I thought it would be good to launch my blog as an Ulster Scot in Coventry on the national day of my adopted country. But it is a matter of debate as to whether this is indeed the national day of England. As it is Shakespeare’s birthday there is some claim to seeing it as the national day of the english language!
The english are peculiarly ambiguous about this day. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a Ugandan by birth, has provoked the usual round of chest beating when any enthusiastic voice is raised in support of the day being given a greater profile than it currently enjoys. It is singularly appropriate that the Archbishop rallies to the cause. For what is English identity if it is not the shared narrative of the many peoples who have made this part of the British island their home.
For many, matters of nation, land, ethnicity and the story of their people are irrelevant. Yet for the vast majority of cultures these matters are a potent force for shaping identity, creating belonging and understanding the experience and dignity of their people. This is not to say that concerns of community and belonging don’t count in english society. They do. It is simply that people are divided as to how they matter.
In the west we have become what one commentator has called ‘consumer nationalists’. What matters most is what we are ‘consuming’ in the moment, whether that is family, friends, entertainment or possessions. Even religion and our spiritual experiences have become part of this embrace of the moment. As long as we are ‘free’ to enjoy what is ours to enjoy we aren’t too bothered by the narrative that helps us understand how we got here. A narrative that is about enterprise and sacrifice alongside deep historical oppression, hurt and injustice.
Left unexamined the deep rooted anxiety about who we are and who are our people can easily distort and disfigure our relations in the present. When circumstances leave us feeling threatened we expose our gut hates and prejudices. It takes surprisingly little to uncover the primal mistrust and suspicion of the other that lies beneath our civilized exterior. Diversity, if it is to be valued and celebrated, needs to be set in context by powerful shared narratives of all that has made our society what it is today.
It seems to me that this is a major part of what a national day is for. To ask the big questions – who are we? Who is modern England? And what is the story that its peoples tell that gives meaning to their belonging and participation on this island and in the world at large? How we tell these stories to each new generation is important. We cannot avoid the story, saying it doesn’t matter in today’s world. It always matters. Left unexamined and not renegotiated in the retelling , we only leave the narrative open to those who are less nuanced and engaged with the different other. Their wish is to exploit fear and nurture community tension.
The story of the many peoples who in the twentieth century have made this island their home needs woven into the english national story. How they have come to be here and their contribution to making us who we are today and will be in the future is profoundly important to us all. Our ability to both hear and embrace these stories of migration and settlement is critical to us as a society.
Nor can the church wash its hands of responsibility for this process. Being citizens of the kingdom of God emphatically does not mean we somehow don’t belong to this community. In fact it is the opposite for it is Jesus who sends us as he was sent to be embedded in the life of communities and to bear as witness to the rich diversity of humanity.
The Archbishop is right to require the Christian community to take our place in this particular conversation. Not least because we believe there is a deeper story that people can draw from that brings healing and life to the complex mess of hope and despair that marks the story of all peoples. And also because we too, as the church, need to take the opportunity to retell our story as people of faith who have variously been partisan conspirator, complicit bystander and occasional redemptive presence in the story of the english nation.
St George, the patron saint, could indeed provide a focal point for community cohesion if only we weren’t so afraid of letting the genie of identity out of the bottle in this mongrel nation that is England.