Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Tad Walch is in England chronicling the historic meeting between Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and British Prime Minister Theresa May, as well as speaking engagements in Oxford.
OXFORD, England — A Latter-day Saint apostle, a former archbishop of Canterbury and other religious leaders invited Christians Friday to use service to confront "toxic loneliness" and honor human interdependence during a panel discussion at the University of Oxford's Pembroke College.
Lord Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, joined Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and two others for "Inspiring Service."
They said humans are fundamentally interdependent and service is the lifeblood of not only those human connections but Christianity, democracies, communities, families and marriages. They also named many of their heroes of service and addressed the issue of would-be volunteers feeling overwhelmed by the world's needs and challenges.
"Toxic loneliness is replacing family and community cohesion," said Lord David Alton, a Catholic who has served in the British Parliament for 40 years, "and too many feel like losers even when thought to be winners in purely material terms. Without shared values and rules, stable relationships, a sense of duty and willingness to serve others, we too easily shrink into merely atomized individuals, invariably unhappy, unfulfilled and often alone."
The other panelist, the Methodist Rev. Frances Young, has a son with severe disabilities, an experience that has taught her to open herself up to people she described as utterly different from her.
"You give people dignity by receiving from them," said the emeritus professor of theology at the University of Birmingham.
Elder Holland sat between Alton and Williams, an Anglican Welshman who stepped down as archbishop in 2012 and now is master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University and a member of the House of Lords.
Williams argued that "a particularly unintelligent reading of Charles Darwin" has led to a widely accepted notion that humans are rivals and can thrive separately. Instead, he said, the story of evolution is that "the more complex carbon-based forms of life become, the more it seems they are interdependent, the more they need one another, the more cooperation, mutual assurance, nourishment and protection actually come to matter."
He said the world needs a more robust account of how "advanced life forms" are interdependent, giving the example of a choir or orchestra or a rowing crew.
He said it is an increasingly popular, toxic fiction that "there is some way of literally or metaphorically fencing off what is good for me so that it's completely irrelevant to what's good for you — 'I can keep myself safe, and your security and your well-being are of no interest to me.'"
Williams said human children are born dependent and become what they are because of what they receive. To become truly themselves, givers, he said, "we must fulfill our role within a complex, interdependent form of life."
"The characteristic, distinctive, radical thing about human life is that we are the most complicatedly, sophisticatedly interdependent life form that there is," he said. "To be human is to be inserted into that pattern of giving and receiving, wherever we are and whoever we are."
Alton raised the specter of persecution against Christians around the world, including Christians burned to death or beheaded by ISIS and other terrorist groups. Closer to home, he said, strengthening democracies requires shared values, including the value of service.
"We identify too little with good character and too much with good things," he said. "The concept that we should place ourselves at the service of others and the service of the common good and the service of the weakest, the poorest, the most vulnerable, gives form and expression to the desire of the virtuous citizen to generously and altruistically use their privileges and their talent in the inspired service of others."
Elder Holland said Christ left no room "to doubt the seriousness with which we must embrace this sacred instruction to inspire service and to serve inspiringly."
The world's immense needs can overwhelm those who would serve, he said, but he said Jesus Christ provided a recipe for coping with that feeling when Judas Iscariot complained that Mary was wasteful when she anointed his head with expensive burial ointment.
"She has done what she can," Christ said.
"She has done what she can," Elder Holland repeated. "What a succinct formula."
Mother Theresa did what she could, he said. Pressed by a journalist who pointed out that statistically speaking, she was accomplishing absolutely nothing, she responded that her work was not about statistics but love.
"Faced with a staggering number beyond her reach," Elder Holland said, "she could keep the commandment by serving those in her reach, with what resources she had."
He said inspiring service is a "great honor."
"We need God, but he also needs us," he added. "It's an inspiring thought to think that not only humankind but divinity itself needs our heart and needs our helping hand. Surely that must be one way that we're heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ."
Elder Holland joked that he was the token Yank on the panel, but he told the crowd of 170 people, who outnumbered the seats in the Pichette Auditorium, that he also represented a unique faith, the only American one to survive an extermination order. It did so because of the service, compassion and charity of others.
"While that was a century and a half ago, we have not forgotten that," he said, "and we have been very grateful to those who were willing, kind, compassionate enough, interested enough and responsible enough to have helped us. We've spent that century and a half trying to do our best to help others since."
The Rev. Andrew Teal of Pembroke College hosted the panel discussion and called it extraordinary.3 comments on this story
"I couldn't have hoped for anything more encouraging," he said. "It just sort of emerged that we are called not only to be fulfilled, but we are only fulfilled in emptying ourselves, because then we follow the pattern of who God is.
"There was a real united invitation to take seriously the dignity of who we are as human beings," he added. "There was a real sense of offering."
Rev. Teal said a publication is planned that will include Elder Holland's theology address from Thursday, his subsequent question-and-answer session with Rev. Teal, Friday's panel discussion and Elder Holland's upcoming address here on Sunday.