Purists will argue whether a new decade begins in a year ending with a ‘0’ or a ‘1’, but – be that as it may – there is something significant about entering the ‘twenties’ of the twenty first century.
The twentieth century now seems a horribly long time ago, and those of us who were born in the middle decades of it seem all-too-senior as we tell our younger friends yarns of manned moon landings and of a time when Ireland had not even joined the EEC, as it then was.
It is rather startling for the likes of me to accept that it is some time now since secondary school students included any individuals who lived in the twentieth century, or indeed that I have been a bishop for longer than iphones have been available in Ireland!
There is often a tendency amongst historians and those who look backwards at events to try to identify the characteristic spirit of a particular decade. It may be a rather artificial thing to do, but we cannot avoid it. Thus, looking at the last century, we tend to speak of the roaring twenties or the swinging sixties. So what popular phrase might we hope will one day be identified with the ‘twenties’ of the present century, the period of years we are about to commence?
One always looks at the future with some hesitation, conscious of the uncertainty of life and the potential fragility of health. However, if I personally make it through the twenties, these years will probably prove to be the concluding chapter of my own ‘active’ ministry. They will bring with them such delights as free travel, admittedly not for some time yet!
I hope it is not a dangerous observation to make, but I do think one becomes rather more impatient as one gets older, not so much (I hope) with people but with the unaddressed questions and festering injustices with which one remains surrounded. Suddenly there seems less time left to postpone action, greater passion to see change in one’s lifetime, weariness with a concept beloved of the institutional church which I often term the ‘doctrine of the inopportune time’. (In other words, we accept that change is needed but we find reasons not to do it now and dress those reasons up in all sorts of charming and even supposedly rational guises).
Gladstone, the great Victorian Prime Minister who held that office into his eighties and who was largely responsible for the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland 150 years ago, was someone who appeared to think faster the older he got. . . his passion for what he considered to be noble causes grew and he was driven by an accelerated sense of moral purpose. He seemed to feel he had little left to lose by trying to achieve ends he believed to be right. He has been described as history’s great example of ‘an old man in a hurry’.
We will all have different hopes and ideals for the ‘twenties’, different views about how we might wish this decade ultimately to be labelled. But I reckon there is something to be said (and I don’t feel this is simply because of the stage of life I have reached) about approaching these years with a longing that they might be remembered as years of hurry. This is particularly and profoundly true regarding climate change – if we do not hurry towards further significant and effective action goodness only knows what sort of planet our successors will inherit not too many years hence. And there are many other areas of life where a real attitude of hurry would do no harm at all – the Church of Ireland itself needs faith to hurry towards a future that is actually already God’s, and we need to realize that the Kingdom of God does not greatly depend on the amount of accumulated baggage we love to cherish and the minding of which absorbs the bulk of our energy.
Christianity is good at contemplation, at encouraging calm reflection. But it also knows that, in its proper place, godly hurry can be at the heart of discipleship. Following Jesus should make us breathless, with little chance ever to go backwards. Mark’s Gospel, the first to be written, portrays a Jesus who is ever on the move, who teaches as he travels, who does things Immediately (and ‘immediately’ is a favourite word of Mark’s), who offers few opportunities for backward looks.
Just ‘Get on with it’ is a slogan that has become politically popularized in a perhaps unfortunate way in another jurisdiction not far away from us. But I for one dare to hope that the twenties in the life of our own church will be years of ‘getting on with it’ in the best sense, of stopping making excuses about our neglect of creation, of accepting that being viewed as people in a hurry might be the best compliment the world around us could pay us. The prophetic voice in society is after all the voice that tends to promote a response of urgency and hurry.
Let’s pray then that the twenties might be characterised by hurry in those areas where it is most needed. Truly I find the idea genuinely invigorating.
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory