There have been some startling changes to the social fabric of the United Kingdom since the post-war period; here are just three which we should interpret carefully while responding to Christ’s call.
In a way it’s quite simply expressed: no-one under sixty years of age has experienced living with another monarch. Even those over sixty will remember only dimly what it was like to have a king. The Queen has been such an integral part of our common life that it is hard to imagine what it would be like without her. A role which began against a recent history of ravaging war and economic deprivation has taken the people of the United Kingdom through an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
So how have we changed as a nation in that time?
This is as good a moment as any to consider this, because a monarch’s reign, in a way, gathers up the aspirations and identity of a people. It is not possible do justice to the breadth and complexity of these changes in such a short space so I will focus simply on just three. We may feel strongly about some of these changes – for better or for worse – but there is little doubt they have happened and that we are a part of them.
The first is the change from ‘us’ to ‘me’. One of the consequences of the kind of war the nation had recently endured in 1952 is the way it draws people together, forging a social bond that endures under pressure and which adds resilience. The State also becomes more centralised in war to ensure the campaign is efficiently ordered under a chain of command. The impact of long periods of peacetime is to loosen not just political centralisation but the social bonds that once glued people together. We are much more individualistic in how we live. Me has become more important than us. This is demonstrated most graphically in declining commitments to voluntary organisations. Many readers may be heavily involved as volunteers in their local community but we should not deceive ourselves into thinking the broader picture reflects our private experience. People do less things together now face to face. This is due to several factors, including longer working hours, commuting and the emergence of compelling privatised forms of entertainment mediated through the TV, computer and gaming console.
There is a shift in attitudes as the war generation gives way to the baby boomers and beyond. One of the central dilemmas of public policy is how to manage this transition without losing a sense of common purpose and care for our neighbour. For some time it has felt like driving with a slow puncture. There is something inexorable about it, but few know what to do in an age which respects individual autonomy so assiduously.
The second change is identity is from producer to consumer. Britain had a strong manufacturing base sixty years ago but the picture has altered. We are now predominantly a service economy and women form a larger part of the workforce than before. Nevertheless, we see ourselves primarily as consumers. A subscription to Which magazine has become more important than the union membership card, if you like. Shopping is central to our identity and obstacles have been removed to enable this, not just in the liberalisation of Sunday trading laws but in an avalanche of media advertising which encourages even children to swap citizenship for ownership. This would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The change is reflected in our use of language: we are no longer passengers but customers on trains and we look to public services as consumers.
This begs the question: what is the mark of a good society? The primacy of Gross Domestic Product in determining this has led some to feel that it is a patriotic duty to go out and shop. Others are less sure and believe more intangible measurements are needed to express the purpose of life.
The third change during the reign of Elizabeth II has been legal. We speak of rights more than duties. This is one of the more difficult issues to tackle because it excites such passion. Human rights were established legally as a way of protecting the most vulnerable and their absence in some parts of our world is a grievous stain on humanity. Today the discourse in societies like ours, which are mercifully free of state torture and abuse, is on defining the limits of our personal rights. This is subject to a constant process of judicial review. For every right there has to be a reciprocal duty and so this process is profoundly altering the way we relate one to another. Many people feel the first step we should take towards the other is one of obligation. Establishing this priority in the changing landscape of custom and law is another task we are struggling with and it is vital we achieve it if we are to allocate the resources we need for the more vulnerable.
Celebrating Elizabeth’s reign this year is one way to bring some attention to these changes, because she has wished her role to offer a sense of ‘us’ rather than ‘me’ and of ‘duty’ rather than ‘right’. The Queen is often erroneously described as the ‘Head’ of the Church of England; she is actually its Supreme Governor. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church of England and it is distinction she will understand because one of the gifts we can be grateful for is the Queen’s personal faith in Christ which has informed her rule. There are countless other changes in her time which we could mention but the slow decline of Christianity and corresponding influence of the Church of England is one of the most striking. Some are content with that, but there is little doubt that Christianity’s declining role in public life has sharpened some of the trends and questions I have raised here. Amid these social changes, the Queen has carried her role with a sense of dignity, offering continuity and purpose. In this way her reign has witnessed - as we all can in our own fashion - to the sovereign rule of almighty God before whom all shall bow the knee.
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