Rt Rev Douglas Coupland please step forward
In the course of my recent efforts to complete my Masters dissertation, I noticed something interesting. You might not have noticed it but in 2009 a quiet, unannounced seachange began in the House of Bishops. It was nothing to do with women or homosexuality. Nope. It started amongst the Suffragans when Paul Williams (Kensington) became the first.
Since then Jonathan Frost (Southampton) joined him in 2010 and Jonathan Baker (Ebbsfleet) has arrived in 2011 to join an exclusive club that is only going to get larger and larger. It probably won’t be long before a diocesan Bishop joins the group and, depending on how you draw your boundaries, Mark Sowerby (Horsham), Mark Rylands (Shrewsbury) and John Holbrook (Brixworth) might also be eligible to join.
What is this mysterious group that seems to cross churchmanship lines and theological traditions? Well, all those Bishops were born in the 1960s and Williams, Frost and Baker are most definitely the first entrants into the House of Bishops from the so-called “Generation X”.
The exact boundaries of a generation are always a bit fuzzy, but following Sara Savage and friends in Making Sense of Generation Y, Generation X are those born between 1964 and 1981. It happens to be my generation although I’m ten-ish years younger than these ‘X-Bishops’ who were among the first children born to this particular generation.
How delightful, I hear you cry, as you wonder what exactly I was studying that gave me reason to look up years of birth for all those diocesan and suffragan sees. Very interesting and not much use or meaning to anybody.
However, it may just have quite a lot of meaning. Generations are far more than just the biological rhythms of living and dying. There is a passing on of culture and, as each generation is shaped by childhood and, more particuarly and reflectively, their experiences in early adulthood, each generation develops a different approach to that culture that may lead to different approaches and shaping of the future. Karl Mannheim is your man if you want to learn all about it.
So what are the common characteristics of Generation X (whose generational ‘name’ really stuck after Douglas Coupland’s novel of the same name in 1991)? Well, growing up, all I heard was that Generation X was the slacker generation, feckless, lost, without purpose or meaning (hence the lack of a decent generational name). We grew up cynical, alienated, pessimistic, and distrustful of institutions. Nirvana’s Nevermind was our soundtrack, atheism was cool and we became cultural magpies, picking from anywhere and everywhere because we were too lazy to create our own youth culture. Sounds like the first vestiges of post-modernism to me.
A Bishop with such characteristics might be a journalist’s dream but, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t sound much like Williams, Frost and Baker.
So what does Generation X look like when it reaches mid-life and begins to take positions of seniority in our nation, including the church?
I found this article in the Independent Online helpful. It re-draws the picture of Generation X now that we’re all grown-up and offers some insight for what the Church of England may have ahead. Mark Hooper’s updated list of characteristics suggests we continue to be magpies, but that we’re far from lost or feckless. He goes on to suggest Generation X are enterprising, instinctive relativists, natural pluralists, and moderate conservatives.
In one sense, all this is playful speculation. I have no idea what the transition from the Boomers to Generation X will mean for the House of Bishops, but I do know that it will mean that things are viewed differently and the ‘common mind’ of the House may undergo considerable movement in the next ten or fifteen years just because the new boys (and girls) think differently to their generational forebears.
The forthcoming addition of women will certainly change the dynamic, I’m sure, but don’t underestimate generational differences particularly as we move into a period when the X-Bishops become a stronger force, but the Boomers (those born 1946-1963) are not all retired. It could mean serious cultural conflict.
As our Boomer forerunners might have once sung, ‘the times they are a-changin’.