To the people of Britain,
Much is being made at present of 'British values', with the intention that all who live and work here will have a clear idea of what it means to be British and the standards of behaviour and the attitudes that we wish the world to associate with this. But I would suggest that as a nation we have not only failed to embody the values that were once thought of (probably inaccurately) as being peculiarly associated with these islands, but we have succumbed to a set of characteristics that are all too prevalent throughout the modern world. They can be summarised as follows:
1) There is Amnesia. As a nation we have forgotten where we have come from and who we have been. The enormously impactful Christian roots in this country have been ignored, distorted, and in places deliberately rejected. Our Christian heritage runs deep in our land. England's first church historian, the Venerable Bede, reported in his book The History of the English Church and People, that in 156 a British King names Lucius wrote to the Pope asking for Christian teaching and formation. Both Catholic and Protestant Christianity has formed us. History reflects that the past 500 years of Protestant religion in Britain have shaped British culture.
- It produced a nation that was aware of the Bible and its values. In the fourteenth century, it was our own John Wycliffe who was an early proponent of translating the Bible into the vernacular language so that the Bible would be accessible to all people. Wycliffe translated the first Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. Of course, British people did not always live up to the moral teachings of the Bible yet the principles permeated society. Everyone knew that they were supposed to love their neighbour, be honest, truthful and modest, and to follow the Ten Commandments.
- Christian principles directly influenced the framework of British democracy whereby all people are under God and our leaders are elected 'to serve' rather than to rule. Even the monarch is under God's authority.
- Because reading and understanding the Bible was held to be important, Christianity in Britain encouraged literacy. That literacy helped to lift people out of poverty and provided access to employment opportunities and better wages.
- Although there were notorious exceptions, the Church of England was in large measure an organisation of all people, not just of the upper class. This egalitarian ethic gave rise to a general feeling of participation, giving dignity to people from all walks of life within a local community.
- The evangelical revival in the eighteenth century, with George Whitfield and others calling for repentance and living like Jesus Christ, resulted in a radical change in social conditions that gave a significant stability in the nineteenth century. Some historians argue that John Wesley's impact, in advocating for the poor and offering all people a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, literally saved England from a revolution similar to that in France. In 1928 Archbishop Davidson wrote, 'Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation.' And of course, the great Christian advocate for equality for all people, William Wilberforce, led the way in England for the abolition of slavery.
As we have lost touch with this Christian heritage the resulting cultural amnesia has led to one of the worst of modern vices - racism - and to many of the challenges of multicultural relativism. So if you ask 'what has made Britain such an attractive place to live?' the response of most involves something about 'being British'. The reality is that this covetable 'Britishness' owes a great deal to our Christian heritage and its values - such as decency, gentleness and truthfulness - which are among the hallmarks of true Christianity. The outworking of these principles can provide valuable connections with like-minded people of other faiths and those who profess no faith.
2) There is Adolescence. It is now very hard to believe that within living memory organisations such as the BBC were assumed to be in the business of educating the masses and of elevating cultural standards. 'Dumbing down' (the French nicely translate this as la crétinisation) is now almost the norm. It occurs in every area of life, so that teaching from primary to university level is now virtually required to include elements of 'entertainment'. There was a time when any candidate for high political office was expected to be able to comment on opera, quote Shakespeare and have a book-lined study. Now it is deemed essential that a candidate hides any such interests so as not to appear 'stuffy' or 'intellectual'. There is probably no greater symptom of cultural adolescence than the fact that one of Britain's favourite programmes consists of a number of men in their forties or fifties, but evidently still in puberty, gleefully driving cars and wrecking them. Seriousness is seriously uncool. Shallowness is 'deep'. We don't do maturity any more. The truly important people in the culture are pop stars and celebrities. There is an entire class of people who are famous for no other reason than that they are famous. Whom we follow and what we spend our time doing and watching reflects our values.
3) There is Acquisitiveness. We want money, we want stuff, and we want experiences for ourselves. There are books telling us about the thousand things we need to do, buy or experience before we die. The new cathedrals of Britain are the shopping centres. The government programmes of privatisation in the 1980s shaped a culture of legitimising greed. It's very difficult to instil a sense of charitable values in a country with a mind-set that looks at everything in terms of balance sheets and potential profit.
4) There is Apathy. This, of course, is the other side of the coin of the acquisitiveness. If we want more for ourselves then that means that we have less interest in others. The gesture of the day is the shrug of the shoulders. With remarkable exceptions there are very few people seriously concerned about the plight of the poor, the abused and the trafficked in Britain and even fewer concerned about what happens in other countries. The 'me' generation may have some sympathy for 'you' but very little at all for 'them'. Britain has had an extraordinarily long and influential history in doing good and advancing rights for people at home and abroad but that is now diminishing.
5) Perhaps ultimately the root of it all is Arrogance. We have no need of anybody else but ourselves. God has been marginalised not because people have adopted a version of atheism or agnosticism but simply because we want to be in charge of our own lives. It has been widely said that 'an Englishman is a self-made man who worships his creator'. The idolatry of the self is certainly more prevalent than ever. In some cases the issue is agnosticism (a genuine lack of knowing who God is) but the more pervasive sentiment is narcissism. The self is the central concern and God has been eliminated from the equation. We have quite literally turned our backs on God. The problem with this is that God is the foundation of public and private life. To remove God from our public and private life and decision-making is to undermine everything that we are. The absence of God from British life (except at times of tragedy) means that there is no basis for morality apart from a seemingly democratic consensus. Public opinion is notoriously fickle and very dangerous. Today it is liberal and left-wing; tomorrow it may swing to becoming illiberal and right-wing. Britain has been left without a moral standard and mooring.
If we are to restore to the notion of 'being British' the values that build community, that foster generosity and hope, and that shape a society for the good of all its members, then we need to acknowledge and repent of our amnesia, 'adolescence', acquisitiveness, apathy and arrogance and to reconnect with the best aspects of our Christian heritage. Replacing the inward focus and self-obsession of today with values that include kindness, good manners, care for the elderly and infirm, trustworthiness, graciousness and faithfulness would surely reunite the 'great' with the British.