Sunday, August 24, 2008

One Year After Returning to England

After thirty-one years in the USA I have now been back in Britain for one full year, during which time I have been rather quiet online. There are all sorts of reasons for this: one is that re-immersing myself has been demanding in different ways than I had anticipated -- and all of them energy-sapping. Another reason is that I have been incredibly busy, while a third is that contemporary Britain is a bewildering place and without a good grasp on the current landmarks I haven't been entirely sure what I have been looking at.

I see this country today with eyes that are more American than British, and I have found myself being tossed about by the waves of reverse culture shock. You may think you know the country because you were born and bred here, but it has changed enough to be familiarly unfamiliar. I know that I have changed and am prepared for some friction, but what has battered at me has been totally unexpected. I lived out of England for half of my increasingly long life: this is not the country that I left and neither am I the person who left it. It is amusing to be considered strongly English when in the USA, but now that I am back here I come over as a brash (and sometimes opinionated) American.

While the economy here is going through the same ructions as the rest of the world, the Britain to which we have returned is far wealthier than the one that we left, and there are people who have been able to establish financial empires that rival those found in North America. The average person has a higher degree of affluence, but try to get this across to Brits and most of them will be insistent that it is "poor little Britain" as opposed to big wealthy America.

However, the Britain to which I have returned is seeing the full bloom of the fast-advancing secularism that was spreading across the landscape when we left. This is illustrated in all sorts of ways, not least an intense and vociferous distrust of all things religious in public intercourse. A number of times on the media I have sensed a sickening emptiness in the pit of my stomach as representatives of the chattering classes have aggressively dismissed someone's deeply held religious convictions as hypocrisy -- or suggested that they are a cover for something questionable and even malevolent. With the possible exception of certain facets of Islam, little benefit of the doubt is given to faith, and it seems to be a truism in the British mind that all religious people are narrow-minded and intolerant, dinosaurs to be discouraged until their outmoded ideas eventually go away. Meanwhile the seed that was being sown in the Sixties and Seventies is being harvested in all sorts of ways in the culture.

All this make Britain (like much of Europe) a demanding context within which to minister effectively, and figuring out how to be a mission-driven church in such a culturally demanding environment is still very much a work in progress as far as the churches are concerned. This is a challenge for everyone: Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals, the Salvation Army, Anglicans, the whole company of Christians. It is my assessment that a large proportion of the solutions being experimented with are too contemporary and not enough rooted in the ancient, but despite that courageous folks should be given high marks for at least trying to allow the Gospel to speak to a totally different form of culture.

What I have begun to realize is how easy it is for North Americans to point the finger and declaim how poorly the European churches are doing. Having started to become engaged in the situation here I have found myself wondering whether they would be as effective if facing the sorts of challenges with which the People of God here are seeking to get their arms around.

Yet despite the regular obituaries that get written, and the seemingly endless retreat that has marked the Christian faith in Europe for a century or more, all is far from lost. Interestingly, the congregations at cathedrals seem to be growing significantly, while a new generation is arising in Christian leadership that has no illusions about our environment and is exploring the options -- even if for many in the older generation the penny has yet to drop. Experimentation is necessarily, but by its very nature you don't get everything right first time, while sometimes you might find yourself making a significant mess of things.

Since the end of the Olympics I have re-watched the eight-minute segment of the finale from Beijing where custodianship of the Olympic ideal is passed on to London several times. At the heart of the presentation was a London double-decker bus coupled with dancing and music. That piece said an enormous amount about the sort of country Britain has become -- and, as a result, the challenge that British society presents to those seeking to be faithful to the Christian gospel. Like that segment which got rave reviews in the media, popular culture here is shallow, gaudy, disposable. It is much more about pop singers and football stars than the roots and traditions of the nation. Indeed, huge numbers of Brits have been conditioned to be embarrassed by these, the positives from the past constantly being damned, or damned with faint praise.

This reflects an absolute confusion of what it means to be British, and what have been the events and values that have shaped the country. The church (and its message) is considered to be very much part of that old-fashionedness. It is a lingering embarrassment from the past, and the subliminal message is that the country will be a better place when it is dead, buried, and gone. A lot of this negativity is focused and unfairly personalized onto the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury with his scholarly language, thick glasses, and straggly beard, but there are other figures who bear the brunt as well. Suffice it to say that it is an exception for a leading Christian to be characterized in a positive manner.

The question is, of course, what would fill the vacuum if Christianity did utterly collapse? I think it unlikely that the mile-wide, inch-deep secular hedonism that is always shouting the loudest would last long -- any more than Marxist-Leninism was able to outlast the rich history and spiritual heritage of Russia during the Soviet era. Islam is constantly named as a possibility, but while it has all the pushiness of an adolescent, an awful lot would have to change very quickly for Britain to embrace the Crescent while trampling the Cross underfoot. Certainly, this needs to be flagged for careful attention, but scenarios of this kind are a long way from playing themselves out.

What I would say is that there does seem to be a real sense of spiritual hunger flowing somewhere beneath the surface of Britain, but the spiritually hungry at this point seem determined not to go to the historic places to look for sustenance. Meanwhile, as I have intimated already, the churches are still in the early stages of working out how to speak to a spiritually-empty culture that brashly asserts itself. I have found myself musing whether the period through which we are now living might be more akin to that period when the industrial revolution radically changed the face of the land in the matter of a generation or two.

If there is anything to such a theory, then with it comes the recognition that the churches scrambled in those days to catch up with the new reality of sprawling industrial cities, coalmines instead of cornfields, and a population whose whole mindset was being radically altered. It took a work of the Holy Spirit, several generations, and the genius of the likes of Whitefield, the Wesleys, for there to be any effective communication of the Gospel story to this burgeoning new kind of world.

I am sure that there are many who would disagree with me, but there seem to be all sorts of telltale signs that things are not well here as in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. The ones that leap out at me are the demise of the family, incredible levels of alcohol consumption, unprecedented levels of personal debt, petty pilfering, and a prevailing live-for-the-moment kind of mentality. I suspect that some of these things are inevitable in a country that is stressed and in the midst of a huge transition, but I suspect also that because there are no longer very many values that are generally accepted an anything goes mindset is almost bound to prevail.

While the demise of marriage and the family presents huge challenges in the long-term this is not being taken particularly seriously by a whole raft of politicians and social leaders who don't want to be labeled as narrow and small-minded. I have this notion that providing meaningful ways for couples to stay married and have fruitful relationships could very well be a means of great renewal here and should be something the churches might concentrate on.

Something that has truly startled me since getting back has been the enormous expansion in the accessibility of alcohol at all hours of day and night, encouraging over-consumption, binge drinking, and worse. Let me put it crudely: there is a lot more vomiting in the gutter going on than there was 30+ years ago, and those involved tend to be both male and female. Add to this gambling and staggering levels of consumer debt as the symptoms of a deeper problem, and it is possible to see how much a mission field this is, and how much the churches have their work cut out for them.

While there is part of me that wants to run away from all of this, another part of me is eager to roll up my sleeves and wade in the best a sixtysomething can. I might not be able to do the frontline things any longer, but there is a lot that can be done to support, encourage, and fund, while pastoring and picking up the pieces of those who have been exhausted or hurt by the inevitable hugeness of the challenge.

Jesus told his disciples to life up their eyes and look on the fields, that they are white already to harvest. They may be one of these days, but there is a lot of ploughing, planting, weeding, and tending of the crops that needs to be done before there can be bumper harvests -- but those harvests are still possible.


goooooood girl said...

i like......

Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis Rev.Kew, although I think Christians can proclaim the primacy of marriage without (AFA style) opposing gay rights. I think that the fact that contemporary britain is a much better place to be gay is entirely a good thing. Personally,Glasgow has always been crazily alcoholic for as long as I can remember, so I'm not sure how much can be blamed at the foot of the recent twenty four drinking changes.

Came here via the gadgetvicar link (in case you keep track of these things!)

ryan dunne

Richard Kew said...

I always find it a little bizarre that even when sexuality has not been mentioned, someone has to bring the issue up.

Martial Artist said...

Rev. Kew,

Just an aside with regard to your observation that "The average person has a higher degree of affluence, but try to get this across to Brits and most of them will be insistent that it is "poor little Britain" as opposed to big wealthy America." I read a few months prior to the financial crisis of a study that had been done (in the USA only, if memory serves, but I suspect that similar results might obtain in Britain) to determine peoples' perceptions of how well off they were.

I found the results, prior to some personal reflection, somewhat surprising. The study apparently consisted of asking working people in all socioeconomic classes the question "how much more money would you need to earn to be comfortable?" The resulting answers, irrespective of the earnings of the respondent all clustered closely around "10% more."

This would suggest, as the authors of the study concluded, that a majority of us tend to measure how wealthy we are by reference to those around us, rather than by some objective standard. I know that until fairly recently in my life (and I am probably about the same age as you—I, too, am a sixty something) I thought I was on a treadmill, always trying to go just that little bit harder, to make just that little bit more. It was only when I realized that I was not in control, that God was, that I was able to begin to disentangle my views from thinking that earning more was the answer. Only after that difficult realization was I able to enjoy what God has given me, to quit worrying about how I was ever going to have the next important thing, and begin to learn to be a good steward.

Blessings and regards,
Keith Toepfer