so long ago.
This experience proved to me that some ‘Christians’ still don’t have the courage of their own beliefs or convictions. And, the people in question let it be known that even talking about it with them wasn’t an option.
So many people within the church’s structure, Catholic or otherwise, need to re-visit the wise words of that extraordinary ‘Galilean’ Jewish carpenter who was betrayed, flayed, stoned and crucified to death for daring to care about someone other than himself.
Until that happens the church and its people will not heal from the inside out as they need to do if they are to be in a position to contribute meaningfully to the rest of society and instead, will remain insular.
Perhaps the church should consider replacing the Sunday Sermon or Homily with a weekly debate inclusive of ‘outsiders’ to ensure their constituents interact with each other and the outside world.
They should address the many important issues of morality, as well as the social concerns the majority of people are facing one on one.
Stephen Fry in this important debate talked about his belief in the ‘eternal adventure’, of trying to ‘discover moral truth’ in the world. He stated that ‘history whinnies and quivers and vibrates in all of us’. This is surely an empirical truth.
For many cultural development is only about a refinement of the mind. But surely it’s much more than that. Culture is all about how we deal with each other as well as tackle the things that hurt. There is so much more to discuss on this subject, which is all about the frailty of human beings and life. But it’s also about timing and for me it’s time to stop. It was my grandmother who first told me ‘timing was everything’ in life. What we know when we make a decision, informs it. What we don’t know, but find out in hindsight, confuses it. And what there is to know, well that is definitely infinite. Perhaps the getting of wisdom is really when we realize that in the great scheme of things, and all there is to know, that we really know nothing at all.
I have always thought many of the quotes of Irish writer, poet, and prominent aesthete Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) make a poignant point. He said ‘morality like art, means drawing a line someplace’.
Be sure to watch Stephen Fry, as Opposer, debating ‘The Catholic Church is a Force of Good.” Comments welcome.
Carolyn McDowall, September 30, 2010.