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We must not burden young people with ‘ancestor worship’

We must not burden young people with ‘ancestor worship’

The following article by the Most Revd John McDowell, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, was published in the Belfast Telegraph today (Thursday, 31st March 2022).

You can be fairly certain that something significant is going on in the world when the German language comes up with a new word to describe what is happening. Although the immediate occasion for coining the word Zeitenwende (historical turning point) was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it nevertheless sums up the hinge moment that many places around the world are stepping into.

In another context I described the build–up to that moment here in Ireland as “a time between times”; a moment of reflection or even of turmoil which gives birth to a new age. It will have continuities with the old age, but it will also have the strangeness of the future.

Perhaps most importantly, there is nothing inevitable about what the new age will look like. As with all periods in history it will be influenced by certain almost immutable factors, but it will take its decisive shape from the conscious choices which you and I make now. We should understand these choices as ultimately deciding our legacy to those who come after us. What sort of predecessors do we wish to be?

Any parent will be familiar with those hinge moments when they cease to be looked upon by their children as the source of all wisdom and virtue and instead begin to be regarded as almost unbelievably dim and wilfully blind to the glaringly obvious. Wise parents will probably see a large degree of truth in what their children are saying.

Our lives are closely bound together, but the way in which different generations see the world and experience it are, in many ways, profoundly different. The things that really matter to young people may be based around the same principles (of truth, love, justice etc.) but they are necessarily not the issues that mattered to their parents. This is as it should be. Our burdens or concerns should not inevitably be theirs too. Our stuff should not be their stuff.

Although it is not quite as fully developed as it is in China, we in Ireland have a strong undercurrent of ancestor worship flowing through our social, religious and political lives. It can be as trivial as “I’m glad your granny isn’t alive to see you going out dressed like that”, or as momentous as “The men of 1690/1916/1969/1998 etc. would turn in their graves to hear you say that”. We pass on some memories, ideas and attitudes because they have been important to us. But just as our children and grandchildren need to be left in freedom to make their own families, so we need to afford them a certain liberality to understand the past and to shape the future on a broader canvas.

And my generation has a positive part to play in creating this sense of liberality. Young people do not need “permission” to think differently (they have that permission inherently) but I think they would benefit from some encouragement, particularly the encouragement that comes from being listened to across generations and being taken seriously. And to take them seriously requires admitting our own failures and adjusting our behaviour accordingly – it is never too late to do that.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, people of my generation in Ireland were born, not only into a family, but into a tribe. Families can absorb difference. Indeed it is the difference between members of a family, rather than what they have in common, that gives family life colour and vigour. Tribes love the badges of uniformity. Families forgive; tribes only remember. Can my generation work with a younger generation to open the door to the future? Or will we remain in the advanced state of self–absorption which has prevented us from lifting our eyes from the textbooks of our traditions to see a further horizon?

One of the cornerstones of Christian discipleship is the practice of self–limitation for the good of others. It derives from the fact that Jesus Christ did not consider his equality with God as something to be taken advantage of; instead he took the form of a servant. Even in the act of creation, God who is entire in the Trinity of his being makes a space for something other to exist and thrive. Or to put it more straightforwardly, not insisting on our own privileges is in the nature of God. Perhaps by not foisting our priorities, taboos and shibboleths onto another generation we will leave a space for something truly new to happen.

So, what sort of ancestors will we be? Which bits of our stuff will we choose to hand on to our children and grandchildren as we help them in their colossal vocation of creating life–enhancing political, social and religious life in Ireland? Perhaps, as always, the challenge is best summed up in the simple pictorial language used by Jesus when he asked: “Which of you when your child asks for bread will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9).

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