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Sabbatical feedback letter no 3 – I got out of church and visited Britain. I said before the sabbatical that I went on a foray into the new mission field. If I was going as a Missionary to China, I would learn the language and the culture; well my deep conviction is that the calling of the church in Britain in the twenty first century is as a Missionary organisation, and we need to see afresh our mission field.
So, how to define Britain in 2010? And I come partly with fresh eyes to this task, and partly with a great love of my homeland with all its faults, failings, and foibles. I am proud to be British, I am aware of British history, proud of the British landscape and local history, and proud of so much today of what stands for Britain. But it’s not a very British thing to be proud, we’re very good at undervaluing ourselves and being rather humble. So be it, that’s who we are.
The first and most notable characteristic of Britain is that we’re a very varied and diversified nation. In fact I think diversity is perhaps one of our defining characteristics. Over thousands of years the British have always been made up of a mixture of immigrants, from Ice age and Bronze age hunters, gatherers, and foragers, to Iron age settler farmers, to Saxon, Viking, and Norman invaders, to Black Roman slaves ‘left behind’, to immigrant workers brought in last century, to asylum seekers coming now to a fair and just nation in search of sanctuary, safety, and a chance at life instead of fear of death. The rule in Britain is ‘come in, welcome, tell us who you are and fit in, bring something and we’ll assimilate you, and what’s British will change ever so slightly to accommodate you’. Some writers contrast this to, say, the French approach where immigrants must learn the French language, assimilate the French culture, and become thoroughly French. Like it or not, I suggest that the British are a varied, mixed, and welcoming nation. And if you want to know how British you are – log into a website such as www.hiren.info/life-in-the-uk-test and take a British Citizenship test, you might be very surprised!
I referred in my last letter to wearing a tie and what workers do for lunch. I reckon that as you rise through the humble ranks to the middle classes, to the very well paid, you go through strata of those who wear ties and those who don’t, every change indicating another level of seniority. I dare to suggest that the lower working ranks stop for lunch, and some go out for lunch, the higher ranks not only may not lunch, but even have had breakfast at their desks, and won’t eat again until very late in the evening when they get home. This speaks to me about rhythm, and balance. To be human is to need to eat, need to rest, need to socialise, and need to work. The best way of working is to have a rhythm that energises and refreshes as well as one that makes demands, stretches, and drives performance. Much Biblical wisdom is about redeeming the need for balance and rhythm in being a healthy human being.
Another way of defining Britishness is to look at uniquely British institutions. The BBC and the NHS seem to be grand institutions that in some ways define Britishness. There’s a corporate nature to them that stands against the apparent individualism of our culture, and a standard that is expected yet taken for granted. When I spoke to a (white) South African immigrant she kept saying we Brits don’t know how fortunate we are. We have an excellent state system of education, health, and fair media. She did say we have a tendency to moan a lot instead of just getting on with hard work and making the best of our opportunities, but she was quite clear about the fact that she came here because it’s a land of opportunity that rewards hard work. I found in the NHS people really committed to the public sector, and giving something back to society; and I found in the BBC (as well as the economic sector) a creativity that I think really reflects the creativity of God. To be a human being is to bear God’s image, and that means that to create something (whether it’s making money, or a fair news programme, or a powerful documentary, or a new bit of technology) is to fulfil our first mandate as human beings – to be like God.
So I found in Britain many resonances of the divine – variety calls for love and grace; corporation speaks of community responsibility; creativity calls for regulation, maybe limits, and responsibility again. These are big topics - please bear with me as I digest and articulate them, but they all convince me that Britain is part of God’s world, God is alive and well here, our call to mission means seeing Him where he is and joining in.
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