Still lacking time to write new stuff for my blog, so here’s something I wrote a few months ago…
I’ve always been slightly bothered by the fact that an English flag flies so prominently over my church’s building. Time to get it out of my system and work out why.
One issue, I suppose, is that the English flag carries, for me at least, resonances of EDL and xenophobia. Although Scottish and Welsh flags seem to be perfectly acceptable symbols of national allegiance, the English one just feels a bit more right wing. Maybe that’s just me, but I do know that when I’ve been in other countries where national flags are ubiquitous, I’ve been particularly conscious of my own otherness. If I invited non-English friends to this church, how welcome would they feel? The second issue relates to that long running debate about the connection between the church and the state. The flag on my church building seems to affirm that allegiance and, in doing so, fuels the discomfort I experience when people talk uncritically about this being a Christian Nation.
Because I respect and trust the people who make decisions within my church, and the processes in place for wider involvement in decision-making, I am certain that there are well thought-through reasons behind the English flag above the church. I’d love to find out what they are but I’m assuming that they have something to do with wanting to bring Christianity into the nation afresh and to see it shaping and transforming English culture as people encounter Jesus. Maybe. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t sit right with me.
I’ve just been reading the transcript of a talk at the Faith and Public Policy Forum in which Stephen Backhouse unpacks various questions related to Christianity and national identity. He recognises the temptation to bring together the language and mindset of strong national identity with those of Christianity, but offers three reasons why the national identity rhetoric and the concept ‘Christian Nation’ are best avoided by Christians.
Firstly, he looks at the way that ‘something strange happens to Christianity when it becomes part of the furniture of the nation’. When Christianity becomes a historical and cultural phenomenon, ‘the essential crisis that Christ poses to individual people and their lives will remain suppressed’.
Secondly, he considers how the national identity rhetoric poses a temptation to replace complex reality with simplistic identity. The language of national identity offers the promise of social cohesion and stability which can be attractive to Christians who also like to talk about cohesion, community, order and vision. National identity is, however, not as straightforward as it seems. Backhouse unpicks the frustratingly common assumption that a ‘nation’ is part of the natural order, drawing attention to the way that nations have evolved in particular socio-political and historic contests, leading to constantly shifting perceptions of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ in nationalistic conversation. People’s multifaceted identities cannot be ‘exhausted by the national’, he suggests. Yes, I’m English, but it’s not the only adjective which qualifies me and I’d hate to be reduced to it. We need to engage with ‘people as they really are, and this includes the ever-changing complexity of what it means to be a human being’.
Finally, Backhouse argues that the concept of the ‘neighbour’ – the word which Christians have for ‘describing a person in such a way that their individuality is preserved in all its elements’ – should encourage us to avoid the temptation of forging close links with national identity. Loving the nation, Backhouse suggests, often operates as a shortcut to loving the neighbour and leads to a bypassing of ‘what is so distinctive about the Christian duty to love’. The parable of the Good Samaritan pits the relationships of culture, ethnicity and religion against that of the neighbour. While it’s difficult to define who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ in terms of nationhood, and who counts as a person to us, the definition of a neighbour is far simpler: ‘the person whose needs you become aware of is your neighbour’. Their nationality is part of their identity, but it is not all of it. It’s Backhouse’s final line that lingers in my mind: the fact that Jesus commanded us to love our neighbours and not our nations.
Whatever its intention, the flag I see each Sunday evening strikes me as a barrier in communicating that message. I recognise that I am probably unusual and hypersensitive, mainly because I spend so much time with people who are casually reduced to non-people through labels such as ‘refused asylum seeker’. I expect that most people flocking into the building see it as a pretty decoration fluttering in the breeze, if they see it at all.
I know, however, that it isn’t just a passive decoration because it was, to my considerable surprise, lowered to half mast on the day of Thatcher’s funeral. If I struggle generally with what the English flag communicates, you can imagine my reaction to my church affiliating itself so self-consciously and corporately to such a politically-divisive figure, especially if we want to communicate a message of neighbour before nation.
I think I may be in the political minority at church. I’ve had some conversations which have wound me (and probably them) up something chronic but I’ve also had others which have stimulated and challenged me. The negative ones have upset me due to the refusal to view as ‘neighbour’ those with a different nationality, geographical location or immigration status to our own, especially when words like ‘bogus’ and ‘illegal’ come into play. The flag somehow reminds me of those conversations.
On the other hand, central to the positive conversations has been agreement on the fact that loving our neighbour is non-negotiable, however we chose to express that politically and in whichever spheres we seek to act it out. Those more positive conversations don’t deal with the role that my church’s flag plays in communicating that Christianity and Englishness are essentially synonymous, nor do they address my concerns that the flag could give off the wrong message to those we wish to welcome. But they do give me hope.