1. Looking in From the Outside
A man looking in from afar wrote the following of the people who dwell in these lands:
“There are four kinds of people in the UK –
First, there were the Scots who kept the Sabbath – and everything else they could lay their hands on;
Then there were the Welsh – who prayed on their knees and their neighbours;
Thirdly there were the Irish who never knew what they wanted – but were willing to fight for it anyway.
Lastly there were the English who considered themselves self-made men, – thus relieving the Almighty of a terrible responsibility.”
This, like so many descriptions of what it is to be English, was written by someone from outside. Legend has it that it was a Frenchman, in this case. There are many books about the English – by the French, Australians, Americans, Scots, Irish, Germans, Indians. All of them attempting, with exasperation, or anger, or affection, but mostly with a kind of bemusement, to try and capture the various contradictions of what constitutes Englishness.
The Frenchman who describes the English as ’self-made men, pleased to relieve the Almighty of a terrible responsibility’, describes their arrogance. It is interesting that as far back as the 5th century in the early years of the growth of Christianity in this country, some of the English adopted a particularly characteristic heresy: Pelagianism, whose central theme is that human beings have all the power we need, to will and to do what is spiritually good. In other words – we can make ourselves perfect and we don’t depend on God’s grace. You can see why it might have been attractive to the English!
But paradoxically, though the English might quite like the description of being self-made, and might in fact privately think they’d done a pretty good job, they would be the last to say so publicly. They would be much more likely to say – “Well, I may be self-made, but I’ve made a bit of a botch of it, as you can see.” For alongside the arrogance which many people see in the English, there is also a much stronger characteristic of self-deprecation.
Self-deprecation requires two things for it to work: a sense of self-security that allows you to laugh at yourself whilst inviting others to do the same, and a lightness of touch that enables the joke to be made without any sense of making a crass admission inappropriately.
A wonderful example of this is found in the songs of those excellent musicians Flanders and Swann the wonderful comic duo who penned “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”. I hope I will be forgiven for reading rather than singing their words:
“All the world over each nation’s the same
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game:
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
And they practise beforehand which spoils all the fun.
The English, the English, the English are best –
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.”
To which I would probably add the following verse:
“And then what happens when we win?
We force other nations, tribes and tongues
to hear all about it again and again.
Just think of all those endless clips
Of our triumphant World Cup team in 1966″
Flanders’ and Swann’s parody was funny, because it was the opposite of Englishness. Boasting was out, because self-confidence was in. It is perhaps a sign of our faltering self-confidence in what it means to be English that such a song written today might well be seized upon by members of fascist organisations who display more than most the insecurity that underlies any present consideration of Englishness or more precisely what it means to be English.
Trying to define what it means to be English usually ends up with a list.
Be it a list of virtues or a list of characteristics, many of those who have attempted a definition of Englishness end up with a list that would tend to include: honour and duty, humour and irony, and perhaps most of all fair play and tolerance, a particular characteristic of which I have more to say later.
In her book “Watching the English” Kate Fox concludes her amusing consideration of Englishness with a list of characteristics that includes: humour, moderation, hypocrisy, class–consciousness, fair-play, courtesy and modesty. At the heart of Fox’s analysis is what she refers to as “dis-ease” – the social awkwardness that Fox describes as shorthand for the “chronic social inhibitions and handicaps” that affect the English.
In the case of Jeremy Paxman, his book “The English A Portrait of a People”, concludes with an altogether shorter list where he declares that for the current generation Englishness is “modest, individualistic, ironic, and solipsistic.”
My own list, if my thoughts on the defining characteristics of Englishness were to be reduced to a list, could be summed up, in no particular order, as: “fraternity, law, liberty, landscape, language, magnanimity, monarchy, a thirst for knowledge, and a reverence for titles and status. But along with these I would also add, an ability to cope and not make a fuss.”
I think this last quality is shown in a letter which I first heard read by the evangelist J John at his ‘Just Ten’ presentation in Birmingham in 2004.
It’s a letter from a first year student at Balliol, doing PPE, writing to her parents back in Surbiton.
Mr and Mrs Smythe are very excited when the longed-for letter finally arrives through the letter box of number 12a Laburnum Avenue, and they hurry to read it. This is what they read:
Dear Mum & Dad,
Sorry I haven’t written before, but things have been pretty hectic here.
I’m OK now that my skull fracture’s healing. It was a pity my room caught fire, but luckily a guy who was hanging about on the street outside saw the fire in my room and picked me up after I jumped and took me to the hospital. When they’d patched me up, he kindly let me stay in his basement studio flat. It’s sort of small, but cute. And, to cut a long story short, I stayed there. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that we’re planning to get married. We haven’t set the exact date yet but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show. Yes, Mum & Dad, I’m pregnant! I know how much you are looking forward to being grandparents and I know you will welcome the baby and really love it.
The reason for the delay in our marriage is that my boyfriend has a minor infection, which I carelessly caught from him. I know, however, that you will welcome him into our family with open arms. He is kind and although not well educated, he is ambitious. Although he is of a different ethnic group and religion than ours, I know that you’re very welcoming and that won’t bother you.
Your loving daughter, Emily
Mrs Smythe bursts into tears and wails “We must go and rescue her from that terrible layabout and bring her home. But, oh how are we going to face the neighbours! We were so proud of our little girl going to university – the first in our family! ”
Mr Smyth is not at his best when he wife cries, so he goes down to his shed for a think.
In a few minutes he returns. “Now, Mavis, I’ve been thinking. We’ve got to bear up. We’re English! We can’t let this beat us. We must keep up appearances. Let’s have a nice cup of tea while you read the letter to me again and we’ll see what can be done.”
They sit down opposite each other with their tea, and Mrs Smythe reads the letter again with a trembling voice. When she gets to the bottom of the page she bursts into tears again.
“Wait a bit, dear”, says Mr Smythe, “there’s a bit on the other side”. “Oh no!” wails Mrs Smythe. “You read it, I can’t bear to hear any more”
Mr Smythe takes the letter and reads:
Now that I have brought you up to date, I want to tell you that there was no fire. I did not have a fractured skull. I was not in the hospital, am not pregnant, I am not infected and there is no boyfriend in my life.
However, I have just failed my first term Philosophy, Politics and Economics and I wanted you to see these marks in their proper perspective!
I’d like to take a little time now, to try to get a proper perspective on the English. If we are to consider what it means to be English today, it is necessary first to consider briefly how Englishness came about and how it has developed before considering the present situation. But, as this is the Sunday Times Literary Festival, I am assuming that you will all know the History of English Literature in depth. So I will not be singing to the choir about that – given the time at my disposal, but will rather remind us all of the following realities of Englishness.
England’s Debt to Christianity
Historically, Christianity has been at the heart of the history of this nation. British history, customs and ethos have been gradually shaped by the Christian faith.
You could say that the alliance of church and state first began under Constantine, who in 306 was proclaimed emperor by his troops in York, on the death of his father. Constantine converted to Christianity and promised an end to the persecution of the Church,
There was an organised church in these lands by the 4th Century, which was revived through the missions of Augustine in Canterbury at the end of the 6th Century and then by Paulinus who came to assist him, before going north to York in 625.
In the 8th Century, the Venerable Bede, the father of English history, wrote not only of how the English were converted to Christianity, but how the Christian Gospel played a major social and civilising role in this country by uniting a group of warring tribes and conferring English nationhood upon them.
A recent correspondent to The Times suggested that, like it or not, Englishness has its roots in the Christian religion.
“Consider our national anthem beginning with the word ‘God‘;” he wrote. “Consider the English flag: designed using the Christian cross. Its red colour symbolising the blood of Christ shows it is not simply a cruciform by chance.
Go back a century or more and the church will be found at the centre of English village life. The definition of a city was that it had a cathedral. People were born, married and buried in a Christian setting.”
The correspondent ends by referring to those English architects, artists, explorers and scientists whose faith gave them a basis.
Whilst it has been suggested by some that virtues such as fair play, kindness and decency are part of any consideration of what it means to be English, the question as to where these virtues came from is usually overlooked.
It is my understanding that such virtues and those associated with them, which form the fabric of our society have been weaved through a period of more than 1,500 years of the Christian faith operating in and upon this society. The Christian faith has weaved the very fabric of our society, just as the oceans around the United Kingdom and Ireland have shaped the contours of Britain’s geographical identity.
Whilst it is of course true to say that such virtues of kindness to neighbour, fair play and common decency are not unique to the Christian faith, just as they are not unique to England, it is equally true to say that these virtues have become embedded into the United Kingdom’s social fabric and heritage as a result of the Christian faith and influence on society.
Perhaps one of the greatest debts that England owes to the Christian faith in terms of her heritage can be seen most noticeably in the development of the language.
So, Secondly, The English Language
Two publications have done more than any other to shape the language which we not only take for granted, but which remains the dominant lingua franca the world over.
The King James Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer have given birth to much of what English has become. Our everyday language is punctuated with quotes from the Bible: ‘Good Samaritan’, ‘prodigal’, ’scapegoat’, ‘once and for all’, ’salt of the earth’, ‘lost sheep’ ‘going the second mile’ and so on.
The language of the prayer book, written by Thomas Cranmer to take the services of the Church away from the Latin rite and into a common language, pervaded the English language of its time and remains an enormous influence on our current language. The Oxford dictionary of quotations contains 549 of the Prayer book’s phrases – “at death’s door”, “give up for lost”, “moveable feasts”, “the jaws of death”, “passing all understanding”, “lead a new life”, all of these take their derivation straight from Cranmer’s work and became the basis for a generation of authors whose work shaped the language we speak.
The works of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, John Bunyan and John Milton are infused with the post reformation language born of Cranmer and the Authorised version of the Bible. Words, too, which we can hear translated into wonderful music in Handel’s Messiah. And we will no doubt hear them again this Easter, and as we celebrate the 250th Anniversary of Handel’s death on 14th April.
In recent years England has received people from many other countries. Not as invaders, but as refugees, or as members of the Empire and Commonwealth who had been taught about England in their home countries, her history, her expectations, her laws, her morals, and who felt they could be at home here.
Those who were brought up as Anglicans would have felt that particularly, as the language they had learnt in the Book of Common Prayer was indeed a common language which was shared not only by the church-going public in this country, but in countries across the globe.
I want to move on in our history and bring us up to the present. However, before doing that, I want to say two things about Empire and Englishness.
Thirdly, Made in England
Growing up in Uganda as a child, there was for me a gold standard when it came to receiving gifts. My family was not particularly well off, and certainly not by English standards, but nor did we starve although there were days when I wish we had a little more.
I remember my father asking me to give thanks for a meal to be shared between our family of 13 children where there was not much food to go round. I remember offering thanks to God for His provision but also mentioning that if He had given us a bit more than what we had eaten, we would have been even more grateful.
But when it came to receiving presents there were three words that I searched for on my gift as an assurance not so much of the its expense but of its quality. And those words were “Made in England”.
Those three words carried with them to a child in the 1950s a certain guarantee that the school ruler upon which they were emblazoned was a thing that would last. And to own such a thing was a matter of pride, because in so doing you had “the best”.
Fifty years on you would be pushed to find a school ruler or much else that now proudly states it is made in England.
But there remains one area of our lives where buying English remains not only a possible avenue but also a practical one and an eminently sensible one, and that is in the area of food.
It is my own belief that we should identify those foods that can be produced locally, and urge a return to a ‘Made in England’ mindset for the food we eat.
Not through some simplistic nationalism, but because of the plain sense it makes in terms of economy, sustainability and security.
Fourthly, A Loss of Vision
Alongside the loss of a manufacturing base a more serious development over the past century has been a loss of vision for the English people. Central to that loss of vision has been the loss of the British Empire, wherein England played a defining role.
I am aware that this is a controversial view. But whilst Britain had an Empire, a large merchant navy, a large manufacturing industry and commerce, and significant numbers engaged in armed forces, and an expatriate Civil Service in the colonies, it encouraged an outward-looking perspective.
As the vision for Britain became more introspective, I believe the United Kingdom became more self-absorbed. Hugh Montefiore, in his Installation Sermon as the sixth Bishop of Birmingham on 4 March 1978 said that:
“No-one can lead a fully human life unless he has a worthy aim in life. I sometimes fear that the people of this great country, having shed an Empire, have also lost a noble vision for their future. How can we rediscover our self-confidence and self-esteem as a nation? What do we really want for our beloved land? Man cannot live by bread alone, nor yet by cash alone. We need a nobler aim in life than an annual increase in take-home pay. What we need are new ideals, a new sense of self-esteem, which will unite us, energize us and unleash those excellencies of character and creativity latent within us all. I believe it is the task of the Church not so much to condemn our failures as to help towards the acceptance of common goals which uplift the heart. Certainly there are no signs these may come from any other source. Such worthy aims will not come from economics or from sociology, not from science or from politics, but from the Spirit of God welling up in the hearts of men.”
(An Installation Sermon, p.20 in ‘Taking Our Past Into Our Future’ Hugh Montefiore, 1978, Fount Paperbacks UK).
Given our current economic turmoil there has perhaps never been a better time to re-state this question as to how England might re-discover a noble vision for the future?
From my own standpoint I believe that is vital that England must utilize the challenges posed by the current economic turmoil and in restating the questions posed by Bishop Montefiore, England must recover a sense of who she is and what she is.
There remains a deep imperative for England to understand her history if it is to understand who the English are and what they might become.
I was born in Africa but my children were born here. They would not call themselves African in the way that I might consider myself to be, but they know of their heritage and carry it with them. Not just in their blood, but also in their values and outlook, in that which they received from those who came before them. As it is with people so, it is with countries.
The Church of England, itself part of the world-wide Church, has sired churches in 166 countries. I myself benefited from the educational work of English missionaries in my home country of Uganda. Now, as a Christian and Archbishop in England, I remind the English of what they first taught me. I am amazed that there is so little consciousness of this rich heritage.
We need to become better acquainted with this legacy, be grateful for it, rediscover its dynamic and build upon it. The spiritual wealth that made this country great is to be shared not only with present and future generations in England, but as a free gift from God to the whole of humanity.
Where once there was vision and zeal within this land, now there seems to be a malaise and apathy concerning both our purpose as a nation and our identity as a people. We may have become richer as a nation, but we have become less happy and less fulfilled. Without a common vision the various sets of competing interests borne of a rampant consumerism vie for our attention to take our eyes away from a higher purpose.
Just as the Church has had a role in forming our culture so it may yet have a role in defining our current state. The Church in many ways has to be like a midwife, bringing to birth possibilities of what is authentically very good in the English mind, not least the virtue of magnanimity. Which brings me back to the issue of magnanimity which I touched upon at the start of this address.
Personally speaking I have a great dislike of the word tolerance and I think it does the English a great dis-service. At the root of my dislike is the sentiment that somehow by tolerating something or showing tolerance one is doing something more noble than just putting up with it.
Therefore, no fundamental change in attitude and practice is required of you. If that is what people are being asked to do in terms of migration, it is little wonder that we hear voices of unease.
At its worst tolerance rarely achieves anything beyond making the assumption that we all possess the same degree of tolerance, unaffected by our upbringing and the circles we move in. This flawed process leads to the unenviable situation where we conclude, “If I can get you to believe as little as I do and to hold it as lightly as I do, things will work out.”
Rather than mere tolerance I much prefer the characteristic of magnanimity. I was raised in a large family in a village where everyone in Masooli was there for you. Ours was the path of “magnanimity”, meeting the other person half-way.
For me Magnanimity is a better path than tolerance. If we are to be magnanimous in our approach, there is a chance that we can begin a relationship based on unmerited favour and acceptance.
If we simply talk of tolerance then the road to engagement, to conversation, to neighbourliness becomes that much harder.
So for me one of the continuing triumphs of Englishness lies not in its tolerance but in its magnanimity. In its ability to meet those who have come here as strangers and to turn them into neighbours. That is the test of a magnanimous land and a magnanimous people.
Sixthly, It’s Coming Home
A sign of such magnanimity came in the summer of 1996 with the arrival of the European Football Championships in England. During one of our better summers in terms of the weather a new breed of Englishness began to take root which found its climax in the 2006 world cup.
The signal for such a change in our approach to Englishness was the use of the Cross of St. George. Previously an icon of extreme nationalists, a sign of exclusion tinged with racism, the flag of St. George instead became a unifying symbol for a country caught up in the hopes of eleven men kicking a ball around a field.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, prior to his election as London Mayor, Boris Johnson wrote of this phenomenon: “It is a revolution that was born among the scaffolders and the taxi drivers and the pub owners, and then spread to the bourgeoisie to the point where the elite could no longer contain it: they had to co-opt it.”
The popular anthem for this time – Three Lions – will be familiar to many of you.
“It’s coming home, it’s coming home
Football’s coming home
It’s coming home, it’s come home,
Football’s coming home.”
This song was on the lips of children and adults alike: minority and majority ethnic groups. Coupled with the reclamation of the flag it represented an opportunity for common cause that was open to ownership by any who chose to adopt it. It represented a new form of Englishness which presented, for a few brief weeks of a football tournament, a shared narrative.
It is something that was again at work on the day that it was announced that the Olympics would be coming to London in 2012, a moment of national pride cruelly robbed away by the news of the bombs on London transport only hours later. Has the time come to make the Feast of St George, the Patron Saint of England, a Public Holiday?
Finally, My Tentative Conclusion
Englishness is back on the agenda.
One of the consequences of the recent attacks by so called “home grown terrorists” has been to ask the question of what it means to be English? Can there be a narrative, an identity that we can all share, flexible enough to recognize the new aspects of England whilst remaining authentic enough to proudly name and recognize England’s own history?
Where there is no awareness of identity, there is a vacuum to be filled. Dissatisfaction with one’s heritage creates an opening for extremist ideologies.
Whether it be the terror of salafi-jihadism or the insidious institutional racism and bigotry of the British National Party, there are those who stand ready to fill the vacuum with a sanitised identity and twisted vision. if the silent majority are reticent in holding back from forging a new identity. When hateful and vile slogans are shouted at returning soldiers as they march through our towns, Joe and Jane public should gather in large numbers to demonstrate peaceably that such bigotry has no place in England’s green and pleasant land.
To be patriotic, is to appreciate and be grateful for all that is valuable in the country you live in. It does not require you to be a xenophobe or a blinkered nationalist.
The failure to recognize and to appreciate one’s heritage is a sign of an all-round ingratitude. Ingratitude in turn breeds cynicism. As Oscar Wilde had it in Lady Windermere’s Fan, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. A cynic has no obligations, only criticisms.
The American member of the Sojourner community, Jim Wallis, on a recent visit to the UK warned: “Hope or cynicism, that’s the choice facing your society”.
Sociologists tells us that children of dual heritage, whose parents have blood from different continents running through their veins, are being born more than ever before in this country’s history. Is it not the greatest of ironies that for such children, the heritage of a parent who may be from a commonwealth country may be easier to identify or signify than the one belonging to the land into which they are born?
Some English people don’t like to say anything about their heritage, for fear of upsetting newcomers. My question to them is simple: Why do you think we came here? There is something very attractive about the United Kingdom. That is why people stay! As a boy in Uganda, I was taught by British missionaries. Just as foreigners brought the Christian Faith to England and the rest of the UK, so British foreigners handed on the baton to me, my family and my forebears. I am grateful, and I say a big thank you to all your forebears who risked their lives in coming to my country, bringing the medicine of the Gospel, health, education and good governance.
All I am doing now is to remind the English of what they taught me.
Let us recognise collectively the enormous treasure that sits in our cultural and spiritual vaults. Let’s draw upon the riches of our heritage and find a sense of purpose for those who are thrashing around for meaning and settling for second best. Let us not forego our appreciation of an English identity for fear of upset or offence to those who claim such an identity has no place in a multi-cultural society. Englishness is not diminished by newcomers who each bring with them a new strand to England’s fabric, rather Englishness is emboldened to grow anew. The truth is that an all embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate. Let us acknowledge and enjoy what we are.
Let us be confident in the truth behind the words of that song which is sung with such gusto at the last night of the Proms:
Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spear O clouds unfold
Bring me my chariot of fire
I shall not cease from endless fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land
Let us all build for the future.
Speech by the Archbishop of York on ‘Englishness’ at Christchurch College Oxford, Saturday 04 April 2009