john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    How Christian are the English?
    and how English is our Christianity?

    Inwardleigh, (and in workshop form at 'Deeper', North Tawton),

    Deuteronomy 34.1-12, 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

    If you were asked to select an object which, for you, is an 'icon' of England, which demonstrates most clearly, for you, what Englishness is, what would it be - a red pillar box, a Spitfire, Alice in Wonderland, the Notting Hill carnival, village cricket, apple chutney, David Beckham?

    I've been asking this question lately of different groups of people, and of course the answer varies from person to person depending on their particular experience of English life over the years. Some people select the Chicken Tikka Masala (reportedly our most popular meal), which is not just a sign of how in recent times the English have successfully integrated elements of other cultures into our own, but is an illustration of how actually we have always done that - as our first historian Bede pointed out, we were a hybrid nation from the start (Angles, Saxons and Jutes forming culture together).

    I've been asking this question about the 'icon' of Englishness, as a supplementary to another set of questions: How Christian are the English? and How English is their Christianity? These seem like important questions to ask at a time when national identity is a live topic, and when the Christian church is again adapting to a changing society (as it has done throughout its history). And they are questions which ought to be addressed by all of us, not just those who hold views at the extremes of religion or politics. How Christian are the English? and How English is their Christianity? - these questions go beyond historical or political perspectives and into the area of culture: they get us thinking about the particularities of our shared behaviour, of certain traits in our character which identify us quite clearly as 'English' and/or as 'Christian'.

    'The English are chronically socially inhibited' writes theologian Nigel Rooms in The Faith of the English [1], 'We seem to be 'socially challenged' in social interaction, we are embarrassed, insular, awkward, perverse, oblique and fearful of intimacy'. This leads us to become either 'over-polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained' or to become 'loud, loutish, crude, violent and generally obnoxious' - 'English reserve' and 'English hooliganism' are two sides of the same coin, says anthropologist Kate Fox in Watching the English [2], the very entertaining and revealing book on which Rooms' speculations are based.

    Our inhibitions might explain why we English open most of our conversations with observations on the weather (especially conversations with those people we unfortunately have to face outside the safety of our home), and why we fill in those potentially embarrassing silences in the same conversations with more comments about the weather. Foreign observers think that we are weather-obsessed. But we are not really talking about the weather, Fox suggests, we are finding a way of speaking to each other which carries minimal embarrassment because we instinctively know how to do it. 'English weather-speak rituals sound rather like a kind of catechism', Fox suggests, 'or the exchanges between priest and congregation in a church: 'Lord, have mercy upon us', 'Christ, have mercy upon us'; 'Cold, isn't it?', 'Yes, isn't it?', and so on.'

    Our inhibitions also surely explain why people avoid Church of England services because we really can't handle the idea of having to 'exchange the peace' with other people: if we advertised along the lines of COME TO CHURCH - WE PROMISE YOU WON'T HAVE TO INTERACT WITH ANYONE then maybe more (English) people would attend.

    But then there is Christianity, which is a religion of the Middle-East and Eastern Europe adopted by the Anglo-Saxons and adjusted accordingly over the centuries. The religion of a wandering people led by Moses out of slavery and by Joshua into a land of promise; the religion of Paul who declared the gospel of God in the face of terrible opposition and shameful maltreatment.

    We say we are a Christian nation, but to what extent has the behaviour which Jesus requested of his followers, been integrated into our particularly English forms of behaviour? Most crucially, in a socially inhibited culture how do we demonstrate the requirements to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind' and to 'love your neighbour as yourself'. To a buttoned-up Englishman the first commandment here sounds rather immodest - we are reluctant to appear too enthusiastic for fear of being regarded as fanatical; to a BNP supporter the second commandment can come dangerously close to breaking the code of racial purity - if our neighbour is a person of another race, such people think, how can I possibly love them as I do myself and my own?

    Such responses might make us obscure the true sense of Jesus' demands on us his followers; we may have to be prepared to pust against the boundaries of our everyday Englishness to demonstrate our faith to those around us.

    English character gains from those elements of Christianity which may feel slightly exotic to us, but which, when we embrace them, enrich our lives. Being more open about our love for God and more practical and pre-emptive in loving our neighbours might be counterintuitive to we English, but when we take our Lord's encouragement to move beyond weather-talk and into deeper conversations and exchanges, we find enrichment there.

    This works both ways. Because Christianity has benefited a great deal from the English character over the years. Nigel Rooms' book begins with a wonderful illustration: of how a white Anglican priest in apartheid Johannesburg every day (in a very English way) raised his big black hat to a poor black woman as he passed her house; and how the woman's teenage son, observing this, was 'shocked to the core' that a white man would show respect to a black woman in the days of apartheid. That moved the boy so much that eventually he entered the priesthood, and the rest is history: his name was, and is, Desmond Tutu. [3]

    [According to Kate Fox] we English are known, among other things, for our Moderation - 'Don't rock the boat'; for our Humorous moaning - 'That's typical!', 'You might know that'd happen'; for our Privacy - 'An Englishman's home is his castle'; for our sense of Fair play; for our Class consciousness - 'I know my place' and for our Courtesy - saying 'Sorry!' when it is we who have been bumped into, for instance. Now each of these characteristics might contain elements which inhibit our wholehearted witness to our faith, and each might also demonstrate something of the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

    So be encouraged in your Englishness today; and be encouraged to give some thought this week to how your particular English character helps the development of your faith, and the witness of that faith to others. And where you think about areas where it maybe hinders such things, ask God to show you the way.


    [1] Much of the material in this talk is based on Nigel Rooms, The Faith of the English: Integrating Christ and Culture, and the study course based on that book, which is available for free download here.
    [2] Kate Fox, Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour
    [3] Rooms is quoting from John Allen, Rabble-rouser for Peace; The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu