On the future

What a month it has been. In time (how long will it take?) we will reflect on how a tiny bug brought the global traffic of human life to a crashing halt, but our initial reaction was mostly just shock. The suddenness of the lockdown in the UK took our breath away, leaving us scrabbling for meaningful activity to replace the things that had been taken away.

Now, as we move from shock (and a bit of denial) to a kind of acceptance, the semblance of a routine in the new normality, we are starting to think again. There is a great deal to think about. Coronavirus has revealed things about our society that were previously shrouded, both good and ill. It has forced us to examine our priorities - even Government ministers, not usually given to public introspection, have been heard to muse about a re-evaluation of what matters, afterwards.

As we think, then, about what comes after, so we have seen the emergence of the predictions. I've long been fascinated by the compulsion to predict the future. It is always present, but comes to the fore at times like this. Everybody, on social media and in mainstream outlets, is confidently predicting what the impact of this will be, despite the fact that the very existence of the crisis proves, to those who were not aware of it, that the future is never predictable. The church is no exception - literally within days of this starting, people were telling me what the impact would be on the Church of England.

I remember when the financial crisis first hit in 2007, there was a similar rash of predictions about how the world would be different. We would be more egalitarian, less consumerist, more spiritual, less hubristic, and so on. Very little of this came to pass. Probably the biggest short term impact was the introduction of austerity, which only had the effect of further impoverishing the most disadvantaged in society. Longer term, the stricter controls on banks arguably built more resilience into the existing order, rather than ushering in a new one.

The truth is that most predictions are only a statement of what the predictor would like to happen, rather than what will happen. Everyone hopes that the current crisis will finally prove their cherished hypothesis was right all along. So we have seen people telling us that after this, crowds will come flocking back to church, or that the churches will finally be deserted - take your pick, but understand that these only represent the desire of the person making the prediction.

Much of my work nowadays involves planning ahead, and one thing that is clear is that right now, all planning is off because the future is impossible to see. In a few more weeks, some sort of future will start to emerge and we can start looking ahead again, but it would be unwise to start that machine again too soon. A much better approach is to remain in the place where we are able to reflect on what this tells us, and what we are learning from this extraordinary time. Doing that, we will be better able to face the unknown future.


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