Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Month After Returning to Britain

This picture was taken by the webcam in the market square in Cambridge just a couple of minutes after I had finished writing this (http://www.camplus.co.uk/webcam.htm)

It is now more than a month since I returned to Britain and am already in certain ways reverting to type and complaining vociferously about the weather, as is the habit of all the people of this land. After a long hot dry summer in Tennessee it was at first nice to feel the gentle breezes and little showers, but when the gently breezes turn damp and cold, and the showers keep coming for days on end, it doesn't do a lot for a person's spirits!

Then what is fascinating is to discover the North American sub-culture that exists in a place like Cambridge where there are literally thousands of Americans and Canadians. As we get together with one another each has his or her own very interesting take on the place, recognizing that there is a certain resistance to change here that can be either quaint or infuriating, depending on your mood or your circumstances. This innate conservatism is, I suppose, inevitable in the context of a university and city as deep-rooted as this is, but it contrasts fascinatingly with the rush to change that have taken place in Britain's overall culture during the three decades that I was away, and how this relates to the Christian community.

Cambridge probably has a higher density of churches and active Christians than most other places in the UK, and I am functioning within the context of a Christian community, but despite this fundamental to all thinking seems to be that by its very nature the prevailing culture and Christian faith and values are at odds with one another. So many of the normative responses of the mainstream culture now are those that began to gain credence during the 1960s as part of the counter-culture; in most people's minds here the church and Christian responses to the challenges of our times are dismissed as the product of dessicated minds that live in a cozy backwater.

This is an increasingly common European attitude, and showed itself off significantly when the erstwhile European Union constitution that died at the hands of referenda in France and Netherlands several years ago, baulked at mentioning the Christian heritage of this continent as part of the antecedent forces that have shaped Europe. For the vast majority of the elite, their Christian past embarrasses them, filtering down from and out of the popular culture.

Yet strangely enough, religious news and the activities of such as the Archbishop of Canterbury garner much more coverage than one would expect in a post-Christian, assertively secular environment. Add to this the fact that the Prime Minister of the UK is a son of the parsonage and his predecessor openly professes a Christian faith, and it is easy to see that there are a lot of ambivalences and ambiguities that are still in the process of playing themselves out.

In addition, the lines are drawn very differently than in the USA. Right now there are rumblings of a General Election in Britain in the next few weeks and this was a topic of conversation the other evening in the Roman Catholic theological institute where I am temporarily rooming. I shrugged and said that I was glad I was not registered to vote because I am not sure where I would cast it. One very traditional Catholic woman pushed me and I said that despite a past voting history elsewhere, I found the more family-friendly policies of the Conservative Party rather attractive. She was horrified, walked away from me, and refused to talk to me for the rest of the evening.

The reason for her horror was a visceral perception that the Conservative Party is weak on issues of social justice, the environment, and other concerns that do not ruffle the feathers of traditional people that much in the USA. It hardly seemed worth telling her that in many respects by American standards I am politically rather liberal, I doubt whether she would have believed it. I had always known that there was a much tighter relationship between conservative political attitudes and traditional/conservative religious ones in the USA than is the case in the UK, but this interchange enabled me to see just how far the center of gravity has shifted here in the last generation or two.

Let me go back to the issue of the family, which I think from my observation of life here, is going to be increasingly crucial. There has been a tremendous erosion since 1976. When I left the UK for the States, while traditional notions of family were under pressure, children out of wedlock were still a pretty big no-no and divorce while rising was nowhere near as prevalent as it is now. Neither was co-habiting, or experimental configurations of "familial" relationships involving both sexes and just one. When I go with my daughter and son-in-law to take my granddaughter for a walk in the lovely park behind their home in Birmingham, I would estimate that perhaps as many as 50% of the parents with children in the playgrounds are raising children alone, and many may never have known two parents, certainly two parents married to one another.

Not only that, but relationships are fluid and realities are covered up in the typically post-modern way with words. Whether married or living together or what, people here tend to refer to their significant other as their "partner," a word that can be given all sorts of connotations. I was in a public building the other day engaging with the bureaucracy and saw there waiting in line those who have been badly hurt by such domestic fluidity, listened in on their noisy conversations, and recognized the despair in their faces as they brought their concerns to the various officials in the building. I suspect from what I have read systematically and gathered informally, that these folks are merely the tip of a colossal iceberg.

Suffice it to say that what has for a long time been the norm is no longer the norm, the culture is in uncharted territory, and the outcome of that is right now hard to predict -- and, personally, I do not feel sanguine.

In addition when I take my granddaughter on one of those walks I see the huge impact that immigration from around the world is having on Britain. Unlike the USA, Britain has not been the migrant's destiny to anything like the same degree over the last couple of centuries, until this period since World War Two. As I watch our two-year-old happily jaunting around the swings and slides, she does so in the company of kids from all over Asia, the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and various corners of Europe.

From the dress and style of the parents gathered with them, this means a huge religious variety. Certainly the Muslims are the most prominent, some women with everything but their eyes covered, but there are obviously a lot of Hindus and Sikhs as well. Of the native population it is hard to tell how many would profess a Christian faith of any kind, but from language and behavior it is not difficult to work out those who do not!

What does this mean for the future? At apocalyptic moments I find myself getting quite frightened for the wellbeing of my kids and grandkids, but this observation of a changing reality has certainly fed my praying in the last few weeks. It could be that we are seeing a genuinely multi-cultural Britain emerging from which great richness could flow, but this is not necessarily the case and we are too early in the process to see what the pie being baked will look and taste like.

Whichever way we interpret the changing situation, the challenge before the Christian community is enormous. Functioning in the setting of a theological college (the British for a seminary), what I am seeing on the part of students and teachers alike is an eagerness to confront the issues modern Britain throws in the face of the Kingdom, and not to run away. I came to Ridley knowing that something remarkable was going on here, but what I have discovered has more than met my expectations.

Some weeks ago I was accused by an American detractor of going and burying myself in obscurity in Cambridge, which suggests an unrealistic and romantic notion of what this city is actually about! Indeed, one of the things that I have sensed since being here is that I am now in one of the "hot spots" that is playing a significant role in shaping our world, both in terms of ideas and in terms of technology.

If the Christian faith is to advance in this bracing spiritual and intellectual climate in which it finds itself then it is going to need the brightest and best in leadership, and these leaders, lay and ordained, are going to require the sort of training and resourcing that will enable them to be affect the changes required. I am increasingly certain this is what Ridley Hall is all about, since its foundation and until now.

As I look at the honor roll, as it were, of this place, I keep coming across names that have fought the good fight with great tenacity, skill, grace, and courage. John Stott was an alumnus of this place, but so were many other key leaders, not least John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. Graduates from Ridley literally helped plant the Anglican Communion, and have served God everywhere from the Houses of Commons and the Lords, as well as Britain's industrial jungles, and cities and real jungles in every corner of this planet -- and still do.

The task of a seminary like Ridley Hall is to raise up the next generation to follow in their footsteps, and as I look at the men and women in chapel in the morning, or talk to them over lunch, I find myself wondering which of these is destined for greatness, and how many of them will dig in, get on with the job, and serve Christ with all their heart, mind, and sinew, receiving very little applause for their faithfulness. Because we live in a global culture, a place like this is for the whole world, not just for Britain alone. This is certainly an exciting place to be, and I think that we heard God's call aright when he offered us the chance to be here.


Sean said...

By chance, my father and myself both married at the same age, 24 - him in 1978 and myself in 2006. He told me recently that even if my mother and he had considered living together out of wedlock, they would have been put under so much social pressure not to do it that he could have lost his job. In contrast, a couple of somewhat tactless friends asked what was wrong with me, marrying a woman with whom I hadn't lived together previously!

The culture has definitely changed for people of my generation. The expectation for marriage has pretty much vanished among non-immigrant people.

In my observation, this change has made life difficult for middle-class types like myself, with all the stress and uncertainty of serial relationships and constant divorce, but it has been absolutely disastrous for people lower down the social spectrum. My wife and I live near a fairly poor area in Toronto. I would estimate that the illegitimacy rate for children there approaches 75%, if not more. Not surprisingly, whenever a young boy or man commits murder or rape (a sadly frequent occurance), the news media will interview his relatives - almost always female, always with a different last name than the accused. These relatives can't understand why "their boy" went astray, but I think the elephant in the room is fairly obvious there.

Anonymous said...

On your observations about the connection between faith and European politics:

J. Maritan wrote that he found himself more in agreement "with the Left on the things of Caesar and with the Right on the things of God."

The more things change . . .