In 2013 we got a new Pope, a new Archbishop of Canterbury and a new Chief Rabbi.
As far as I can make out only once before have all these three faiths got a new leader in the same year. This was in 1758 when Clement 13, Thomas Secker and Hart Lyon took office; indeed only in two other years – 1903 (Pope and Archbishop) and 1991 (Archbishop and Chief Rabbi) – did even two new leaders arrive in the same year.
The trio arrive at a time of great challenges to all faiths as the nature and practice of faith is changing so very quickly. They have great responsibilities and it will be most interesting to see what they make of their opportunities.
In their own ways they have all started to put their own identifying marks upon their leadership roles and they have begun to generate responses to the change that they are perceived to represent.
But 2014 will be the year which defines their office. The new leaders will have formed initial opinions and impressions and they will have learned a bit about both the constraints and the opportunities of their role.
For those they lead, receptiveness to their message of change, whatever it is, will be greater now than at any later time. And the conservative blocks opposing change, however necessary, will be able to strengthen themselves over time once they get the measure of the new leader and his ambitions.
So, for them, 2014 is the year to seize the time. What should they be trying to achieve?
I would say that in many ways they all face similar challenges.
– They have to try and align the stances of their whole leaderships more closely with the beliefs and aspirations of the members of their own churches. Without a better alignment, the steady drift of members away from the organised churches will continue.
– They have to establish more clearly the value and purpose of their church, its ‘unique selling point’ in a world where change takes place at an accelerating pace and an increasing number of ‘false Gods’, some beneficent and some truly evil, offer their wares simply and easily by modern techniques.
– They have to find better ways of emphasising the positive values and beliefs which churches have at their core, whilst reducing the public impact of zealots who sometimes appear to the wider public to be the main voices of religion.
– They have to consider carefully the way in which their churches relate to the wider society and so how their church really can be a force for good in helping society as a whole address the very real challenges posed by social, technological, political and economic change. And that requires clarity about which traditional values of society the churches should be fighting to preserve and which modern changes it should be embracing with enthusiasm. Where it gets that wrong, as I think it often has, both church and society will suffer and be rendered less able to help individuals address the challenges of their own lives.
And finally, in our increasingly globalised world, the churches have to decide to what extent a common world-wide doctrine, and at what level of detail, can unite a global faith community whose members live in such varied conditions, and themselves experience change in such an enormous variety of different ways.
This last topic will, on February 26th, be the second of the third series of Westminster Faith Debates which Professor Linda Woodhead and I co-convene. Our 2014 focus is on the international dimension of the relationship between religions and the wider societies.
But the 2014 focus for our new faith leaders will need to run right across all the issues I mention above. The challenges of the time very much need addressing and these new leaders won’t have a better time to do it.
For them it’s the year in which they have to seize the time and we should all give them encouragement and support as they seek to do that.
Charles Clarke is Visiting Professor in Politics and Faith at Lancaster University, and co-convenor of the Westminster Faith Debates. Charles was Labour member of Parliament for Norwich South from 1997 until 2010, serving as Secretary of State for Education from 2002 to 2004, and then as Home Secretary until 2006.