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Haddon Willmer asks if this really is our England?

16 June 2014

If you have a home, (not all have that basic blessing),  the Sun’s ‘Free historic edition for 22 million homes’ should have come to you on Thursday, 12 June. But if the BBC figure of 25 million homes is right, there is a one in eight (?) chance that you missed out.

I was provoked by the front cover to read my copy. Wiser people might well have thrown it into the bin straight away. In my face, a collage of 118 personalities who ‘sum up the essence of England today’ and the banner is, ‘This is our England’.20140613_082812 (1486x1597)I live here, I have done all my life, I have even worn the Queen’s uniform, and I am grateful for many blessings, but do I have to take this as the essence of England?

I do not trust the Sun’s judgment on this question.   Or the range of boastful pieces about England and Englishness, including an article headed ‘No one else on the planet comes close to our genius’ and a Rule Britannia picture gallery of ‘our proud history as witnessed by the Sun’, which I think is meant seriously, having been vetted by academics and used, we are told, in schools.   There is a ditty we are intended to find funny, but I guess I am one of the ‘miserable English git(s)’ it mentions, for I am not at ease with the undertone I sense in this:

We are a nation that likes to care

Cuddled by the NHS

I am all for helping people out

Just don’t mention DSS.

Perhaps if the author had not been under pressure to achieve a rhyme (it is a sort of a poem, isn’t it?) It might have been easier to construct a verse where there was an overflowing generosity, enough to wash away the smugness of ‘a nation true and proud’. Are there not too many people in our society who are not adequately cared for and who are even derided as workshy spongers and such like in this nation ‘true and proud’?

Being the Sun, there is a page 3, a picture of ‘an English Rose without any thorns’ who gives ‘you a wonderful contradiction of wholesome wickedness’. Do you want to live with the contradiction?

20140613_083407 (454x600)This gratuitous publication is occasioned by the Football World Cup Finals, with a near exclusive focus on ‘Roy’s boys’, whose manager has ‘part-ownership of our hearts for the next four weeks’. This time round, expectations are soberly realistic, but still we plead with them to make us proud, and James Corden concludes: ‘I truly believe that if they go for it, then maybe….just maybe!’ 47% think respecting fair play and 36% think that being tolerant to others defines English character, so any who want to keep their hearts for something else can expect not to be troubled. No one will give you a white feather, will they?

There is a serious aspect to this publication, with its wide circulation, and its claim to ‘speak for England’, but I don’t want to be overly solemn about it. It could be argued that the best response is to ignore it, use it to wrap really old-fashioned fish and chips (our third favourite food, 12%) and then bin it. But when popular ephemera of this sort come my way, I tend to reflect on what spirit they reveal and what they might be tempting and leading me into. The part-ownership of our hearts is continually being claimed by good and bad things, trivial and eternal. So as the Bible says, Test the spirits whether they are from God. Test all things and hold fast to that which is good.

We need to pray every day to live fully with a Christian mind. And search for what such a mind consists in.

I go back to the front page which got me started on this meditation (or is it a rant or a joke?): the ‘essence of England’ in 118 faces. I look at them, I know some, we can have family games testing who knows most – don’t cheat by looking at the key on an inside page. I know quite a few. I don’t see any known Christians except the Queen. There may be hidden Christians and part Christians in this crowd, which certainly contains many people I admire and am grateful for. Looked at from the angle of a Hunt the Christian game, it is a pictorial statement about the marginalisation of Christianity – indeed its invisibility in many people’s experience of our national ‘essence’. It is a comment on the recent discussion about whether England is still a Christian country. Is there any worthwhile sense in which that is true? In the Sun’s eyes, it would seem, Christianity and indeed faith is not an element or strand in the ‘essence of England’.

And if it is mostly not true, what is our calling and responsibility as Christians, the marginal minority which outs itself in this situation? It is not easy to know what to do for the best.   I don’t think there is any help in going on with the pretence that this is a Christian country. I also think efforts to recover a supposed old Christian England will fail and will eat up resources of material and spirit which should be directed to true discipleship, following Jesus in the reality of our present. Hard as it is, I think we have to be clearer than ever that we are ‘strangers and exiles on earth’ (Hebrews 11.13; I Peter 2.11), and not be frightened by what it involves, but rather find ways of living not for ourselves, not to escape from the world, but to be lights in dark places, and even in places which are so bright with celebratory ‘sights that dazzle’ that we can’t see anything.

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