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Transforming the communities of Essex & East London through Christ’s presence

Bishop Stephen’s New Year message

Only the lonely

How will the age we are living in be remembered? Many already refer to it as the digital age. But I read an article before Christmas which suggested that it might be more appropriate to call it the age of loneliness.[1]

According to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development we are the loneliest country in Europe. The number of people in the UK living on their own has doubled since the 1970s. Single person households now make up a third of all homes.  We are least likely to have close friendships, and a survey in 2010 found 60% of people aged between 18 and 34 described themselves as lonely. These same young people dream of fame and riches but not much else. They have hundreds of virtual friends, but not many real ones. Older people – also tired and lonely - resort to TV. Many say it is their principal source of company. And a favourite programme of late has been watching other people watch TV!

Our motorways are clogged with cars, jammed end to end and going nowhere. Most have only one person in them.  It is a perfect illustration of our dependence upon technology, and the isolation it breeds. These things – cars, computers, TVs, mobile phones – they were supposed to make our lives easier, and in so many ways they have, and, no, we can’t turn the clock back, but there has been a cost. We are more likely to know the names of the inhabitants of Albert Square than our own neighbours. And that is a terrible indictment on what our society has become. Indeed, I was recently talking to a young Ugandan woman who has moved to this country and is worshipping in one of our churches and asked her what she made of England. She said she was happy here, and glad of the opportunities this country was giving her and her son. But she said people don’t talk to each other. People don’t welcome each other into their homes. People seem lonely.

Well – wait for it! – there is help available. I read another article in another magazine which was offering a remedy for all this isolation.[2] Cuddle workshops! This popular therapy began in New York in 2004. It came to England a few years later; and now, at the knockdown price of £29.00 per session, you can purchase a place at a cuddling workshop.

Cosmologists tell us that the universe is expanding all the time, the stars and the planets moving further and further away from each other, and, one day, so far away from us that the night sky will be permanently black. Is this also what is happening to us? The expansion of our knowledge leading to a separation from our humanity? And what could we do about it?

The Christian faith teaches that God is a community of persons: Father Son and Holy Spirit; and that we human beings are made for community: with God and with each other. Moreover, we are at our best and most happy and most fulfilled when we live in community. This isn’t quite saying: no wonder we’re lonely, we’ve lost God. But it is saying that by keeping the idea of God alive the local church also keeps the idea of community alive. The local church is probably the one place left in Britain where people of different ages, ethnicities, abilities and aspirations meet together regularly and know each other by name. There are other tremendous forces for good which bring people together: the University of the Third Age; our community schools; even, where there is one still standing, the local pub. But the church has a particular vocation and calling to be the place where the lonely and the isolated are welcomed in and community is built.

January can be a cold and lonely month. Let us reach out to our neighbours at this time of year; and may our churches be places of welcome to all.

[1] George Monbiot, The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us, The Guardian, 14 October 2014
[2] Sophie McBain, Fighting Loneliness at a Cuddle Workshop, New Statesman, 12-18 September 2014