This is an edited version of a sermon given at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, on Sunday 3rd June 2012.
At Cross Street Chapel there are probably as many opinions about the institution of the monarchy, or about the lifestyle of the Royal family, as there are members. Nevertheless, we are here amid a huge national celebration: the Diamond Jubilee – 60 years of the reign of Elizabeth the Second as Queen of the United Kingdom, constitutional monarch of 15 other sovereign states, and Head of the Commonwealth.
After 60 years, the proportion of the population of this country who were alive when a previous monarch was on the throne is now firmly the minority. It would be hard to imagine what public life would be like without Queen Elizabeth at its head. She has been background through most of, if not all of our lives.
What is particularly remarkable is that the duties of monarch are being carried out by an 86-year old woman. Still devoted to her service. Still travelling, still actively present in society, and still popular for it. Perhaps it’s because of Queen Elizabeth’s hereditary status, maybe it’s her skill in diplomacy, or her position above all of our squabbling politicians. Perhaps it’s the image cultivated of the Queen as a matriarch, a grandmother figure, smiling and caring – it’s the image of an old woman out of her place at the top of the tree, yet seemingly in her place: uncontroversial, gentle, doing the things she’s expected to do.
It’s a stark contrast to society’s wider trends: the population of the UK, and much of the Western world, is ageing, yet we still cling to a value in youth, with its perception that it is in youth that energy, ideas, competence, and capability are found. This is demonstrated most clearly through our parliamentary politics: our government is largely composed of a group of men in their early to mid-forties.
As an 86 year old, Queen Elizabeth is rightly lauded for her contribution to public life, but how many other 86 year olds, male or female, are honoured for the same, or are encouraged to contribute to their community or society? In society at large, children go to school, they grow up into adults, they work and bring up families, they retire, they’re expected to be grandparents, and if they become too much of a burden by that time, they are moved into the social care system, which may involve care in a residential facility, or more often now in their own home. This may look a caricature, but it demonstrates how as a society we have quite set ideas as to what is expected from different age groups.
This is a way of thinking that is challenged by the theory of the Life Course. The life course approach has its origins in the 1920s, but is only now being experimented on and understood more widely. A Life Course approach recognises that ageing takes place throughout one’s life as a biological and physiological process. Ageing is not something that happens after 40, or 50, or 60, or any defined age: it starts at birth. The Life Course approach also holds that changes in bodily capability are inevitable, but are influenced by behaviour, environmental factors and societal attitudes. The Life Course approach is not without controversy, but it has given rise to the position that social policy, public health and social attitudes should endeavour to include all age groups, particularly older generations, in activities such as work, social activities and public amenities. Essentially, the Life Course approach tries to assert that all age groups can contribute to society, and all age groups should make society as accessible and inclusive as possible, so that all generations can take part to the best of their abilities.
In preparing this address, I came across two founders of world religions, whose lives have been documented, or at least mythologised, to show how they have been influenced by the changes that have taken place during their life course.
The Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, received his first revelation at the age of 40. He spent the rest of his years preaching and teaching about his revelations. Unlike Jesus, where little is known about his childhood or youth, it is recorded that Muhammad was orphaned and brought up by his uncle. We also know that he was married and had worked as a merchant before he received his first revelations. A trade which allowed him to spread his message, and in turn influenced future generations, bringing about the spread of Islam through large parts of the world.
Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is written to have been born a prince in a palace away from the sufferings of the outside world. As an adult, around the age of 29, he left his palace and his family to go on his existential quest to discover human condition. Having rejected the teachings of monks, hermits and the ascetic life, Siddartha’s meditation under the Bodhi tree led him to enlightenment, which took place around the age of 35. Like the prophet Muhammad, Siddartha, who became known as Buddha – the enlightened one – spent the rest of his life teaching the truths he had discovered.
Like the figure of Jesus in the Christian tradition, little about Buddha’s or Muhammad’s life can be substantiated as historical fact. But what we see with the examples of Muhammad and Buddha are life course stories – whole lives, retold here very briefly, but lives where one event influenced another, where the whole life story has a degree of importance and significance. It is indeed a fundamental Buddhist teaching, one that the Buddha learned very early on in his existential quest, that ageing, suffering and illness are inevitable.
Within our Unitarian community, taking a life course approach could be difficult. Many Unitarian congregations are made up mostly, or entirely of people above retirement age. This congregation, meanwhile, is very unusual, as it has two main age cohorts of people: one group in the twenties and thirties, and one cohort above retirement age, with only a few in that wide age range in between. How do we value each other’s life experiences? How do we share together as people of different ages, in a society that often segregates itself according to age?
One example of a Life Course approach to valuing the contribution of different ages has become known as Intergenerational Practice. Intergenerational Practice tends to have 3 hallmarks:
* members of different generations mutually benefiting one-another
* people from different generations working together to address community issues
* people from different generations learning together
For a practice to be intergenerational involves more than just different generations being present. It requires sharing and contribution by all age cohorts present. It requires us to value the experience and insight of all generations.
Here’s something to think about: how do we as a community support the different generations? How do we work together? How do we learn together? How can we understand each other and our spiritual searches better? What do we do well? What could we improve on?
Of course there are things we as a community should do better in terms of intergenerational practice. I would also add that there is still value in intragenerational activity, where individual age cohorts will convene among themselves. I think there are many things we do well together across the generations in our community, and there are some things we can do better, not least in dealing with the challenge of hosting a children’s group and including young families, in a congregation mostly made up of people who are single, or attending without their families.
Thinking back to some of the words earlier this service, we heard from Quaker Faith and Practice: “As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.” Let us recognise ourselves as an intergenerational community, beginning by appreciating that we are here together, in this moment, sharing our time, sharing this occasion.