Academic and Civic leaders attending the Annual Town and Gown Mass at St Andrew's Cathedral, Dundee with Bishop Stephen Robson

Christ the King – Civic Mass


DSC_0049Addressing Civic and Academic leaders at the Annual Town and Gown Mass in St Andrew’s Cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King, on Sunday 22nd November 2015, Bishop Stephen Robson, Bishop of Dunkeld said:

“My Dad is ill at ease with the modern world! He is 90 and heavily shocked with the world around him. Because of vascular dementia, my mum is on the other hand, happily unaware of things and shocks impinging too much on her life. Take last Friday for example, both had lived through the last war, but after Paris, despairingly my dad said: ‘Happy I’m on the way out.’ It is not only the violence and the threat of a widespread regional war – perhaps even wider, or as the Pope said last week: we are already in WWIII, but as yet it is piecemeal. It is also the cultural changes, the rapid change in moral mores and what society in general is prepared to accept as usual, regular, normal, cope-able with that makes me suspect, even convinced, that my dad and countless others are in culture shock.

What is culture shock?

A dictionary definition will help…. ‘Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.’

Of course all of the parameters maybe don’t apply according to the sociological definition.

But one aspect does:

If we say… culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due a move between social environments.

If there is too much change, too quickly, too insistently, and too deeply then shock will be the result.

I’m sure my dad isn’t alone; I reckon there may be millions just like him – and not just the elderly either! Even I – and I am only 65 and have lived in a number of other cultures – I often don’t recognise some of the things around me now, some of the practices, lifestyles, societal mores, as even remotely related to the world I grew up in. Even I sometimes feel that the world is running away from me or rather those of us who might be a little slow to adapt, a bit reluctant, a bit more stubborn maybe (?) are getting left behind.

For in some ways in the last few years Cultural change has reached fever pitch: While we’ve always experienced social engineering by successive governments it is the increased pace of social change, mainly caused by a raft of far-reaching and seriously deeply penetrating statute legislation by both Westminster and Holyrood parliaments, have left many people in a state of culture shock.

The result is that we, as a society, could be in danger of losing our social and spiritual anchor and even our spiritual coordinates.

Perhaps those who are younger among us can absorb such a pace of change, and such a breadth of change better. I’m not so sure though: even young people often feel disorientated, rootless in a world in which they experience interminable change.

Maybe especially the young are assaulted on all sides by new radical ideas: Marriage and family models which have undergone a sea change in rapid succession; the kind of social engineering that challenges and even demolishes what we have known and accepted by the vast majority of our society for centuries, even millennia; the axiom, which now seems to be embedded, that change is always for the better and will be the most progressive choice for all of us; and that is not even to mention the constant threat of terrorism, rumours of wars and unrest which undermines the mental and physical security of all of us and which may be beyond the control of ordinary mortals like us.

Yes, I really do suspect that many of us here are in a state of culture chock with the kind of social and cultural changes we have to absorb and endure. In a highly globalised world all the world’s challenges and problems seem as if they are in sprouting in our own back yard.

Our moral coordinates; our bedrock assurances; even our religious truths and those much-treasured religious securities which we rely on to keep us focussed and resilient and sane; at times even these seem to desert us. It seems that nothing seems sacred any more and are untouchable and unchangeable.

God’s people in the Israel of the Old Testament had a similar experience to the culture shock we are experiencing today. First in the exodus and secondly in the Babylonian Exile 586-538

In the Exodus the people coming from Slavery in Egypt to freedom after the flight across the red sea. After the shock of the departure from what they knew they had to learn to depend on God in their sojourn through the desert and be formed into a people. Disorientation led to adjustment and then to identity as they eventually entered the Promised Land. But the transformation was gradual and generations passed before it was complete. Even they suffered culture shock.

The Exile (587-538 BC) was altogether a much quicker and harsher change and shock for them. Before the Babylonian Exile King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and especially the Temple, the institution that gave the people their identity; their God present among them. They lost their businesses, religion, family structures, securities and homes as they were carted into exile in Babylon.

Disorientated, the people were in deep crisis. Crisis gave way to shock, and reflection on the past and the goodness that God had shown them, which led to a longing for what was lost: the longing inspired one of the most beautiful of all the psalms: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept remembering Sion’. They had come to realise the good things from God that they had lost, repented and looked forward for the Exile to come to an end.

After the Exile, and with the return to Jerusalem and the recovery of lost and cherished memories, recovery was swift but it would have to be said that ‘things were never quite the same again. Return was not to where they were before’. Nothing was quite the same again.

But, is all this thought simply a nostalgic call, a deep sigh for things lost, a yearning for better times – or perceived better times? Perhaps easier times to make sense of, to understand? To make sense of the senseless we sometimes feel?

In today’s Civic Mass we gather as city fathers, leaders of public services, religious leaders, university chancellors and other educational experts and civil institutions: fire, ambulance, police, City Councillors and Members of Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. We all gather to ask God’s blessing on how we try our best to lead our people in the best way we can and which is appropriate to our understanding of life and what we want our society and country to become.

Today also we reach the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, the King, the ultimate source, Catholics believe, of all religious and civil authority, governance and power. How did today’s Feast originate?

Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925 in the face of political change and cultural change which was sweeping Europe in the aftermath of the First World War.

With his Encyclical Letter Quas Primas, Pope Piux XI reminded the people of his time, unsettled by change and instability that the ultimately stability is only to be found in the Kingdom of Christ the King. Some of his words are prophetic even today:

“The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal. If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

And as the Gospel today reminded us, and as the empurpled Christ before Pilate retorts: ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; Yes I am a King I was made for this’, and as the Gospel authors remind us; through our baptism we access the security of this Kingdom now. Only the Kingdom will furnish that security we seek, nothing else. It is Christ that enables us to cope with and to assimilate such rapid change and be able to see the truth in them from the chaff and whatever conflicts with his truth and standard. In such rapid social and cultural change, the only real succour, the only genuine moral compass is Christ.

What can we say of the pace of change and the depth of cultural challenges we face? Let all of us – leaders of church and state, civil institutions and centres of learning – be aware of the fragility we sometimes expose our people to. Let all of us: legislators, policy makers, city governors, religious leaders, society builders, social engineers; leaders of the universities and the scientific community and educational community – let us be aware of the power we yield and potential to engineer attitudes and social values to nudge people into areas of life they are not yet perhaps, ready or fitted or equipped to enter. Equally, let us be aware of the social forces that can easily de-stabilise society and leave the vulnerable and fragile among us knocked off their equilibrium and leave them all at sea without a rudder. Let us always be mindful of the long-term effects of seriously social change on society in Church and in State.

Each of us constructs our reality from the building blocks that our parents, families, communities and societies provide us with. There may occasionally be times when our understanding of reality needs challenged and our comfort zone might even be required to change. As leaders, let our approach then always be gentle and to convince, rather than to cajole or unnecessarily to command. The key to future challenges is to build on past triumphs, for continuity rather than discontinuity, for learning from past mistakes in such a way that we do not make them all over again in the future.

+ Stephen Robson

Bishop of Dunkeld