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Nostalgia should not be dismissed

15 June 2018

The force driving populist politics can be harnessed by the Church of England for good, says Andrew Rumsey


NOSTALGIA (as the old quip goes) isn’t what it was. A new report by the think tank Demos, At Home in One’s Past: Nostalgia as a cultural and political force in Britain, France and Germany, is a timely recognition that, far from being mere sentimental indulgence, nostalgia is now driving populist politics across Europe.

This insightful piece of research pays particular attention to the impact of nostalgic attitudes on the 2016 EU referendum campaign, remarking how both Leave and Remain campaigns sought to “outplay” the other’s nostalgic discourses to demonstrate their status within the national story.

Refining its focus from general impressions — that, for example, 63 per cent of British citizens believe that life was better when they were growing up (fairly constant in all eras, one suspects) — the report homes in on more sensitive questions around “traditional values” and the perceived benefits or threats of a multicultural society. Among the more striking statistics, it finds that 78 per cent of people in British communities that have experienced large-scale immigration in recent years believe that this transition has made them more divided.

The report is significant for at least two reasons: first, in its acknowledgement, through careful qualitative analysis, that political life today is shaped as much by our felt senses of belonging and tradition as the more familiar categories of economic prosperity or party allegiance.

The second is its emerging from a progressive culture that has hitherto either downplayed such sympathies, or dismissed them as reactionary. Accepting that nostalgia tends to be employed as a “liberal slur”, it concludes that, if this term reflects citizens’ genuine experience, “we cannot dismiss nostalgia itself as irrational, hyperbolic, or feeble.”


ALL of this should, we might assume, be familiar territory for the Church of England, with our deep rooting in the nation’s story. And yet, conscious of privilege — and the teetering burden of our heritage — Anglicans often appear uneasy, both with our history and the new political landscape. Rightly wary of a blinkered nationalism, our Church nevertheless possesses unique resources for harnessing nostalgia and steering it towards a more confident vision of society.

Chief among these is a view of time which locates true belonging in a coming Kingdom of heaven. The promise, remade at a million funerals, of Christ’s “preparing a place” for us has insisted that, even in our loss, we face forwards. When belief in heaven (however broadly one defines that term) disappears from a culture, our desire for an eternal home does not evaporate; it merely turns back on past and present, asking of them what neither can offer.

Nostalgia — literally, “the longing for home” — is a term first coined in the 17th century by doctors seeking to diagnose the physical and mental symptoms of homesickness experienced by soldiers fighting in the European religious wars. Interpreting the present as a decline from an ideal past, the nostalgic mindset typically dwells upon meaningful fragments of a culture which symbolise what is missed or lost.

As with the Psalmist in exile, “we see not our tokens” is the call of all who yearn for home from an unrecognised present. Self-pitying and prone to fantasy though this may become, chronic nostalgia nevertheless presents a pastoral condition that the Church is adept at handling. After all, if we cannot appreciate the spiritual power of material signs, we have little hope of connecting with a sacramental world.

Part of the problem when assessing the British scene is a lazy equation of nostalgia with one, very limited, cultural manifestation that (according to the caricature) harks back to a monochrome and barely recalled 1950s. Depending on its appropriation, this narrative can certainly turn politically toxic, but it is far more likely to become so if people’s difficulties with change — especially where they feel marginalised — are silenced or invalidated by those in power. The nostalgia of the poor should prompt concern, not condescension, from those whose place, materially and socially, is assured.

Contemporary nostalgia is complex and highly consumerised, its various shades a revealing indicator of how societies perceive their present situation. It is not ridiculous, nor is it bound to become morbid and dysfunctional: indeed, at times of accelerated change, a little “living in the past” can be a vital means of regaining one’s bearings, as well as consoling and creative — as is shown, for example, by the huge popularity and cultural reach of “vintage” lifestyle.

TOO simplistic a view of the nostalgic impulse prevents, crucially, our understanding the plight of others whose displacement dwarfs our own. The most acute nostalgia in our time is surely felt by those peoples uprooted from home and longing for return or relocation. To respond compassionately to such global crises of belonging requires of British society something we currently lack — because, of all the things we are nostalgic for, the greatest is hope.

It is telling that so many local-government schemes for welcoming and housing refugees are being pioneered in partnership with churches. Belief in the next world holds extraordinary power to transform civil society — not only by offering confidence in the face of unsettling change, but also by empowering communities to do what is normally inconceivable: relinquish their place for others.

Only when this miracle occurs can memories of the past become, by God’s grace, memories with a future.

The Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey is Team Rector in the Oxted Team Ministry, in Southwark diocese. His latest book, Parish: An An­­glican theology of place, is published by SCM Press.

Read the report at: www.demos.co.uk/project/nostalgia

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