Church culture shock

I was so desperate to leave church by midday but couldn’t work out why. I sent round a flurry of texts hoping to find at least one friend who was actually in London. Someone who required minimal effort, who was fun to be with, who could cheer me up, and who got me. Thank goodness that June was free otherwise I’d have gone home and exploded, or imploded, or something equally messy.

It wasn’t until the evening that I worked out what was going on. I was watching the Olympic Closing Ceremony and feeling remarkably similar to how I’d felt about the opening one. Jenny and I had unpicked the Opening Ceremony the next day, coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t that we necessarily felt proud to be British, but we somehow realised that this was the culture where we were starting out from and where we kind of made sense. We understood why the Mr Bean scene was funny and why the NHS thing worked at so many levels. As much as we hate to say it, we, like Rupert Brooke, are those who England bore, shaped, made aware. It’s the funny feeling I get inside of me when I catch my first glimpse of London each time I return; whether it’s on the M40 from Oxford as the grubby skyline materialises on the horizon, or on a plane into Heathrow as the city – my city – pans out below like at the start of Eastenders. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner.

And that’s when I understood what had happened that morning. I’d been suffering from the very thing to which I thought I was immune: culture shock. I was displaying all the classic symptoms: feeling at sea and a bit scared, unsure what was coming next, watching like the outsider who doesn’t know who’s who or how this community functions. Not fluent enough to understand the idioms, get the jokes or express the personality that lurks below. My flurry of texts was more than just a search for distraction. It was a cry for help; a call for home.

Ironically, I have just gone through a job application process in which I bigged-up my ‘cross-cultural’ skills and my ability to relate easily to people of different cultures. Yesterday’s experience makes me think otherwise. Actually, I realised, when I say that I have cross-cultural skills, what I mean is that I love hanging out with Afghan teenagers and that if you dropped me off somewhere random like Kurdistan I’d probably cope.

But Sunday morning was all things to all people. My so-called cross-cultural skills failed me.  For all my love of the local and diverse, I suddenly realised why most people don’t bother and end up in churches where everyone is the same as them; where there is a single culture to relate to, rather than multiple ones. It’s so much easier.

Perhaps that’s why they – the mythical ‘they’! – are trying so hard to categorise and work out what to do with us.  I have a moment of sympathy for the rationale underlying the age/ethnicity/educational background form that I’m (probably unhelpfully) refusing to fill in. Perhaps this is what underlies the bizarre identification of ‘five congregations’ of which this church community is said to consist. Why did that concept evoke such a strong response from me? In part, I suppose, it’s my same old issues with being labelled and pigeonholed. In this case so much more so, because I saw myself being put in the young, posh, educated outsider box, rather than the ‘people who are from around here’ box. But I am from around here, my little disempowered voice is crying out silently inside me. This is where I grew up. I was here, in this place, before you all appeared, even though you deny the reality of that pre-existence. This little part of the world is the culture that made me, me.  This is the accent that I speak with. This heterogeneous, inextricably multicultural, mishmash of a culture is, nevertheless, the singular culture that I get, and that gets me. It’s where, bizarrely enough, I sort of belong. Who are you to tell me otherwise? I suddenly realise that I am feeling abstractly hurt, and irritated, and confused, and in a bit of a muddle.

I find myself missing the stability of that church culture that wound me up something chronic at the time, but at least I knew where to situate myself within it. Ok, so I placed myself at the edges, I critiqued, I shouted, and I sometimes felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. But I understood that culture – its foundation, its priorities, its theology and its expressions – and I worked things out in relation to them.  Here, I am still looking for those markers which define a context and enable me to locate myself within it.

How on earth (quite literally) does church community work itself out here? I get that church is not about me and my culture, nor should it be. But how do we find unity which is real but which respects diversity? How do we love and include each other in a way that is not blind to the social, economic, cultural and educational markers that differentiate us but that doesn’t oversimplify things through five discrete bureaucratic categories. How can we recognise the challenges and opportunities arising out of the winding trajectories that have brought each of us, as unique individuals with different passions and personalities, to this place of coexistence? With divergent perceptions of hospitality and ownership of place, who welcomes who, and how? How are the universal and the particular reconciled? And, within all this, how much do we seek to create a distinctive subculture within this one:  a culture that points to an already but not yet kingdom? How on earth does the Word become flesh and move into this neighbourhood?

Beam me up already. But that’s not the point, is it? This is the plan. The map is blurry, and the phrase book isn’t working, and not all my travelling companions speak my language or even seem to be heading in the same direction. I am lost in this undefined culture, and simply don’t know how to deal with this unfamiliar experience. Lead us along the right paths. For your name’s sake.


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