Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings - 07/01/2013

As a parish priest you get to know people in all social groups. That's the job. Those groups sometimes seem worlds apart. This year, however, at social gatherings in both the inner-city and suburbia, there is a shared nervousness about the future in this harsher economic climate.

In the 1980s parish priests got used to hearing about the worries of working class people as older, smoke-stack industries began to disappear – steel, cutlery, ship-building, coal mining. For some it meant lay-offs, redundancies, unemployment. But even those in work experienced an underlying anxiety that never quite went away. However secure a job might seem, you knew you might yet go the way of your out-of-work neighbour.

Now one detects similar anxieties among middle class people – if not for themselves, then for their children or grandchildren. No one denies that the national deficit has to be brought down, but those who previously seemed financially secure, now join those who have often found life a struggle, and share similar worries.

As people talk I hear words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The foundations of the earth do shake…earth reels like a drunken man. Earth rocks like a hammock.’
Isaiah was talking about some natural upheaval – an earthquake perhaps. But it seems an appropriate metaphor for equally destructive events that we bring on ourselves, often without knowing what we are doing, and, seemingly, with limited power to stop them.

We’ve understood for some time that if we mistreat the natural world the foundations of the earth will shake. That is what global warming is all about. But we thought the financial world was different. It didn’t matter how much we exploited that, it would remain solid and secure under our feet. Now we know that's not true; the foundations are shaking: the financial world also reels like a drunken man and rocks like a hammock.

The 1980s industrial decline led to the unravelling of the social fabric of many working class communities. People there have had to re-learn resilience – or go under. Some have gone under, but others have re-made their localities as neighbourhoods – places where people take the time to get to know one another - because you never know when you might suddenly need a little help - with child care or a lift to a distant hospital. Middle class people are having to do something similar.

In this, religious and voluntary groups play a crucial role, because they practice what creates neighbourliness – building regular, informal contacts between people; welcoming new arrivals into the community; supplying surrogate grannies; giving emotional as well as practical support. We need to get better at sustaining these networks of neighbourliness. They are key to surviving in a harsh climate and without them the future will be an uncomfortable place. For the foundations of the world we once knew, are being shaken.

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