Sunday, November 11, 2007

Culture of Possibility or Culture of Scarcity?

Portrait of Handley Moule, First Principal of Ridley Hall and later Bishop of Durham. This hangs in the Ridley dining hall

Since the beginning of September I have been attempting to get under the skin of the institution within which I now minister so that I can serve it better. I have wanted to know where it came from, what makes it tick, what is its institutional DNA, and so forth. I guess that as I have been discovering things I have been asking a lot of why questions.

I struggle for words because it is hard to describe what it is like to return to your homeland as a stranger. While much that is going on around you is very familiar, you see it through very different eyes and ask some startlingly different questions of the reality. This is what has been happening to me as I have dug into getting to grips with Ridley Hall. From this has come a whole series of interesting thoughts about the nature of Britain itself since the latter part of Victoria's reign.

Ridley is the result of a huge surge of self-confidence and generosity in this country in the 1870s and 1880s. Given the spiritual awakening that had occurred a generation earlier I would have to suggest that it was probably part of the knock-on effect of that. One of the things I learned from the great missionary statesman, Max Warren, was that we should never disconnect actions that demonstrate the advance of the Gospel from God's initiative -- especially those initiatives that had an extraordinary focus and intensity like awakenings, renewals, revivals.

Neither was Ridley Hall the only thing that happened during this period. Essentially the same networks of people were establishing and Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, simultaneously, and colossal sums of money were raised not only for these two ventures but all sorts of other godly activities, social care, public education, and so on, and so on.

Britain was at that time riding high in the world, and while some of that confidence was the product of Gospel incentive and its accompanying empowerment, some was the outcome of the wealth and influence that had been accumulating. A can-do mentality seemed to prevail, and in the years that followed Ridley's founding, for example, significant amounts of money by the standard of any age were raised to enlarge and improve the college's facilities.

Everywhere you look in Britain you find buildings and institutions from that time. Great investments were being made in what was believed to be the nation's robust future, and it was often the Christian faith that was a major driving force behind this movement. But that era of philanthropy and expansiveness evaporated within a few decades. I have little doubt that there was some kind of relationship between the ebbing of generosity and the ebbing of the Christian faith.

The Twentieth Century was also a period during which Britain received what might be described as a treble whammy. It began with World War One which, as we have been hearing today, Remembrance Sunday, decimated the flower of a generation. The brightest and best of British, French, German, and other nations' manhood gave their lives in the bloodbath that was the Western Front. It is impossible to assess just how much spiritual and psychological damage that war did to the capacity of the nations involved to think well of themselves.

There followed first the Great Depression and then a mere twenty years after the first World War had ended a second, the war in which my father fought -- and many of his contemporaries died. Winston Churchill knew as he entered that conflict for what he described as "Christian civilization," that even if Britain was on the winning side it would be impoverished. By 1945, the year in which I was born, there were few fortunes left to fund philanthropy, and the church itself had been deeply wounded by the course of events together with its own loss of spiritual and theological nerve.

During World War Two the government had taken control of almost every aspect of life so that everything possible could be directed at the business of winning the conflict against Hitler and his dreams of world domination. When the war ended that sense of the government being the one who gathered and then divided out the goodies was embedded in the national psyche. It didn't help that the nation was penniless, its empire was dribbling away, and the people were weary from the slog that the Twentieth Century had to that point been to them.

It was sometime during that first half of the last century that the culture of possibility which had accompanied plenty gave way to a culture of scarcity which would rather fight to protect just a tiny portion of what it already had, rather than losing everything altogether. The habits of such a dependent culture do not disappear readily, and Brits are still far readier, even if they constantly moan about it, to allow the state to eavesdrop and intrude upon its life than is healthy. This is one of the areas where I realize how differently I now see things than when I first left these shores.

Yet Britain has little excuse these days to plead poverty and continue hiding from the challenges by wallowing in this culture of scarcity. This is a wealthy country, one of the richest in the world. While there are certainly pockets of need and disadvantage (some of them quite large), the vast majority of the population are more prosperous than ever before: why else would a large portion of the European population and half of Africa and Asia want to migrate here?

Something that is required now is for a larger portion of the British to relearn the grace of possibility-thinking, and the philanthropy that goes with it. Christians need to learn it just as much as the general population, and I wonder whether part of the weakness of the faith here is that we still tend to give God a tip rather than at least a tithe. That is not to say that money would solve all the problems, but didn't someone once say that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also?

I have been wondering (my line of thought following a suggestion in Philip Jenkins' book, God's Continent, that I reviewed a couple of months ago), whether the arrival of a dynamic Islam on these shores might actually be a blessing in disguise because its presence forces the native population to think seriously about God, faith, morals, values, and so forth. What a challenge for the Gospel Britain is today. We here could well be on the front line of something big. The question is will we rise to the challenge?

What is required is a vision and an imagination that is huge, as big as the Lord God himself. Such a vision and imagination would has such Kingdom implications that we would all stand back in amazement and astonishment.


Matt Wardman said...

>The brightest and best of British, French, German, and other nations' manhood gave their lives in the bloodbath that was the Western Front. It is impossible to assess just how much spiritual and psychological damage that war did to the capacity of the nations involved to think well of themselves.

I try to remind myself that the current the position of Iran and Iraq is circa-1935 by analogy. Similar number of people killed in a war 20 years or so ago, between countries of roughly similar size.

Thank-you for your thoughts.

Matt Wardman said...

As a PS, I'd be really interested to see your reflections on the SPCK situation.

Richard Kew said...

Matt, I just have too much to do at the moment, so have taken a while getting back to your question about SPCK. As the former US Director of SPCK I am grieved at the confusion that surrounds the organization here in the UK. SPCK has done great work and has had a fine vision, but even when I was involved (I left in 1995), the Society had seemed in many ways to have lost its way. As an outsider who was once an insider, and who has not followed the story too closely, it does appear that decisions have been made that have merely compounded the difficulties.

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Plus related references on the origins & consequences of the current universal insanity.