After the shocks of 2016 it seemed like there was nothing left to happen!
What with the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of America’s unpredictable president – how do you top that?
2017 didn’t have the same shock value, but it did have its share of defining events. Here are just three...
1. We’re not becoming morally better, we’re becoming confused
Fifteen years ago Michael Fallon (the recently resigned UK Defence Secretary) placed his hand on the knee of a female journalist.
Was it predatory sexual harassment, or was it clumsy and stupid? What was the context? Was there light-hearted banter? I don’t know. But if you read the female journalist’s account, she regards it as an amusing story from her past that was blown out of all proportion. She says we appear to be returning to an age where: “… every interaction between a male politician and a and woman is now the subject of righteous investigation”.
More serious was the recent suicide of Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Labour Minister. Sargeant was immediately sacked when allegations of inappropriate conduct emerged against him. He was never actually told what he was being accused of. But there was a quick trial by Twitter and four days later he took his life. His family claims there was a lack of common courtesy and natural justice.
Have we entered a frame of mind where we automatically and self-righteously believe almost any accusation? Our media has, and I think maybe we have. Accusations get media coverage while an accusation that later proves false does not get equal treatment. It’s just not a great headline to say "…umm it didn’t happen after all".
We need to take care. There are sexual poster-villains in our midst. Jimmy Savilles, Harvey Weinsteins; and worse, those who operate invisibly in our offices, schools, organisations, and we must face it, churches. Michael Fallon has other accusations against him – and in any case it’s never acceptable to place a hand on the knee of someone who isn’t intimately known to us. But we need a proportionate response. And we don’t help the cause of young women by telling them they are all victims.
Lining up to shout "burn the witch" after every #metoo accusation may make us feel morally superior. But it does not make us morally better.
2. Christians with traditional views are the new heretics
Do you have opinions which you believe to be biblical and traditional? If you do, then your views are unacceptable.
Traditional, biblical views do not conform to the politically correct agenda of our liberal Western society. In that sense, you are promoting unacceptable opinions. You are a heretic.
Over the past year examples included a church school banned from conducting assemblies and teaching on "traditional marriage" disappearing from school lessons on sex and relationships. An Oxford college came close to banning its Christian Union. And we heard about the Christian parents blocked from adoption because they think children should have a mum and a dad. In every case, it’s the traditional view that is shouted down.
This topic boiled over in June when Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. This was because of his answers to a journalist who repeatedly peppered him with the question "is gay sex a sin?" . Farron was singled out because he dared to have a view based on his faith (even though, bizarrely, his view is liberal!). At his resignation he commented: “I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in…we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society."
Well known commentators and interviewers behave as though any opinion arising from faith must be ridiculed and excluded. Shows of faith are allowable at times of national ceremony like a royal wedding, but otherwise they regard such opinions as intolerant and a dangerous threat to society. Unfortunately, these people fail to see that their position is itself therefore an intolerant worldview that does not allow any other worldview.
Secularism itself leads to an intolerant worldview.
3. The search for spirituality has never been greater
Every year a survey pops up that claims to show a national decline in faith. And 2017 was no exception. In September the British Social Attitudes survey reported that 53% of people in the UK are now "non-religious".
That sounds like bad news.
But this survey was not about faith. It was about people’s association with organisations such as the CofE or the Catholic Church. We already know fewer people attend formal Sunday services. That’s not news. People have been leaving mainstream Sunday services since the 1950s. Before that we had 'Christendom', when everyone had to go to church to fit in with society. You became a Christian by inertia, you were born into it. Although some hearken back to the good old days when the pews were packed, they were packed with nominal believers, attending against their will.
But not only is this not newsworthy, it misses what really is interesting: the spirituality we see all around us.
Successive studies report that 50-60% of people claim to have been “influenced by a presence or a power”. Nick Spencer from the think-tank Theos in a recent interview stated that eccentric and paranormal spiritual beliefs have been on the rise over several generations. A study earlier this year concluded that the main reason for young people coming to faith was a church building. And of course there is always interest in meditation techniques, horoscopes, an after-life and so forth.
It makes sense if you think about it. Few of our friends are hardened atheists and would state "there is no God" definitively. Most have some personal idea of spirituality. It is often primitive – like when a minister friend of mine was asked to baptise a dog (seriously) - but it’s there.
We can dismiss it as superstition, or we can try to work with it. Primitive spirituality can be a millstone or a stepping stone for churches. Which one? Well that’s down to us.
This article first appeared on 7minutes.net and is re-used with permission