Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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On Englishness and English nationalism

Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.

All Hallows

The flag of St George flying from my church's tower.

Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!

There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.

I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.

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The Anglican Communion as imagined community

Frank Turner, Professor of History at Yale, has a wonderfully insightful article on the Anglican Communion at Episcopal Café. His thesis is that a group of Anglicans, mainly bishops, have sought to shape the various independent Anglican provinces into a global ecclesiastical community over the past two decades.

Turner calls Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities into play here. The bare bones of Anderson’s theory is that a nation is a socially constructed community based on various presumptions of shared attributes: language, religion, skin colour, culture &c. The question it raises is why do I cheer on an athlete, whom I have never met and with whom I have little in common, at the Olympics just because her uniform says she is British? The question it raises is why it is considered a high ideal to die for ‘queen and country’.

Of course, social constructs are not unreal, but they are perceived realities: nationality is no absolute thing. It is fascinating seeing a ‘nation’ being built over the last score of years, but understanding the Anglican Communion as imagined community does much to help us understand the pressures it is under at this time.

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