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Angela Tilby: To imitate is to grow: it is not weakness

04 June 2021


MY MENTOR at the BBC, David Winter, revealed a keen ear for the accuracy behind some commonly derided expressions. “Truisms”, he observed, for example, “are actually true.” Something similar could be said of “stereotype”, a word that originally referred to the metal plates scored with typeface and used in mass printing. When applied to people, the word suggests someone whose behaviour or appearance is as predictable as copy churned off a press.

Naturally enough, no one wants to be a stereotype of anything. Today’s society has little use for “conformity”. We are constantly told to develop our individuality, our authenticity, and, in applying for jobs, our USP: “unique selling point”.

And yet we can’t help conforming to “type”. You pick up mannerisms and attitudes from school and work which others recognise. In church life, Evangelicals tend to adopt a stereotypical grin; Anglo-Catholics often play camp. Both have their own idiosyncratic vocabulary. It helps to fit in.

When Jesus says “Follow me,” there is a call both to copy and to improvise. There is a place for faithful memorisation, and a place for risky experiment.

The Christian spiritual tradition reflects both aspects. The teaching of St Ignatius Loyola starts with individual experience, and brings it into dialogue with the gospel story. The Rule of St Benedict starts with turning away from individual experience, and adopting humility and obedience. Both paths aim for integration. Both involve a blend of personal appropriation and willing conformity.

But, in a society in which individuality is so prized, conformity is sneered at. We have come to value personal authenticity so highly that we have lost the ability to imitate, and with that we fail to grow. The downside of our individualism is a static defendedness and, in the end, crushing loneliness.

Imitation enables growth. There is something to be said for faking love of neighbour until it falls on us like grace; something to learn from suspending our personal dignity to connect to those who have none. Ironically, while we think we are courageously doing our own thing, our internet lives suggest that our supposedly individual preferences are constantly being harvested. We think we are unique, even as we are sold back to ourselves for others’ profit.

English Anglicans, by the very nature of their historic faith, have usually been seen as conformists. Place, continuity, and habit all matter. We are meant to learn the faith: to know the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the creeds. Idolising our individuality actually diminishes our true personhood. I was struck on a visit to a cemetery recently by the commonly repeated phrases by which the dead are remembered, “much-loved”, “faithful wife and mother”, “loving husband”. In the hour of death and in the day of judgement, our uniqueness does not count as much as our connectedness.

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