HRH Prince Philip's address to the General Assembly of 1969
Published on 14 April 2021
In 1969 HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh delivered a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland entitled The Challenge of Change. Amazingly, despite the 50-plus years which have elapsed between then and now, his speech remains fresh, challenging and full of wisdom that is still relevant today.
The Challenge of Change
Reverend Moderator, fathers and brethren,
As you probably know, Sir, I have undertaken a good many unexpected engagements in the last twenty years but never in my wildest dreams did I ever see myself where I am today. After all these years I thought nothing would surprise me and that no invitation could possibly make me blink. The day I first heard of the idea that I might address the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland I confess I was taken completely by surprise and I blinked.
Unless I am still in the same dream I am pretty certain that I am fully awake at this moment and very conscious of the courtesy and hospitality of this august and somewhat awe-inspiring body. You have paid me a charming compliment and I shall do my best not to strain your patience. As I think most of you are aware, for the last twenty years we have had the privilege and pleasure of listening to each moderator as well as other ministers preach from the pulpit at Crathie. I never imagined that I would be able to get my own back on so many of them in one go.
It is one thing to express, if rather inadequately, my gratitude and appreciation but it is quite something else to find a subject which is sufficiently interesting and yet does not trespass on the many topics which are either being debated in this Assembly or which in journalistic jargon are too controversial. Unfortunately all interesting subjects are controversial almost by definition. It always seems rather strange to me, in this country of free speech and freedom of the press, that comments about interesting subjects should be so unwelcome, but I have learned through bitter experience that for me to be labelled as having said something controversial is about the worst offence I can commit. I once even succeeded in making tripe controversial and I consider that no mean achievement.
People who label comment on interesting topics as controversial imply that all discussion is inevitably a controversy and every disagreement is a major row. The essence of civilised life is the ability to discuss serious and important topics calmly and objectively so that all the arguments can be put forward and so that some sort of balanced judgment can be arrived at. Objectors to free comment should wear a label round their necks saying: “my mind was made up long ago, don’t confuse me with any other ideas!”
It goes, of course, without saying that people who assume that they have a monopoly of all the virtues, and that anyone who does not agree with them is, by definition, a knave and a scoundrel, cannot hope to take part in intelligent discussion. I rather suspect that these people are not really against controversy as such, in fact many of them are at it all the time, they simply don’t want to know about anything which might conflict with their own preconceived ideas. They can’t bear the thought that they might be wrong or that anything has changed since they made up their minds when they were about 18, or, in some cases, a great deal earlier. This is very sad, because the great problem of our time is adjusting to the fundamental changes in human existence which took place between 150 and 50 years ago. The fact is that the greatest changes in the history of mankind are not taking place today. They happened during the 19th century and early years of the 20th century, but it is only in the last 30 years or so that we are beginning to experience the consequence of those changes.
Changes in human existence
The transition from a rural agricultural and craft industry existence to an urban industrial society began many years ago but it is only recently that these changed circumstances started to strain the political, the administrative, the legal, the religious and the educational structures which we have inherited from a thousand years of relatively stable circumstances. After all, animals of one kind or another provided the motive power of transport from the earliest times of recorded history right up to the period of our grandparents. In the same way, communications were limited to various kinds of visual or audible signalling devices or by human messenger; suddenly this is taken over by machines, telephones, radio, television and telegraph. Indeed the development of machines completely transformed the whole human material environment in a way which has never happened before and which is extremely unlikely ever to happen again.
These developments have changed all the obvious practical and visible aspects of human existence but equally, and if not more important, has been the change in our intellectual environment. There has been an explosion of knowledge, we have built mountains of discovered facts about the structure of man, of the world and, to a growing extent, of the universe. We have pushed back the threshold of the understanding of the origin of life from theory and myth to a point where only a few more pieces of the jig-saw puzzle remain to be fitted into place. At this point I think it is worth remembering that contemporary scientific knowledge is the direct outcome of Christian civilisation. Christianity perhaps more than any other of the great religions, is based on a realistic involvement in the material world and, with one or two rather famous exceptions, the Christian Church has encouraged the search for truth and the work of scholars both outside and within its own ranks. The beginning of this process of discovery started a long time ago but it has been accelerating ever since. When it started, only the pioneers and the searchers understood what they had discovered, today the facts which they discovered are taught as a matter of course in schools and colleges. The generations who have grown up in the last 30 years have done so in a material and intellectual environment different in every respect from any previous generations. Their only experience is of the modern world and the knowledge they are acquiring is the new factual knowledge. These new generations are not exposed to the same fundamental changes because they have no practical experience whatever of the circumstances of human existence before their time. Their problem is the conflict between modern conditions and ancient structures and we should not be astonished if this conflict is finding expression in many weird and wonderful forms.
The conflict of the generations
This, it seems to me, is the crux of so many of our problems. The circumstances which dictated the pattern and structure of the essential human institutions in a civilised society have been almost entirely swept away. The younger generations feel instinctively that the existing structures are somehow unsuitable to the new circumstances, while the older generations are quite naturally uncertain how the structure should be modified. That the Church is aware of this problem is amply demonstrated by the reports presented to this and many previous Assemblies by commissions and committees. They make it quite evident for instance that the social and intellectual environment which gave rise to the general pattern of the parish and the deployment and methods of the ministry have been substantially changed.
The present younger generations are certainly not the first or the only generations to find anomalies and frustrations in the structure of society as they find it, but those they find are probably bigger and more obvious than usual. All the great institutions of civilised human communities have a tendency to lose sight of their basic objectives and to become bogged down in the futile pursuit of their own internal politics and administrative problems. If that doesn’t suffice then there is always the fertile field of inter-institutional bickering and jealousy. These distractions are obviously seen to be immensely important to the people involved but they should not be surprised or angered if new generations fail to see the point of them and persist in noticing only the glaring anomalies.
Equally, the new generations should not be astonished and angered if their sometimes rather naïve solutions are not accepted as if they were the pure light of reason. Things are never quite as simple as they appear to be. A vague feeling or even an absolute certainty that all is not right does not mean that the causes are understood or that the remedies are obvious. Indeed, unsympathetic and blatantly biased diagnoses merely cloud the essential issues and encourage the wrong solutions.
There are plenty of things to be worried about without inventing new ones. The world is by no means perfect but it certainly won’t be improved by adding yet more bigotry, senseless violence or blind destruction. Those are primitive and ignorant reactions and they have no place in the continuing process of improvement in human civilisation. It has never been necessary to destroy a whole city merely because some of the buildings are a bit old-fashioned. The art lies in constant and progressive redevelopment.
In any case anomalies are not confined to long established institutions. I confess I get a little confused by the logic which demands violence as a way of achieving peace. I am defeated by those who use insult and intolerance, rejection and denunciation as a means of achieving greater freedom and tolerance for themselves. Bitter experience shows that the exact opposite is the more likely result.
The trouble is that it isn’t easy to be consistent and the obvious answers are seldom the right ones. The really important issues have been debated over and over again throughout history, and it would be remarkable if all the relevant arguments have not been aired before. The difficulty lies in giving practical expression to the good ideas; in building the great humanitarian principles into the structure of the community. The difficulty lies in recognising the changes brought about by changed economic, material and social circumstances and finding the right way to apply the fundamental principles in the new situation.
The problem which all institutions have to solve is the relationship between their basic objectives and the circumstances of ordinary contemporary human existence. The changes in our material and intellectual environment have already taken place, the challenge now is to face up to the consequences. The problem is to initiate the necessary adjustments to the interpretation of the functions of our institutions so that they can continue the process of improving our human civilisation. This may not sound particularly difficult or dramatic but in fact the degree to which we succeed or fail will decide absolutely the future quality of human existence.
Attitudes to change
We can take one of three attitudes. We can set our faces against any change on the basis that the institutions as they are have been developed over many generations and we must therefore cling to them to see us through. For myself I cannot accept this. The second alternative is even more simple-minded. Sweep everything away, wipe the slate clean and then start again. This has been tried and its champions claim it has been supremely successful, but I don’t believe anyone could deny that any success achieved is at the expense of vast human suffering and the wanton destruction of much that will always be of great value. Furthermore, it can only be achieved at the expense of the freedom of the individual. And this, in my opinion at least, is totally unacceptable.
The third alternative is much the most difficult because it involves reform at a generally acceptable pace, and this means that it is too slow for those in a hurry and too fast for those who don’t appreciate the need. It is difficult because the reforms have to be thought out and decided upon by the institutions themselves, albeit with considerable outside pressure, but the more deeply entrenched people become in any institution the less they see the need for reform. The depth and intensity of devotion to a cause is not a measure in itself of the value of the cause and no excuse for failing to see its weaknesses and shortcomings.
These are the three approaches to the problem of changing our institutions so that they can continue to function and to make a worthwhile contribution under the new circumstances of human existence. If we do not make a deliberate effort to face up to this situation the outlook is pretty dismal. Fortunately there seems to be a growing realisation that all is not well and many institutions are taking a careful look at their activities and making serious efforts to weigh up the new circumstances in an attempt to discover how to rebuild their structures to serve the new situation. I see no reason why they should fail unless of course they sink back into complacency.
Christian heritage and influence
This is neither the time nor the place for me to discuss the position of the Christian churches in this new environment except to say this. For over a thousand years every aspect of our national, family and individual lives has been influenced by the Christian gospel and all the major national institutions are at least nominally based upon the Christian ethic. Christianity has provided the inspiration for everything that is best in our achievements and institutions and I believe that most thinking people would like this inspiration to continue into the future. Either way, whether people like it or not, the influence of the churches in this process of reform is absolutely crucial.
Reform could well take place without their influence but that, I believe, would be a major blow at human civilisation. Whether it does or not presents a tremendous challenge to the churches because if they are to retain their influence their message needs to be preached to present-day man in his present-day environment. We often hear of the church being rejected, but I don’t believe that the Christian message is being rejected. I rather suspect that the messengers are still struggling to find the best way to convey the message so that it holds the attention of a much larger proportion of the younger generation and so that its meaning shines out like a beacon in the gloom of the doubt and confusion of the modern world.
Arnold Toynbee is an agnostic but he had this to say in a recent article on Christianity’s chance to triumph over technology: ‘The historic religions have now reappeared above our horizon in a spirit of mutual charity, and this change of heart has removed the age-old stumbling block. It has opened the way for these religions to perform the spiritual services for a human being which they have always had it in their power to perform if only they had not stultified themselves, as they have persistently in the past, by exhibitions of spitefulness and intolerance that have justly brought them into discredit. Their service is one that they alone can provide, and it is a service of superlative value.”
I hope he was right because I am convinced that a sane future depends upon the Christian spirit entering into the lives and decisions of the men and women, and particularly of the scientists, and the technologists, and the engineers, whose daily work is shaping the new world.
It can only be misunderstanding which allows people to reject the idea of “love thy neighbour” and turn to chanting “make love not war” without noticing anything odd. It can only be ignorance which drives otherwise intelligent young people to grasp at every kind of substitute instant religion as if it were something new and rather daring when, in fact, they have all been tried and rejected at various times in history. It can only be a misconception which blinds all those people who are concerned about the poor and the sick and the suffering, to the meaning of that passage in Matthew which ends up “Inasmuch as ye have done unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me”.
I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone of intelligence and understanding and with a sense of compassion and responsibility can find a convincing reason to reject the Christian idea as it is outlined in this glorious paraphrase of some of the things written by St. Paul.
“Go forth into the world in peace, be of good courage, hold fast that which is good, render no man evil for evil, strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted, honour all men, love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”