Proud to be English?

|PIC1|This week England marked the day of its patron saint, St George. In previous years the day seems to have gone by almost unnoticed by many in England, but this year there appeared to be a few more flags flying than usual.

Boris Johnson, who has just completed his first year as mayor of London was particularly keen to “fly the flag” for St George and unveiled a number of free events for Londoners to celebrate the day at.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, also opened up the gates of Bishopthorpe Palace for young people to celebrate in, whist the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali called on churches to celebrate England’s “glorious heritage” on the day.

The increase in public interest in St George’s Day in England can only be a good thing in a nation which seems to be having something of an identity crisis.

Since the decline of the British Empire some have argued that England has been struggling to find its identity and purpose as it no longer bears the responsibility for having to “civilise” the rest of the world.

Others have pointed out that the rise of multiculturalism has created confusion about what it means to be English, which in turn has even led to the resentment which has caused increasing, although still relatively small, support for groups like the British National Party.

The recent rise in support for the BNP is not just a reaction to multiculturalism, it is also the result of a feeling that English identity has been sidelined and is no longer valued. There are very few leading public figures who seem keen on proudly promoting such an identity, often out of a misplaced fear that it may offend minorities.

Recently it was revealed that one churchgoer wrote a letter to each of the 44 diocesan bishops in the Church of England suggesting that every church ring their bells on St George’s Day to celebrate England’s patron saint.

Only five responded positively, whilst many did not respond at all. A number of bishops even wrote back saying they would not support the ringing of bells because it would be “imposing” one set of beliefs on another or that it would be too assertive to put on such public displays.

Sensitivity and tolerance towards other cultures and beliefs is an important quality in any society and it is good that the church recognises this. In the days of the British Empire missionaries, although often going with the best intentions, often shared the prejudices of the day that viewed non-British culture and religious practices as inferior or even evil.

This disdain for the culture of others has born a bitter fruit even today. In India we have seen horrific riots against Christians by people who hold the mistaken view that Christianity is a Western religion that seeks to rob India of its culture and traditional values.

Now, however, there is the danger of going in a totally opposite direction. Whereas before, missionaries sought to replace local cultures with their own, we now see some in the church fearful of expressing their own culture, even within their own country.

There are a few in the church, however, who seem to be very sensible in this area. Ironically it is those who are not even from this country who are England’s most fervent supporters.

Men like John Sentamu and Michael Nazir-Ali have not repeated the mistakes of those missionaries of long ago. Having come to this country from Uganda and Pakistan respectively they seem to have adopted England as their own and are more passionate in their promotion of English values than many of the English!

Another example is the Nigerian, Jonathan Oloyede, Covenor of the Global Day of Prayer (GDOP) in London. At a prayer meeting ahead of this year’s, GDOP Oloyede invoked the “Blitz Spirit” and spoke of a time during the Second World War when the King called the nation to pray for its salvation (from the Nazis).

It is touching that they, and other church leaders like them, should have such a love for this country, especially given the history of colonialism that exists between the UK and their own mother countries. However, for those of us whose roots are closer to this country it is also mildly embarrassing that there are few English people willing to show such a passionate love for a country which has given so much to the people of the world.

Let us hope that next year’s celebrations mark an even greater change in direction towards an England that is both confident of its own identity and is welcoming to all nations and peoples on earth.