Sunday, 18 August 2013

Spirituality for the modern times

I hear that Rowan Williams never wanted to be Archbishop of Canterbury, but at the time he was appointed, it wasn't really offered to him as a choice. He comes across as an articulate, cerebral man, but for whom the challenges of matching daily realities of life with the considered thesis of his religious beliefs held a responsibility and a demand for compromise that he was never really comfortable with.

That he has weighed and considered views is clear. But perhaps they are not worldly, and he has always appreciated that about himself. His strengths lie in the philosophical appraisal of the issues that surround modern religion, but not in the translation of his theses into a political reality.

It is interesting to contrast the approach that he took as Archbishop with the approach being taken by the new incumbent, where the emphasis is shifting from the doctrine of Anglican Christianity, to the practical role of the Anglican Church in modern life. Justin Welby seems to be taking the view that while faith is waning, there is still a considerable role for the Anglican Church as a force for good in social cohesion, and the relief of poverty and suffering. This is still an approach clearly underlined by Christian thinking, but which accepts that there is little to be done to persuade people back to belief, as that is not how religious faith works. A Christian way of life is partly defined by the beliefs you hold, but perhaps as important as that, is the manner in which your beliefs encourage you to behave.

There is something implicit in much of the teaching of Christianity, and perhaps other world religions, that makes sense. They were forged in eras of different social standards, and different world views, but encapsulate much that remains true of society that functions largely outside the purview of formal religious practice. Much of what Christianity preaches to its followers equally valued and agreed by those without formal religion, or without faith at all.

It is therefore refreshing to see the Church trying to act as a force for non-denominational good (although one wonders whether payday loans were the best place to start) and it is refreshing to hear a former Archbishop talk with reference to his own beliefs, but with application to anyone at all, about the meaning of spirituality. (

Ignore the reductionist title of the article. Rowan Williams it seems was arguing for perspective in the face of adversity. He seems to reason that life has never been entirely easy, and nor should we expect it to be. He also seems to argue that he has benefitted from his own reflections on both what spirituality means for him, and what it means for others. In particular, I applaud his suggestion that we should seek to avoid too much self-congratulation for our perceptions of our own spiritual awareness and practice.

In particular, Williams argues that spirituality is not just about nurturing the way that you feel in yourself, but about nurturing how you interact with each other.

That is perhaps a salient message for the times. Is it perception or reality that the zeitgeist is defined by what we can achieve for ourselves, rather than what we can achieve as part of our communities? If you agree, then you perhaps will also agree that the sensitive and considered suggestion that a challenge for all of us is to foster a greater sensibility to the impact we have on others, and the emphasis on turning our influence in to positive experiences for those around us.

Rowan Williams is self-deprecating in his understanding of how others view him. But he also runs the risk of being inspirational. 'Spiritual care mean[s]....filling out as much as possible the human experience."

I read the linked article the day after I wrote my last blog, and there was a resonance. There is something meaningful about understanding that there should be importance placed on magnifying our spiritual impact. I mean spiritual in a totally agnostic fashion. There can be the appreciation that our impact on the world could be measured meaningfully through our impact on all the people around us.

For those who work in healthcare for example, this includes, but is not limited to our patients. It also includes our colleagues, our families and our friends.

And therein lies the theme. The quality of care we offer in our hospitals and GP surgeries is significantly influenced by the training of the staff, and the systems in place, but it is also surely influenced by the ability of the staff, and perhaps also the patients, to be spiritually tended.

Perhaps 'spiritual' is the wrong word - it has the wrong overtones. But what is a better one to suggest that we are most effective if we are aware that it is not just with our patients that we have the opportunity to offer good, but with the other people that the successful discharge of our jobs involves?

This requirement is not emphasised enough, and it is not formalised enough. We should make time to develop it better.

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