I watched the CNN programme which was entitled Faith and Politcs : The Compassion Forum – a head to head between Obama and Clinton. I have also been interested to read of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation over here – there is much excitement about his coming to Yale University next year (the speech itself is very good indeed see www.tonyblairoffice.org – Faith and Globalisation). It seems that faith is in the public arena and I hope that we manage to engage in intelligent and critical dialogue about the shape of religion. It has had a bad press and understandably so. Has religion a future? How are we to understand the steady decline of the Church of England? What is this phenonemon called religion?
Part of the problem is our relationship to change. It also concerns how sharply we define and defend the boundaries. Let me use the example of Roman Catholicism in this country by way of opening up some of these questions. Some commentators have described the US Catholic Church as like an adolescent: young and unpredictable. There is deep love and devotion for the Pope – his mere presence will certainly rejuvenate the Catholic faith – and much of the work of religion goes on unnoticed inspired by worship and the living out of the values of the Gospel. The committment of the Churches to social action in this country is very impressive.
Yet many here and elsewhere think that the religion Benedict stands for is both too rigid and irrelevant. This is a religious country – it surprises me that so many attend church week by week – but the question raised by Cardinals here is that the American people do not attend to issues that exist beyond their emotional or spiritual highs – the serious question of truth! So – is religion in crisis or renewal? What relevance can it have to those who refuse to accept the official line on a range of moral matters. Can you be religious and liberal? Does the framework of religious truth change as our knowledge develops?
One word of caution as we examine these matters. Only 7% of worldwide Catholics live in North America. Most live in Africa and the greatest number exist in South America. The cultural and intellectual expressions of religion in these countries are very different. It is not surprising that there are a growing number of Catholics who are developing their own religion, in tension with the hierarchy but vibrant and spiritual. There is as much faithful dissent in Catholicism as there is in Anglicanism. Diversity and Difference are the key themes in a world that is global and modern. Dialogue, mutual respect, and an expansive spirit should characterize those of us who believe in religion and its force for good. Benedict will have to engage in this encounter between faith and modernity if we can all learn to live in a way that is reasonable and human and compassionate. Can the Church embody this? Only if it lets go of some of its monarchical structure of unchanging truth towards a democracy where there is greater freedom to doubt and question as the basis of our pilgrimage.
What hope for Change? Wither Religion? It begins with our own journey towards truth. And our honesty about those things we know little about. And our readiness to have a big enough heart for change.