Over the last few years I’ve been noticing a particular shift in my beliefs. I don’t know why, because it isn’t intentional and it feels in many ways out of my control. What seems right or decent today is something I’m not sure the me a decade or even five years ago would necessarily agree with. A decade ago I was more ‘principled’ I believed in rights or values that were universal. I believed society should be organised along those rights and values applying them without consideration to all people. Yet in many ways whilst this is admirable I’ve increasingly seen such things enacted or enforced by those in authority, in power to pressure smaller groups, increasingly individuals, to fall in line. These principles don’t have to be popular they just have to be ‘right’ to those with the ability to enact change.
Today I increasingly see the value in community, in immediacy and the particular. That is an intrinsic part of being British, in our politics we don’t have a constitution like the US, we have a tradition. It’s not always for the ‘best’ but love it or hate it this is who we are, and if we don’t like it we acknowledge that and change it but we cannot forget who we are. This is why the blind insistence on ‘British values’ by politicians in trying to combat extremism is so asinine. The very attempt is an exercise in denigrating who we are by conjuring up vague, ahistorical and generalised principles that we should fall in line with. What is being British? In reality it has a great more to do with Tolkein’s ‘Hobbits’ than Parliament’s ‘Values’. Who we are is a particular thing more rooted in our history, culture, habits and language than any abstraction. Abstraction is what we have been seeing increasingly in the tail end and conception of the 20th and 21st centuries which has gone hand in hand with a diminishment of individual liberty.
From my own perspective, this change is a shift of seeing the good in the world not as something pushed down on the world but instead as something pushed up into the world. It starts with the individual, family and what they produce is important. They produce beliefs, aesthetics, languages and homes. They might be good, they might be bad but an abstraction of the truth does not determine this. Truth isn’t abstract but grounded in the particular, there is a reason Christ was born to Mary, died on a Roman cross and rose again. These things are increasingly being treated by the world as incidental or even optional but they are not, they’re important. Truth is ultimately found in Christ, nothing else. It can’t be abstracted, it can’t be divorced from Christ and his particulars. We live in an age where we are taught that secularism is value neutral, this is a lie. Secularism is a relativising notion that supplants any truth for the authority of the state. A Monarch in that sense is more honest in their particularity of beliefs and convictions, just as you can be an honest opponent or supporter for your own differing reasons. The contemporary secular state by contrast claims it has no time for the particulars of right or wrong and instead seeks to universalise, to homogenise. In place of truth is pure commerce and the erosion of anything other than the facilitation of the state and its financing.
This particularism is the natural outworking of position that prioritises a love not just of home but the land itself. We should care about our environment because it’s not only our home but our sustainer. Environmental abuse is nearly always perpetrated by those who have no attachment to the land being abused. This is most applicable to the natural environment, but I believe increasingly it applies to our social and cultural environments. None of these are sustainable in our current circumstances. We are fortunate in that social and cultural environments are inevitable and should old ones be supplanted new ones will be founded. Yet this is to say nothing of the cost of loss passed on to a community in the event of such a thing.
As a result of this change I realise I don’t really believe in things like ‘human rights’ anymore and the statement ‘we hold these rights to be self-evident’ in the US constitution I think are based on a faulty premise. Yet as a Christian I know certain behaviour is warranted of me by God that might constitute something akin to human rights but that the language is not helpful. Economically I subscribe much more to something like Distributism these days. I feel like I have a greater respect for other cultures and languages and how we communicate the kingdom of god to various cultures becomes a much more important consideration. I’m interested in how that has been done historically in addition to being much more passionate about my own history, the good and the bad. People do matter, but the term people is too abstract. My neighbour matters.
This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.
This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity… this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord’s incarnation. We are leading our lives, or – to put it more accurately – we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.
Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.
But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men – let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.
I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?
Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.
Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.
Meritocracy is on the surface a thing that seems indisputably good. The idea that people should be appraised and awarded positions on competency alone seems obvious to us today. However this assertion, on closer inspection, belies the increasing narrowness that defines the competencies that we value as a society. The fact that these things we value are largely determined by those who have such attributes or means in abundance is also generally taken for granted. We use the language of merit but on consideration this sounds very close to the idea of an aristocracy.
I recently listened to an interesting discussion on the subject which was helpfully condensed in the brief article entitled ‘The New Aristocracy‘. The article in question draws on the novel ‘Animal Farm’ in which one set of elites is overthrown by a group which eventually takes up the same role as those they overthrew.
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
George Orwell, Animal Farm
In our own settings these new elites take the form of those who assert that their possession of unique sets of skills and insights position them as qualified to discern and represent the will of the majority in society. The means to obtain these skills, and their associated values, over time become stratified, hardened and protected through a mix of education, breeding and accreditation. This is nothing new in many ways but the distinguishing aspects of these elites is their cosmopolitan makeup and advocacy of what they refer to as liberalism. There are different kinds of liberalism of course but what is advocated today is of a very particular kind. Ross Douthat expands on this in a recent piece in the New York Times..
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”
This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools. They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.
What he describes reminds me in many ways of a Magpie, a bird who collects baubles of exotic or interesting items in order to construct its nest. The nest in this instance might be the mind of the cosmopolitan in question. The fundamental underlying structure however, the worldview, of the nest doesn’t change, in fact the collection of baubles from elsewhere is one of its defining characteristics. In this light the provincially minded individual is more accepting in that they recognise the existence of radical differences to their own way of life which are outside themselves, the cosmopolitan in comparison possesses a will to mould all it encounters into its own image, a colonial outlook. Douthart’s assertion of this worldview being akin a ‘liberal Christianity without Christ’ I think was particularly adept and for better or worse made me think of the liberal wings of the Anglican church today.
The idea of a cosmopolitan aristocracy isn’t new but perhaps its global scope is. We could say ‘accept it, embrace it and reform it‘ and to be honest I know little alternative. The alternative does seem to be a form of localism, a particularism of sorts. I’m conscious that I am found in a subset of this cosmopolitan class and when abroad have previously espoused a ‘ich bin ein berliner’ attitude about the cultures I encountered, which did no favours to those cultures and in reality I think distanced me from encountering them as they really were. However over time I have become acutely aware of what I missed about England and my place in it. I realise now that whatever I do I’m British, and it isn’t a decision its just a plain fact. It may not seem that much of a revelation, but it was to me. Before this I assumed everyone was ‘British’ in a fashion and we just differed on the details.
This word particularism to describe an alternative to modern cosmopolitanism is something which today has a poor reputation. Such discussion locally might turn thoughts to Football Hooligans, White Vans, the English flag, the British National Party and alcoholism. Giving a fair summation of the ‘particularly British’ is a difficult task which I won’t do here. More so because in the last century Britain has undergone dramatic changes which have left it radically different in its values and makeup on one end compared to the other. Particularism then is being used to describe a preference for the area in which you have a shared history and embrace the local narrative as part of your own. Not just the people in it but the place itself. This is generally seen as ‘provincialism’ by some when used in a rural setting but I think the same thinking is at work in the London regarding the current state of Brixton, Camden, Newham, Notting Hill and Tower Hamlets and their gentrification. It isn’t just an economic act of replacing one set of people with another, its the erosion of the character and history of place which local individuals have little to no say in. Particularism then favours giving agency to the people within the area they live and the responsibility to care for the land so that both are sustainable. It also operates with an understanding that the two are deeply connected and unique.
Particularism is reflected quite strongly in the work of J.R.R Tolkien and his depiction of the Shire in contrast to Mordor. This is particularly highlighted in the ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ found in the closing pages of the Lord of the Rings narrative. In it the wizard Saruman takes over the Shire and instead of ransacking it begins a process of administration that tears down the old landscape, pollutes the rivers and takes control of the resources in the area to be administered out as Saruman sees fit. The Hobbits as species survive but the disaster is that they have been dispossessed of their relationship with the land and external agents have robbed them of their agency as a community and character. Tolkien, its assumed, wrote this inspired by his own experience of returning to his childhood home..
[On the occasion of driving his family to visit relatives in Birmingham:] “I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green – become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way – and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change
Excerpt from the diary of J.R.R Tolkien written in 1933 found in Humphrey Carpenter’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography”
Tolkien’s envy is directed towards those whose environment hasn’t been uprooted in the same way as his own. Yet the administering that brought about those changes did so at the instigation of people who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing.
Meritocracy is a popular idea which at first has little to be objected at, but in practice provides a means for a new, more invasive, aristocracy to supplant its predecessors. Governance by meritocracy has fed cosmopolitanism resulting in an a decidedly narrow and overbearing attitude at the heart of much of contemporary politics and popular social values. This thinking denigrates local knowledge and direct investment in a community in favour of increased bureaucracy. This hinders our understanding of our own local communities, our neighbours and leads to our alienation from the land itself. We outsource our responsibilities and our environmental and social ills become someone else’s problem. We solve problems increasingly through several degrees of separation from the issues themselves and no longer abide long enough, if at all, to see their consequences.
We have a God who is called Emmanuel, God with us, he came into our world and lived, suffered, died and rose again amongst us. He wasn’t far away and even now has left his spirit with us. Our God is particular, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Among other things, perhaps the rise in this homogenising attitude is that we as a nation have forgotten this.
Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
I’ll be honest, I voted to Leave but I did not expect us to win. I don’t ‘Begrexit’ I just assumed from listening to the media, my peers and even senior figures in the Church of England that Remain would win the day. Yet I am shocked and saddened both by the reported spike in racism and simultaneously the antagonism that has come about from my largely young and urbanite peers towards those who voted to leave. Theres an almost masochistic mood in the country currently that is revelling in the division, trying to explain away and wallow in our collective discontent. I’m uncomfortable stating my vote publicly, not because I regret the decision but because of the venom it would inevitably invite on myself. It is unmistakable that this vote has exposed very deep and serious fault lines in our society at a time where we are lacking the leadership to act in any decisive manner in any direction.
The thing that I think has shocked everyone is the distinction between the more rural, older generation and younger, urban generation. The vote isn’t as simple as this distinction, but it is noticeable. Yet I was surprised when in the weekend following the vote I travelled to the midlands, through Birmingham and saw an unprecedented amount of Union Jack and St Georges flags flying from homes, businesses and pubs. The atmosphere was palpably different to that of London which was despair bordering on hysteria in places. There is something in this distinction and it was the flag waving of the pubs in particular that stood out to me.
I wonder if the racist sentiment reported in the media is the cruel and violent edge of a ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooted in the collective loss of community in a lot of the less urban, less individualistic communities of the UK. People feel lost and so cling to the idea of a country as the only thing greater than themselves that they believe in. Nationalism is all we have when our communities are broken apart by a government that at times has seemed positively antagonistic and apathetic towards the majority. This vote was in large part carried by a sense of disenfranchisement on the part of a large swathe of the population (that has rarely voted at all) that has largely been ignored by the movers and shakers in our country for a long time. This post on Brexit by Anna Rowland has some really powerful insights.
Despite collective (cosmopolitan) surprise at the prevalence of such a complex sense of loss and aspiration … there is not much new about this. These are pan-European (now global) trends that Tony Judt, left-wing public intellectual and self-described Euro-pessimist, wrote about two decades ago. He believed that European elites were failing to grasp that the narrative of “Europe” stood increasingly for the winners, the wealthy regions and sub-regions of existing states. The losers were “the European ‘south’, the poor, the linguistically, educationally or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans who don’t live in golden triangles along vanished frontiers.” It turns out much of the post-industrial English North feels rather like the European “south.”
The issue in Britain is a cultural one as large parts of the population have been left behind by a top down, arguably neo-liberal corporatist, approach to both the media and government. One that has subsequently blown up with the ‘abdication’ of David Cameron and the ‘insurrection’ against Jeremy Corbyn, with no real alternatives on offer and both major parties in uproar. We are told what our country stands for, by various talking heads, but we do not really know what it stands for. Many people identify with particular ideas or subcultures more than nations today. So when we are asked to vote in such a way that is likely to define our nation in such a dramatic fashion, something so many think so little about generally, these ideological distinctions have erupted in ugly ways.
I do not know what the future holds, but I worry that this referendum is a watershed moment when we realise that our country doesn’t have a core anymore. Its been carved out, deconstructed and hollowed, in its place we have tried to manufacture something different along the ideological lines of those with power. Like an X-Factor winner in the hands of Simon Cowell. We’re a nation of strangers scowling at each other across any number of divides. Nationhood is an illusion, we are only individuals now who happen to share an abstract political union on a patch of earth we bear no connection to. At best we have our tribes. Maybe society was always like this? I doubt it, but it feels particularly appropriate now. I fear that Democracy is in danger as a result from both sides of this referendum.
As a Christian I can take comfort that God is sovereign irrespective of our present circumstances, that I am a participant in the ‘Kingdom of God’ more so than the ‘United Kingdom’. I pray the Church and its formal representatives doesn’t get sucked into partisanship and that we can disagree amicably within the church if we do so. More so I am grateful that many Christians I know personally have been some of the most gracious towards those who have voted differently to themselves despite the abuse they might of received at the hands of the enraged or emboldened elsewhere. I feel now more than ever that the church needs to rediscover what it means to make a public declaration of faith as a source of unity. Christianity is a public truth that was once a part of our national Character and it might one day be so again as a unity which can curb the excesses and dangers of nationalism and simultaneously bind us to an identity larger than any nation (or indeed anything else on this earth).
Its only a few days now until the referendum, the debate on the merits and failures of the EU have been at times inspiring or a cause for despair. I know what way I will vote but at the same time have felt inspired by the fact that this vote feels like the ‘most’ democratic thing I’ve ever done. The vote has cut right across party lines and shaken up a lot of the core parties. Things are actually different in this election and people are revealing a lot about themselves in how they articulate their reasons for voting.
Myself? I’m fairly sure now I will be voting to leave the EU. I don’t think the EU is democratic, we did well out of dodging the Euro and I think the EU’s handling of both Greece’s debt, their relationship with Ukraine and the handling of the migrant crisis have given serious cause for concern. I also think their are massive swathes of the UK that have been left neglected after the collapse of our national industries (fishing, farming, mining and manufacturing) and see a chance of that changing outside the EU which currently undercuts or legislates against it (although this is perhaps rather naive). I also see the EU as an increasingly neoliberal institution that is particularly susceptible to lobbying by multinational corporates (TTIP alone is enough to vote out for me). It is also increasingly infringing on the basic freedoms afforded to its citizens in policing ‘hate speech'(and getting technology companies to do the same). I also think its not even really done that good of a job at upholding workers rights as the existence of zero-hour contracts highlights. I also think we could better off interacting more fully with the world at large without a EU lens changing our view of trade and diplomacy.
I am a European, thats a fact not a matter of perspective. I love Europe and would gladly sign what we did in the 1970’s again but for me the issue is precisely that we didn’t sign up to anything like what we have today. Despite all of that I feel like this vote could possibly be one of the most important things I vote on in my lifetime. In some ways right now is a unnerving time of great change but it is also one of great opportunity, for society and also the church. The recent murder of MP Jo Cox highlights the deep divisions appearing our society partly as a result of this rapid change and the Church has a big job in simultaneously staying faithful to God, his word and those who laboured for the sake of the Kingdom of God before us in this country and adapting to speak into these situations. Massive debt (public and private), decreasing social liberty, broken communities, individualism, materialism, state surveillance, idolatry and heresy are abundant. We need to be conversant with these things and generally speaking I feel the church has done a good job at dealing with Brexit in a way that doesn’t give way to ‘Project Fear’ and gives me hope for these other areas.
The other thing I am grateful of is that unlike other ideologies out there, Christianity is transcultural. What started off as a minority sect of Judaism is now the worlds largest religion, and that is in no small part due to its ability to praise and emphasise the best of the cultures its encountered whilst denouncing and standing against that which would gives ground to sin and idolatry. Whatever way the vote goes, theres going to be pain and upset but the church will find a way in the UK wherever it is. Whether a state of an increasingly federal EU system of government or a independent European island nation looking to the world. The Church has evangelised Europe several times in its history, each time Europe looked fundamentally different and the approach to evangelising it changed in kind. God willing we will do so again and irrespective of the vote British christians will have a part to play in that.
For a good debate on the subject I recommend the recent Unbelievable? broadcasted debate on Brexit from a Christian perspective. Should we stay or should we go?
I was in a Bible study recently and towards the end we began talking about David Cameron’s Easter message (I know its a bit late) and the insistence that we are still a Christian nation (If we are then shame on us for what passes for Christian these days). Yet I was surprised by the near universal sentiment in the group that it’d be better for the Church of England to ‘come out’ of its role as the established church of the nation. Most of the people there had been raised in the CoE yet felt clearly the country and the church are being pulled in opposite directions and the church being chained to the state clearly was not doing us any favours with the expectations of the unbelieving public and political class bearing down on it.
A fair criticism of the Church of England is how closely it mirrors the secular world around it, how our bishops so closely mirror our politicians talking so much but saying very little. Demographically both the Church and the political system have become increasingly devoid of the participation of those in lower and middle income brackets and the young. The Church keeps promising to exercise authority against those deserving of it but the outcome is always underwhelming. The Church of England is an institution, a bureaucracy and ‘there is no health in us’. Which is perhaps why the church needs to ‘come out’ and learn to find its own voice and walk unaided by the state.
I am confident it is only a matter of time until the public and the state make the decision for the church and it should be taken as a blessing from God rather than anything tragic. It will force us and all others of the magnitude of the task before us here in the UK, because things will not be going back to the way they were. I will be surprised if the established nature of the church outlasts the life of Queen Elizabeth by any real measure (and I will really lament if Charles gets a handle on what little is left) because she seems to be the last true Christian monarch. As an aside, I’m not even a Monarchist but I think she’s probably one of the most vocal and well positioned Christians left here and for that I respect and even like her.
If the Church is wise it will act proactively and use such a separation as a chance to proclaim the gospel, if we are brave enough we should proactively seek to end it on our terms rather than that of the state. To get ahead of the inevitable and step more fully into the idea of the global church that Anglicanism is already participative in and more fully reject those who seek to capitalise on the idea of Christianity as a means of obtaining cultural capital for their own ends.
I find myself praying for disestablishment and soon and I do not think I am alone in praying this. The Church of England has an opportunity to occupy the role of a witness to the Kingdom of God which is infinitely better than the myopic cultural and epistemological materialistic landscape we are inheriting. It would be a massive change that would fundamentally alter the Church of England at its core, but its a change I think could be ultimately cathartic and for the better.
Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves.