THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: DECEMBER 1997

That is Forever England

IT IS IN DECEMBER, when my parishioners (in their simple, unaffected South London way) react to the first of the winter cold by taking off to the Caribbean to stay with relations, that my mind usually turns to the subject of holidays.

I am not long back, as I think I confessed two months ago, from the mountains of Northern Thailand; but something at once nearer at hand and more exotic has attracted my attention. Skyros, an unpretentious, unspoiled island in the Aegean which, at the behest of Yannis Andricopoulos and Dina Glouberman becomes annually the most pretentious little island in the world.

Yannis and Dina have created the perfect holiday venue for the modern person: Club Med with psychotherapy. In idyllic surroundings, with every vegetarian need catered for, people with expertise in Integral Yoga Studies and Transactional Analysis will lead me to almost anything I choose from Shamanic Adventure to Gay Empowerment.

There are Writers' Workshops, where Sue Townsend will polish up my prose style if I promise to bring along my obsessions and my childhood memories, and Jill Neville, the author of the Australian cult novel 'Ferry to Manly', will explore with me methods of triggering my unconscious to generate creative energy.

But knowing me as you do you will expect me to make a bee-line for the Personal and Spiritual Development Section. There the choices are endless: I can 'Know Myself, Accept Myself and Be Myself', and if it helps at all in that dangerous process, a personable Danish psychotherapist called Pia will help me throw off the hierarchical norms and social pressures which tame my internal wildness. Judi Ledward from Manchester will identify and dissolve the obstacles within me that stop me loving and accepting myself (again). Leo Rutherford will take me down the Shaman's Path. The Rev. Anaiis Salles from Seattle (could this be ECUSA's gift to forward-looking Shamanism?) will help me perceive the auras and the chakras, clear blocked energies in the auric field and develop both radiatory and magnetic healing. And after it all Ken Euerman (who, no doubt to the delight of many, looks far too young to have the twenty years of experience to which he lays claim) will give me a massage.

Sun, sea, sand and a tantalising touch of forty-something sex. Few things, you may conclude, could be more delightful. But the attractions become more sinister as the alliteration unfolds.

Sun, sea, sand, sexuality, spirituality, psychotherapy and salvation - Yannis and Dina are peddling an explosive combination for £755 a fortnight in the high season. Oblivious of the fact that exporting the 'spirituality' of Seattle and San Diego to the land of Gregory Palamas is like taking hamburgers to the Ritz, they have put together a package which has established its own niche in the market. And that niche is strangely familiar. Everyone knows someone who is into the artfully contrived faux-naif lifestyle which the Skyros brochure unfolds. The key words of the new Gnosticism pour out from it like a mantra: 'community', 'alternative', 'holistic'...A 'spirituality' without God, focused on the discovery of the self, is the new religion of our time.

Sadly, I suspect, it was this religion, and not anything attributable to the residual influence of the Church of England, which undergirded the nation's grief for the unfortunate Diana. And of course it was the religion of Diana herself.

My worst fear is that we have consistently underestimated the degree of disaffection from and ignorance of Christianity among a whole generation of opinion formers in our society. For every A. N. Wilson whose intelligent scepticism is a kind of flattery, there are dozens of forty-somethings out there who have been untouched by its concepts and unmoved by its images; and who wouldn't know a shaman from a charlatan, if indeed there is a distinction.

With touching naivete‚ the House of Bishops takes heart from little things. I gather it met recently in solemn conclave to discuss how it might capitalize on Diana-mania. As the statistics of Church attendance have grown daily colder, the bishops have led us, with tireless enthusiasm, through the procession of panaceas which has made up the history of the Church of England since the sixties. Each one was set to turn the tide in the relentless battle for relevance. First Methodist Reunion (soon to have its reprise); then Liturgical Renewal (a show which will run and run); then Women's Ordination (a saga as yet incomplete); and none has done the trick. And why? Because no one out there is listening.

Perhaps Western culture has irrevocably changed, turning its back on the images which nurtured it and towards the ersatz and the exotic. The Skyros brochure, as it lies on my desk, seems somehow both hilarious and tragic: a testimony to an intelligentsia desperately searching for something, and intent on finding only itself. It is a generation whose vision of paradise has shrunk to a fortnight on an island with wall-to-wall psychotherapy (and a bit on the side, beside the wine-dark sea).

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen's Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. Skyros is the island on which rest the mortal remains of Rupert Brooke...'a pulse in the eternal mind, no less.'

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