the way we live now

Christopher Smith ponders why the crowds present at the Jubilee pageant did not include a greater cross-section of British society

How was the Jubilee for you? I had a slightly strange experience on the Sunday. Living only a matter

of yards from the River Thames, it seemed daft not to go down to the Embankment to see what I could see of the Pageant. Sad to say, I saw very little except the backs of people’s heads and some rather officious security staff. They need not have worried: it was a bout the most docile crowd I think I have ever been part of. In spite of the fact that we had been stopped from going even anywhere near one of the big screens, let alone the river itself, we engaged in just the sort of cheerful banter you might have hoped to hear, until the rain became too heavy and people dispersed.

But I came back to the vicarage rather pensive because of that crowd: not because of who was there, but because of who wasn’t. The people were delightful, with lots of entertaining banter, and occasional commentary was provided by a cheeky soul who had climbed a lamp-post and who could therefore see what the rest of us couldn’t: some boats. But I had walked the five-minute journey down to the River from Holborn, leaving behind me a part of London whose population is a third non-white, and a parish whose residents are significantly more Asian than Caucasian. Indeed, in my church school, white pupils are very much in the minority. But almost everybody in the crowd on the Embankment was white. There was, as far as I could tell, a fair mix of accents – RP, regional, European – but I was very struck by how white and middle class we were!

I find it difficult to know how to compute this information, but it has been niggling away at me ever since. The thing that worries me is that whilst the liberal establishment gets terribly excited about the joys of multiculturalism, which my dictionary defines as ‘the policy of accommodating any number of distinct cultures within one society without prejudice or discrimination’, what we seem to have in practice is a multi-layered society in which the layers rarely if ever encounter each other.

Now, there have always been stories of different bits of British society bumping into each other to their mutual surprise. At the time of the Great Exhibition, farmers came up to London from Kent in their ‘finest smocks’, and stared in astonishment at the strangely attired Londoners, who no doubt stared back! Today, children from our church school, who are not infrequently whipped off to Bangladesh at very short notice, find

the English countryside quite an alien environment when we take them on educational visits. They worry about the grass, which they believe to be dirty and they wonder why all that open space is left without flats being built on it. On a recent residential, a group of nine-year-olds were building a den outside, and left a hole in the far wall. When asked why, they announced, as if it were self-evident, that this was the emergency exit!

Well, that last anecdote is, of course, merely a sign of the pervasive nature of the modern ’elf ’n’ safety culture. But I worry about a possible permanent fragmentation within our society. In my last parish, I buried a 17-year-old killed in an epidemic of stabbings in South London – a problem that has not gone away – and this year I came back to Holborn on New Year’s Day to discover that the parish had the dubious distinction of hosting the nation’s first fatal shooting of 2012. Last summer’s riots brought out the very best response from many of our parishes and clergy, but these criminal sub-cultures seem a million miles away from the Jubilee crowds. It will be interesting to see whether, a year on from the riots, we have done any meaningful analysis of what was going on last August, or whether we have merely let it all die down in the hope that it does not flare up again.

Some of my parishioners seem to have another sort of uprising in mind. Posters have recently appeared advertising an event organised by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hizbut-Tahrir. They have organis ed an event called ‘Uprising 2012’, to celebrate (or perhaps appropriate) the Arab Spring. ‘The Ummah finally awoke’, says the publicity. To what extent will our future be influenced by that world-view which puts the ‘Ummah’ (the Muslim world) above anything else? How will we deal with that as a layer of British society, especially if it has no reference points in British society? From that perspective, a trip down to the Embankment to celebrate the Jubilee must seem entirely irrelevant, or perhaps even blasphemous. I suspect that when the articles are written about Rowan Williams on his retirement, his calling for aspects of the sharia to be recognized at English law will not be remembered as his finest hour.

So how on earth can the Church even begin to chart a way through this multi-layered society of ours? We are up against a liberal establishment (which includes the liberal hierarchy of the CofE) which has all but shut down discussion of the problem by the threatened accusation of racism. But the problems we face are infinitely more complex than the establishment would admit. What we must not do is allow ourselves to become a separate layer of our own making. We need to do more of what we are good at: building, shaping and encouraging our communities, and making all people feel welcome, trusting that the Good News will attract people when they hear it, and when they see it put into practice by us. ND

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