Thought for the Day - Canon Angela Tilby

Good morning. Last night the second episode of 56 – Up was screened on ITV. This is the series which began nearly fifty years ago in 1964. The original producers had a hard hitting political agenda, to show how the outlook for our children is determined by their class origins. Fourteen seven-year olds were filmed talking about their lives and hopes and aspirations - and they have been revisited every seven years since then. They are now 56, in late middle age.

It’s been amazing to see the group as they are now, with flashbacks to the earlier versions of themselves. There’s seven year old Paul, neatly folding his bed in the charity boarding school he was brought up in, now a grandfather in Australia. Yet you can see in his face, the same hint of inwardness, even self-doubt that he had as a child. Or Neil, with his dreams of being an astronaut, now a preacher and an aspiring politician, still dreaming of what he hopes to become. On one level the premise of the programme has been proved. There is not much obvious class mobility. Those born affluent have found well paid occupations, those who started life less well off have had more than their share of illness and disability. But there has been another theme played out through the series. ‘Give me the child at seven and I will show you the man’, said the Jesuit Francis Xavier, a quote which greatly intrigued the programme-makers. The character of each child has unfolded through the series in ways that seem to the viewer to be almost predetermined. So much of what has happened to these children might have seemed random and accidental. And yet there is nothing random or accidental about the people they have become.

There is an endless theological debate about whether human beings really have free will or whether the outcome of our lives is predestined by God. The Reformation theologian John Calvin is often associated with the doctrine of predestination, but this is a wider notion than final salvation or damnation. Calvin thought God enjoyed his creation and wanted people to be different. He often compared the world to a theatre; and the drama of our lives to a play performed in the presence of God. It’s as though we improvise our way through life, and we experience freedom day by day. But all the time we are also speaking to a script, in the voice of that character which we have become by the age of seven, a character that – we might say - emerges from the interplay of our genes and early upbringing. The theatre of this world, for Calvin, is the theatre of God’s glory; and as I have looked at these ordinary lives, it has struck me how fascinating and varied and extraordinary the human person really is.

The programme makers may have begun with a political agenda, but they have ended with something almost mystical.

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