Convicted by the Word (a Bishop Discusses Demands of Communication)

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY 19th century an English Roman Catholic bishop wrote a letter full of good advice to a friend just becoming a bishop.

He included the words, "Episcopus est homo litteris scribendis damnatus" (A bishop is a person condemned to write letters.)

My first year as a bishop was so weighed down by correspondence that I thought of putting the Latin sentence as a "footer" on my stationery.

But letters always stood in a line of precedence. A personal conversation took precedence over a phone call, and a phone call over a letter.

In the meantime other queue-jumping upstarts have arrived -- fax, voice mail, and e-mail all come at us demanding to be taken more seriously because of their technological flashiness.

Much literature about the unhappiness of an increasing percentage of working people focuses on their sense of being "got at" (not to say "harassed") by the ever shriller written and spoken forms of intrusion.

But it always has been so. Nineteenth century novels speak of letters asking a reply by the afternoon post, and I recall a wonderful short stow of "Saki", a witty, reactionary observer of the Edwardian scene, describing the devastating effect of the arrival of a telegram in a genteel English country house of a century ago.

But, of course, words, spoken and written, are what make us human. Animals can communicate, but not as we can. A cat can instinctively know its mother, but only I can know my grandmother, because my mother could say to me, "This is my mother, your grandmother" and I could understand the words.

So however harassed I feel by letters, voicemails, e-mails (I write this on the day when I am trying to clear the desk to go on sabbatical! …