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Angela Tilby: It takes more than football to unite us

16 July 2021


The Venerable Bede (c 672-735)

The Venerable Bede (c 672-735)

THE great achievement of the England Euro 2020 team was to embody a vision of Englishness, redeeming the flag of St George from association with right-wing yobs. But it takes more than football to unite a nation, especially one that is as divided as we currently are with our Brexit wounds and culture wars.

Englishness is tricky when we are surrounded by other British nations with a much clearer national identity. It is perhaps worth remembering that the notion of the English people is inseparable from that of the English Church, and that both go back to the Venerable Bede’s History, written in 731. Bede described four nations and five languages in Britain: the four nations were the English, the British, the Scots, and the Picts; the fifth and common language was Latin, the language of the Church.

According to Bede, the Angles and Saxons were “invited” into Britain by King Vortigern in the fifth century, and their arrival led to conflict, as the guests were bent on conquest. He also laments the fact that the Britons failed to preach the faith to the Angles and Saxons, who held to their pagan ways until Pope Gregory sent the missionary Bishop Augustine to convert the lands held by the Angles and Saxons from Canterbury.

Bede’s history was taken up by Alfred the Great as part of his campaign of unifying his subjects in the aftermath of the Viking invasions. It is to Alfred that we owe the beginning of an education system, with pupils taught in English rather than in Latin.

I take from this that Englishness is something of a mongrel quality, a product of invasion and assimilation, more to do with language and culture and habit than any mystical link between blood and soil. In such a context, patriotism is best when it comes with a touch of irony. The Last Night of the Proms is truer to the tradition than any anti-migrant drum-beating.

The truth is that we are all strangers in our own land. My personal DNA includes a hefty Scandinavian streak. Even our monarchy is imported. The Church of England is perhaps the most English thing about us, and it is often embarrassed by this (in a very English way), preferring to speak of itself in terms of the Anglican Communion, and currently attempting (in a very unEnglish way) to dismantle the parish system in favour of Americanised patterns of church life.

I do not expect the Church of England to embrace any hearty form of patriotism, but it would be good, sometimes, to have an acknowledgment of our long history, a respect for our language, and our recognition of strangers as fellow pilgrims. After all, most of us came here in boats, whether Viking warships, Empire Windrush, or little craft bobbing in the Channel.

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