Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Religion in England and America Part 1: Ma'am, I am tonight.


Here is a secret: Very occasionally you can find me sat in the back of Bath Abbey, hymns marked with bits of paper, prayer book in hand. Very occasionally is probably an exaggeration. It has happened once in the last two years. Though four times in the past few years, I have bypassed the queues of tourists, sat down, and slipped slowly off the pew onto the dull green kneelers. It is one way to survive the funerals that are too far away to attend. The last time I sat in the Abbey it was to ask my grandmother if she understood, now that she was gone, why it is that I don't go to church. I assume omniscience of the dead. Gram knows now whether or not she needed to worry for all those years about the state of my soul. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven  or hell. I do not believe in an afterlife, except for when it keeps grief at bay.

Shortly before I agreed to take my first flat here in Bath, I met with my soon to be housemate to try to figure out if we were a good match. She smiled. I smiled. We determined that we had nothing in common and would rarely be in the flat at the same time.  She needed a flatmate. I needed a flat, and we were both rather desperate. As I stood up to leave, she turned to me and mentioned that all of her friends had suggested she ask me if I was that kind of American. These days I'd likely turn around and ask what kind of American exactly was that kind of American. I knew exactly what she meant, and I wasn't yet wise enough to mind. No, I'm not that kind of American. I'm not that kind immigrant. I'm not that kind of Christian.

It's the difficulty of defining terms in the middle of a conversation. Or rather, it is the difficulty of defining terms while taking into account the underlying cultural assumptions about those terms. I am undoubtedly a US citizen, an American by cultural upbringing and by birth. I have friends whose children who undoubtedly US citizens, but they are English by cultural upbringing, and many of them are undoubtedly British citizens as well. I'll leave the immigrant question for another day.

I'd like to tell you that it was in the early part of this decade that, in America, the term Christianity became synonymous with a specific type of Christianity--one that is full of condemnation, vilification of the other, and a propensity for being a single issue and single party voter. The future flatmate was asking me if I was that kind of American. A question I never hear here, perhaps because I move in the wrong circles, is "What kind of Christian are you?" We don't ask that question in America either. Instead we ask, "Are you looking for a church?" or "Would you like to come to Church?" or "Are you a Christian?"

It was a relief to me, on moving to England, not to be asked any of those questions. It was a relief not to be approached by street preachers or to find comic books about revelation pushed into my hands by people I passed on the street. It was a relief not to be constantly reminded, as was the case in 2005, that references to my upbringing would cause people to assume a lot of inaccurate things about me.

This Easter three things happened in quick succession that made me awfully squidgy. A fellow blogger mentioned, somewhat uncomfortably, that her love of Easter was based in her Christian faith. I was accosted by a local missionary who was having a decidedly bad day. And, when asked what my father did for a living, I answered on the condition that I not be judged.

But to unravel those things, I think we all have to be on the same footing. I'll try to get us there in the next post.

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