Richard Chartres: Society will only advance if individuals within it find their soul

bishops are often accused of talking rubbish. Tonight is probably the first occasion on which a bishop intends to talk rubbish. "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long."

You will recognise those encouraging lines from T.S.Eliot's poem The Wasteland, published soon after the First World War in 1922. It is one of the genuinely prophetic statements of the 20th century not in the sense that it foretells things to come but in that it is a "forth-telling" from a level of awareness of what was buried beneath the surface of a civilisation, which in the 1920s appeared to have recovered its hectic pace and gaiety but which in reality was exhausted – a wasteland.

There had, of course, been a profound crisis of faith for more than a century before the dreadful self-mutilation of Europe in the Great War. Widespread loss of awareness of the presence of the divine had created a vacuum in which political religions had established themselves. Nationalism, fascism and communism all promised a way out of the wasteland but their utopian experiments merely created a vast graveyard.

Still for good or ill, however, religion was seen as part of the world we had lost. It was not seen to be any part of the answer. Even on the part of people who hung onto their inherited beliefs, the assumption was that religion was destined to fade away, to become the marginal leisure interest of a handful of enthusiasts while secularisation and modernisation marched together hand in hand into a future designed by science and reason.

Many people experience the way we live now as existing in the wasteland with a suppressed fear of death and a hectic lifestyle developed in the hope that living faster will mean that we get more out of this short life. This is why rhythm in life has been abolished by 24-hour shopping and the season of fasting has been swept away in favour of perpetual carnival with no ensuing Lent.

We have to re-learn that wisdom and meaning come with a progressive diminution of egotism and the discovery that serving others is the road to freedom and fulfilment. The more you let go of self the more you grow in soul.

This is an excerpt from a speech given by the Bishop of London at Gresham College last month