“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1863-1952)

This great quotation has echoed down the generations, and has been revived by many others including Winston Churchill. But whereas in days gone by the pace of change enabled it to be accommodated, holding on to lessons from the past is now becoming increasingly difficult, so that often people would prefer to re-write history than to learn from it. Disruption is the order of the day, whether in business, personal life or religion.

I have been an elected lay member of the Church of England’s General Synod for the past 22 years. One of the many things I have learnt over this time is that the Church’s main role is to be the vehicle which carries the Christian faith afresh to each new generation. Its performance in so doing has varied massively over the past two thousand years: sometimes it has succeeded, sometimes it has failed - spectacularly - and on several occasions it has needed divine intervention such as the Visions of St Francis to get it back on an even keel. However it is an organisation made up of us fallible humans, and some would say that this is therefore bound to be the case.

The Church moves exceptionally slowly, and currently has a major problem keeping up with the pace of change. This is illustrated graphically by one of the formal questions asked during our February Synod (by one of my colleagues from the Oxford Diocese): “The latest statistics for mission have shown that the average church attendance by children, defined as under 16, fell by 22% between 2006 and 2016. What plans are in place to discuss the reasons behind this dramatic drop-off in overall church attendance by young people and, in doing so, to include a study on the many individual congregations within our church who are managing to reverse this trend?”

It was answered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who confirmed that mission and ministry among and by children and young people is indeed prioritised. Having been reminded of Philip Pullman’s attack on organised religion in BBC4’s ‘Imagine’ documentary last week, which resonates so easily with today’s fluid cultural norms, it is easy to understand why it’s such an uphill task. However our saving grace is that the Christian faith is built on a central core value which is also a fundamental principle of modern life, to love your neighbour as yourself, whatever their circumstances or background.

The pace of change is challenging in almost every walk of life at present:

  • for companies, who must continually reassess their business models to stay on top of the torrent of technological change and online competition: think Maplin and Toys ‘R Us for two very recent casualties who haven’t kept up;
  • for older folk, with familiar means of communications and everyday life being replaced by email they can’t access and internet they can’t manage;
  • for individuals in positions of governance and responsibility, as behaviour and speech which may have been considered acceptable as they climbed the ladder is now deemed inappropriate, not just in the present but also in the past: there’s hardly a day when the media doesn’t put someone in the proverbial ‘stocks’;
  • for family structures, challenged by that other principle of modern living, of ‘anything goes, as long as it’s with a consenting adult’: think of the burgeoning number of young people in care, think of traditional cultures who see such liberal changes in society as an attack on their way of living.

Of course these are just a few examples, and I don’t envy history teachers who struggle to explain the past in the context of modern changing culture. But life goes on and the baton must be passed down: for the old will die, and the young will take their place.

When the pace of change is so fast it’s difficult to build onto stored values of human experience, rather than reinvent the wheel. But that is our unique ability among living species, and Santayana was right on the button with his famous quote at the head of this letter. But it’s not only about social mores, it’s also about demographic change.

Wikipedia defines demographics as ‘the quantifiable characteristics of a given population’, and David Willetts waxes lyrical about our own UK situation in his book ‘The Pinch’.

However as the world gets more interconnected the demographics of different countries overlap and push against each other: that’s no doubt why the Central Intelligence Agency holds a full analysis of each nation’s population segmented by age band and gender.

One such country is China, whose young generations are heavily distorted by 35 years of the ‘One Child Policy’. This programme has heavily distorted not just the balance between generations but also the male:female ratio, as their population pyramid chart shows: in the 0-14 year age band there are 17% more males than females. One shudders to think how this came about.

It poses major questions for the decades ahead. If we think Japan’s economy is starved of dynamism by an ageing population, China’s demographics suggest a much worst problem to come. Will robotics save the day, as far as production is concerned? But robots are not consumers, so who will provide the demand?

And lest we think that we’re out of the woods in the developed Western countries, we should remember that our birth rate struggles to keep up as the generations are fragmented; and that male sperm count is falling dramatically. Meanwhile Africa, which holds one of the world’s greatest store of young people, is deeply challenged by almost wholly dysfunctional education and governance.

So the words of George Santayana may well come back to haunt us, but we must struggle to keep the inheritance of knowledge intact for the sake of future generations. One valiant initiative to provide this leadership is the recently formed Wilberforce Alliance, established by Colin Bloom - who used to present Share Radio’s Share Politics programme. He has a vision of educating 100,000 world leaders by the centenary of William Wilberforce’s death in 2033, and would welcome support to get his new foundation underway.

So perhaps all is not lost - but it’s a hard road ahead ..

Gavin Oldham

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