Have you noticed that when you turn the pages of scripture people are often described by the job they do? Abraham was a herdsman, Noah was a farmer, David was a shepherd, the first disciples of Jesus where commercial fishermen, Matthew was a tax collector and Lydia was a merchant. Amongst other occupations, we meet doctors, tent-makers, perfumers, cooks, domestic servants, millers, sailors, prostitutes, shopkeepers and builders. Jesus, who grew up in and around the family carpentry business, kept speaking of the world of work in his parables – farmers sowing seeds, women making bread or cleaning the house, and labourers in the vineyard. Work is all around.
In January I attended an event celebrating the 350th anniversary of Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge. The guest speaker was the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andrew Haldane, and he explored the rise of the robots and what this would mean for the future of work. Apparently further advances in computers may well mean that we don’t need 95% of today’s accountants, but teachers are harder to replace; we’ll perhaps only lose 1% of them! I failed to ask for his prediction about clergy!
Andrew Haldane was clear that we can trace major changes and trends in the job market back to the industrial revolution. Innovation and ideas have kept changing the need for different jobs and this will continue. He suggested that our challenge for the future of work is to be one step ahead of the machines by preparing people to work in areas that machines will find it hard to replicate. This means that creativity and the ability to think outside the box, as well as emotional intelligence and social skills, will all have a key place in the world of work.
It strikes me that the journey of Christian discipleship equips people very well in many of these future areas. In following God we are drawn into being co-workers for his Kingdom. God is always opening us up to the possibility of seeing things in his way, not following the crowd, but being open to new ideas and seeking to mend the world. Prayer draws us into the slip-stream of God’s wonder and transformation, seeing the needs of our neighbours and those the world wishes to leave behind. And our churches are social places where generations mix and learn together.
Jesus compared the work of building his Kingdom to the manual labour of those working in the fields, to the fishermen out all night and to the ownership of a vineyard. The workers bring in their offering of grain and fish and grapes to create a feast. As we prepare for Holy Communion we offer the work of human hands, taking kneaded and baked bread, and squeezed and fermented grape juice, together with our whole selves, our work, our joys, our sadness and struggles. We offer back to God in thanksgiving for what we receive. This is what St Benedict called Opus Dei, the work of God, to which we are all called to contribute.