Recently, some very striking demographic analysis has been undertaken into Irish population trends. To cut a long story (or perhaps, a rather intricate analysis) short, it has been suggested that by the year 2050 Ireland could have a population of 20 million (rather than the current 5 million or so), and that fewer than 6 million of these would then be indigenous Irish. If the trends on which this analysis is based continue, then Ireland would in just over one generation have been transformed from having the genetically most homogeneous population in Europe to having one of the most diverse. Indeed, the ‘old’ Irish would not even make up the biggest population group: that would be the Chinese.
This is interesting to me not least because, over the past year, I have visited China twice, and so this has caused me to muse how a ‘Chinese’ Ireland might appear in a few years time, and what it might mean — including what it might mean to organised religion. In China, things are changing faster than any of us could imagine in our own environment. Some of it is rampant materialism, but China is not a country without a hunger for something more profound. My guess is that a Chinese population in Ireland will be an innovative and tolerant and energetic population; those already here show all those signs.
So while I have been musing on this, the Anglican primates meeting in Ireland have been dealing with their own intercultural issues. They have had to confront the reality of a western liberal culture coming under attack, and in an elaborate ritual of trying to sit down somewhere more or less on top of the fence have, predictably, failed to be comfortable in this posture. Nobody could, with any confidence, try to predict what the Anglican family of the year 2050 will look like, based on this evidence from the prelates. But there are few signs that anyone is trying to construct a forward-looking vision of an intercultural Christian world.
My own instinct is to say that western liberalism — at least where it stresses the dignity of human lifestyles which do not hurt or oppress — is by now very well rooted in these soils, and will survive the new cultural mix, and possibly even thrive in it. Our new world is about releasing innovative energy, and not about trying to shoehorn all life and culture into a narrow selection of time capsules.
The church may turn out to be relevant to this, or it may turn out to be just a ghost. The time has come for us to assert the right of Christianity to be a signpost to the future, and not just a grim reminder of some of the less pleasant aspects of our past. We must celebrate diversity and renewal, not be frightened by it. It’s time to realise that the place for Christians is not on the fence.