I dipped in and out of the coverage of the Pope's visit to Britain last month but one thing which stuck in my mind was a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a joint service at Westminster Abbey. The Pope spoke too of course but what I remember most are these words spoken by the Archbishop:-
'Work is so often an anxious and obsessive matter, as if our whole value as human beings depended upon it; and so, consequently, unemployment, still a scourge and a threat in these uncertain financial times, comes to seem like a loss of dignity and meaning in life.
'We live in an age where there is a desperate need to recover the sense of the dignity of both labour and leisure and the necessity of a silent openness to God that allows our true character to grow and flourish by participating in an eternal love.'
I thought it one of the most profound and beautiful statements I have heard about the nature of humanity and human dignity in a long time. I found myself thinking about those words quite a bit over the intervening weeks because the truth is that we do identify ourselves in terms of what we 'do'. I remember that when I first arrived in London in 1987, being struck by how almost the first question people would ask about you was "and what do you do?" and one sensed very quickly that this is how your value as a person was judged. Where I came from, it was considered bad manners to ask such a thing and even worse to volunteer the information. In many ways, although they would have dismissed such a suggestion as nonsense, that level of civility was the essence of what we might now consider to be 'cool'.
What I've been pondering is I suppose what Dr Williams was saying which is, if our whole identity is tied up in our work, what or who are we when that unexpectedly disappears? And what happens if that event ie unemployment is repeated on a mass scale ?
Maybe the scale of the measures announced last week as they become clear over the next few years and the consequent effect on the public services will mean that for instance the unpaid work done by the many volunteers up and down the country will be valued more, rather than ignored or worse, simply taken for granted .
I'm not done with this yet...