In rounding up some of the biggest news stories of the year, Chris Goswami looks at the UK’s cultural changes, covid enquiry and coronation from a Christian perspective 


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What we can learn from the past 12 months?

Britain became one of the most permissive societies in the world.

Here’s something you already knew: the UK is becoming increasingly liberal. That’s according to a study published earlier this year by The Behavioural Institute, Kings’ College London.

But here’s something you probably didn’t know: the UK is now among the “most permissive” nations in the world on topics like homosexuality, divorce, abortion and euthanasia.

For example, when asked “is homosexuality justifiable?” in the early 1980s only 12 per cent of Britons agreed. That figure is now over 66 per cent. 

So what? There are at least two “so whats”.

A liberal society tends to be more socially accepting. We definitely need more tolerance and inclusion. But it is also less concerned with traditional, biblical understandings. That hugely influences the popular view, for example, around same-sex marriage in churches. And we’ve seen this in recent weeks as both the Church of England and Catholic Church permit blessings for same sex couples.

Secondly, increasing permissiveness tends to be a slippery slope. There is always a push for more, and more. Consider the 1967 abortion act. This was initially brought in as a last resort for exceptional cases, but gradually society accepted abortion in more and more situations. The same is true for divorce laws and, in those countries where it is legal, euthanasia. All have gone down the same slope.

Being righteous after the event – Covid 19

For weeks now, we’ve heard the painful testimony of our politicians. What they did do, didn’t do, and should have done during Covid. Should they have had drinks at number 10? Should we have “eaten out to help out”?

It’s easy to judge with hindsight.

We believe that the passing of my wife’s mother was hastened by Covid. Being isolated, for weeks at a time, when there was a severe Covid outbreak in her care-home, accelerated the spiral downwards of her vascular dementia. She died earlier this year. Other people suffered worse. Some couldn’t even hold a funeral for their loved one.

But it wasn’t “wrong” of Boris Johnson and co to make poor decisions. We all make those. The challenges they faced were immense, and utterly new. On some days, 2,000 people were dying. The word “apocalyptic” was used. In such a crisis, can we honestly say we would have done better? (And the opposite idea, that “more people may have died because of lockdowns” - through missed cancer diagnoses, severe mental health effects and so forth - isn’t being addressed at all).

I feel that mistakes were understandable – even getting together for drinks. I’m trying to imagine being there at number 10. After an exhausting week, filled with death and my failed plans, in the midst of intense emotions, if someone invited me for a drink, I may well have said, “you bet”.

It’s easy to be righteous after the event.

For sure we need basic honesty from politicians when mistakes occur, and we need to make it OK for them to apologise. An early and genuine apology from Boris, instead of the rhetorical trail of: “I didn’t know…to the best of my knowledge….I was assured that ”, would have defused much that followed.

But society and the media pressurise politicians to make up statements to look good. We place enormous pressure on politicians to take the line of least resistance, to sound convincing, even to lie. A simple apology is seen as weakness.

The surprising difference between humans and machines

Here’s a staggering fact: there is now more funded research into AI than all other science and technology combined.

Here’s an unsurprising fact: in 2023 there was more news on AI than all other science and technology combined.

2023 also saw the world’s first church service devised, written and presented by AI (it wasn’t great). And the world’s first AI Global Summit, hosted by Rishi Sunak. I recently wrote about the disruptive nature of AI and the formation of The AI Christian Partnership. AI will hugely improve our healthcare, education, and efficiency.

But, amidst this global dash to “AI everything”, one question keeps poping up: what ultimately differentiates humans from AI? Is there an essential characteristic of being human that AI can never replace?

We know it’s not “conversation”. Some people say its “understanding” - AI doesn’t understand what it says. But I suggest our definition of “understanding” may need to change. There are even developments taking place to make AI sentient - conscious of itself.

I have heard Christians say, as a kind of end-of-discussion clincher, “AI doesn’t have a soul”. That is true but it’s also hard to explain – how do you define “soul”?

But for Christians, the answer is simpler, if unexpected.

AI is getting better at everything. There are no sensible limits to what it can learn. It may end up being great at everything. But being human means we are not great at everything. Sometimes we struggle sometimes we fail. That gives us empathy, humanity, even dignity.

This frailty, caring, failing is part of being human and it separates us from machines. It’s a kind of weakness God places within us that draws us to him. Someone said, the difference between a computer and a human playing chess isn’t how good they are. It’s the fact that the computer doesn’t care if it wins (…or if it loses). But we care.

God affirms our frailty to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul wants to be healed, to be “better”. But God says no, “my power is made perfect in your weakness”. And Paul responds “then I will boast all the more of my weaknesses for when I am weak then I am strong ”.

And Philip Yancey once wrote, “our weakness is the landing strip for God’s grace”.

It’s through our frailty that God can have a relationship with us. AI will never have a relationship with God, because, apart from other reasons, it doesn’t see that it needs one.

And LOADS of good things happened in 2023

For example, China – the country that contributes the lion’s share of CO2 reached a ”reverse tipping point” in 2023. That’s encouraging. China has now invested so much in solar, wind and hydro power, and electric vehicles, that it’s CO2 emissions are set to start shrinking as early as 2024.

Then there is the little-reported story of how the Irish Government is banning smartphones in primary schools. This is a result of parents deciding enough is enough.

I love technology. I made my living in Silicon Valley companies. But I am also very concerned about the negative impacts of phones on mental health, especially among children. Well done the Irish Government!

And lastly you may recall the coronation of King Charles III back in May. That surprised many of us, because it was so unashamedly Christian. 400 million people worldwide tuned in to join trumpets, fanfares, pomp, and a thoroughly Christian service.

And we can end with Justin Welby’s words that day: “The King of Kings, Jesus Christ, was anointed not to be served, but to serve…For Jesus Christ announced a Kingdom in which the poor and oppressed are freed from chains of injustice. The blind see. The bruised and broken-hearted are healed.”

That’s something that didn’t change in 2023.