A BRISK wind in Oxted today, lifting the limp cross of St George on the tower of St Mary’s: a little ragged and grey, and yet flagging up a local branch of the national Church.
What does it mean for our Church to be “of England” in the present time? There has scarcely been a season in my 50 summers when this has been a more critical question. Answering it without lapsing into platitude or prejudice is, though, far from easy.
In an era of toppling statues and global displacement, many fear that clear expressions of national, specifically “English”, identity are bound to be morally suspect. This is partly because liberal discourse often muffles such allegiances, concerned that they may be subtle signals — “dog whistles” — for summoning the intolerant.
It is partly right in this, of course: various shades of xenophobia are a besetting sin of patriotism. Nevertheless, if received opinion insists that love of homeland is necessarily a symptom of something sinister, then extremism and insularity become self-fulfilling prophecies — as the only lens through which people are offered for viewing such attachments.
As a result, much current discussion of nationhood feels unhelpfully polarised. When England’s imperial baggage — from the part that it played globally, and in the formation of the UK — is added to the cart, it is hardly surprising that our national conversation veers about so wildly that most sensible people step out of the way.
NEVERTHELESS, as changing global dynamics bring the reappraisal of nation states, it is vital that Anglicans invest as much creative effort in the question what it means to be “of England” as we do into being a “Church”. Fortunately, we have substantial resources to offer, among them our hope for “another country”, the heavenly Jerusalem. This provides the Church of England not only with an ultimate and inspiring vision for every place, but also a check on loyalties that, for everyone’s sake, need to be kept firmly “penultimate”, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted.
Furthermore, we are guardians of a vital idea that nations are an extension of local attachment. None of us, after all, knows our country as a whole: we are familiar with parts of it, and project from these origins our wider sense of belonging.
Any conception of England, or Britain, or the world as a whole, is at heart an extrapolation of local experience: millions of world-views, each rippling out from their particular standpoint. If we are “at home” locally, or parochially, we ought, perhaps, to be “at home” nationally and internationally.
Anglican polity expresses this organic relationship, which is equally at the heart of the English political tradition, conservative and radical, from Daniel Defoe to George Orwell. Local belonging is, Edmund Burke wrote, “the germ . . . of public affections . . . the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind”. England, in other words, is what you end up with, not begin with.
While a biblical faith needs a healthy ambivalence towards the virtue of nationhood as such, this approach is, I would argue, deeply Christological. Christians, after all, tend to answer universal questions in a very particular way: beginning with Jesus of Nazareth and working outwards, inferring the global from the local.
The principal difficulty in the current political climate is that the idea of England is locked into a nostalgic caricature that cannot help but seem exclusive and reactionary. If, however, nations are “imagined communities” (as the historian Benedict Anderson contended), it should not require much imagination to rethink, for example, the limiting view that Englishness is an intrinsically racial — expressly “white” — description. Because of such connotations, many people identify themselves primarily with their immediate locale (as a Londoner first, for example), and leapfrog the national wall altogether, as an expression of global citizenship.
But we don’t escape the challenges of nationality simply by playing down the boundary. Place-formation at any level grows from a shared story in a shared landscape. Local, especially national, identity is commonly associated with race, because this is assumed — often incorrectly — to represent settlement and tradition, both of which are are key components of cultural belonging. The challenge for all who belong (especially when they acquire power and privilege) is not to suppose that places, as a consequence, belong to them.
As the Old Testament drums into its readers, myths of “possessing the land” can only collapse unless it is seen as both ours and not ours. Above all, in scripture at least, the earth is the Lord’s. This is why love of homeland soon turns sour unless it is refreshed by love of neighbour — that basic moral posture in which we are willing to give up our seat for others. As in the railway carriage, so in the cosmos: “Let there be . . .” is the logic of creation.
GROWING a sense of nationality from a sense of neighbourhood does not spare us the squabbling obsessions of place, as anyone involved in local politics knows. But, as communal responses to this summer’s calamities in Manchester and London demonstrate, it may allow a more grounded national narrative, which values our short stories as preciously as the long, multi-season saga.
I am proud to run the cross of St George up the flagpole, because I love this place: in some sketchy reflection of the way in which, I trust, God loves it. Our parish may not want to change the world (as the song goes), but we are, none the less, looking for a new England.
The Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey is Team Rector in the Oxted Team Ministry, in Southwark diocese. His book Parish: An Anglican theology of place is published by SCM Press. He will be speaking at “Has the Parish Had Its Day?”, a debate at St Mellitus College, London, on Monday evening. www.churchhousebookshop.co.uk/parish-event