As I write from St Albans just north of London UK the people of Scotland are voting on whether to become an independent nation and no longer part of the United Kingdom. By the time this post is published we will know the outcome. I have mixed feelings about this. I have no Scottish heritage, though my wife’s family in part trace their heritage to Scottish farmers who came down with the last Catholic Scots claimant to the throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 to invade England and ended up as farmers in Lancashire in England’s north-west. Many of those who returned to Scotland were killed at the battle of Culloden. This was all after the Act of Union of many years of war and periods of English rule over Scotland, the uniting of the crowns when the Scottish King James became also King of England in 1603 and ongoing attempts to put Catholic Stuart monarchs on both thrones. If for the last 300 years the union has in many ways served both nations well it has not led that history to be forgotten, nor obliterated a sense of Scottish identity in part shred with the other Celtic people groups now ruled largely from London. Follow this link for a not to ‘reverent’ look at the issues http://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2014/sep/17/scottish-referendum-explained-for-non-brits-video
For my part my Celtic heritage is part Irish and part-Cornish and perhaps part French Bretton through my mother. I feel an affinity with my Celtic heritage and like many Christians exploring a post-Christendom British Christianity I find inspiration in our pre-Christendom, indigenous Celtic Church. Part of me thus feels an affinity with the Scots far more than I feel with the English and wants to bless the flourishing of that heritage, another part of me wants that to remain within the wider nation I, too am a member of. Part of me however, wonders why I feel so little passion for my Englishness whilst being proud of much of what that stands for? What might it be to be an indigenous English Christian as opposed to a British, Celtic one? Why do we have within us this desire to belong to land and heritage, to have a spiritual home?
In my academic discipline I am both a social scientist and a cross-cultural missiologist. If that sounds rather obtuse think of it as studying society and culture and how Christians past and present have enabled their faith as local expressions of a wider whole. One of the things that study has convinced me of is that there is no such thing as Christian Culture; Christianity can be at home within any culture and thus at its best it becomes indigenous. For this reason Christian missionaries have often become the champions of indigenous cultures and key in empowering indigenous people in finding their cultural voice within systems of political or economic colonialism. Now, I suspect that statement was for many of you reading this a bit of a surprise, because you have probably learnt that Christian missionaries did exactly the opposite. That they imposed foreign culture on indigenous people. Well that is true too, and at times this more widely known narrative was sadly the dominant one. The real story is complex, and those complexities continue into today.
The well-known story for us in the West is that of the churches of Christendom increasingly imposing first Catholic and then Protestant Christianity through invasion and with it the culture of the colonising nation. This was then followed by American missionaries working within a form of cultural and economic colonisation if not usually with military invasion. If Britain through its vast and ‘Christian’ empire both Christianized and anglicized vast areas of the world in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Americans have carried on a similar enterprise. Yet I suspect as both nations have created a network of churches all stamped with the home nation’s culture we have perhaps lost our own connections to our land and heritage. If the Welsh, Irish and Scots have fought to maintain their indigenous culture because of English dominance of Britain, and many of those we colonised are re-asserting theirs, partly through newly confident expressions of Christianity, the English in their dominant position have few roots left. I have a suspicion the global saturation of US culture may be doing the same across the pond. I can’t help noting how many Americans come back to Britain seeking their English, but even more so Scots or Irish heritage.
If there is a cultural and spiritual void in England there is at present a real danger that it will be filled by a growing right-wing nationalism that resents immigrants and those not of Anglo-Saxon heritage and also seeks to co-opt Christians who feel the loss of Christendom. Our right wing nationalist parties are now openly campaigning on the ticket of preserving England’s Christian heritage. It may well be that the rise of the Tea-Party in the US has a similar function. We desperately need to find a re-indigenized expression of Christianity that does not seek to dominate or exclude other peoples but instead can live alongside them as different equals. A real living out of Paul’s vision for the church as the Body of Christ in which difference is neither homogenized nor excluded that has been notably lacking from much of the last centuries of the Church’s life.
Where might the insights, stories and practices be found for such a reengagement with land and culture past, present and future? In many countries this kind of religious expression is currently the preserve of a growing movement of Contemporary Paganism. If in parts of the former Soviet Union Paganism was the norm until the 14th and 15th Centuries and thus well documented, in Britain it is hard to know precisely what ancient British Paganism was like. Contemporary Pagans here, whilst drawing inspiration from the little we do know are creating a newly indigenous faith and learning to connect afresh with the land around them. In the Americas the situation is different, indigenous faith is that of First Nation Americans. This may explain why, along with those tracing their ancestry back to Celtic Britain, Celtic Druidry is popular amongst European origin Americans.
Where I live in St Albans is perhaps the oldest known Christian site in Britain. Here St Alban, a convert to a Romano British Christianity was martyred in 250 AD, about 200 years before Patrick’s mission in Ireland and the early days of what become known as the Celtic Church. A symbol of that ancient connection as something that has faded but not gone is Alban’s sacred well in a hidden corner of a modern housing development. A well that like so many in Britain now associated with a Saint, would have been a sacred site for the pagan Britons before him. As such this is a testimony to the way much of the pre-Christian was made part of early Christianity. As we uncover more of that Romano-British church and rediscover the Churches of the East that had by this time spread as far as China, what we find is that, like the later Celtic church, these learnt from the indigenous cultures and faith they encountered and made their expressions of Christianity equally Indigenous. Sadly for my English heritage the still later Anglo-Saxon church began the process of removing these indigenous expressions and conforming to the universal standard of Rome. If today we need to recapture that early church approach it may well be that dialogue with today’s Pagans will be part of a Christian re-indigenisation.
But I mentioned earlier that other story of Christian mission in which that early approach continued even within the colonial years. Those who sought as an expression of their faith to support and empower Indigenous people. Some of this can be seen for instance in the first Baptist missionary in India, William Carey, who not only adopted the indigenous culture but translated Sanskrit texts into English so the West could read them and helped empower the indigenous population so it could stand up to the colonial trading companies. The local British business owners regularly tried to have him sent back to England. There are many other stories like this not only within Protestant but also Catholic mission in the colonial period. A few years ago I spent a short time working with the church in Estonia, a church which had been created by conquest and forced conversion in the 14th Century and until recently one in which only Germans or Swedes could be ministers. Perhaps in part because of this I found Estonian Christians helping to empower other Finno-Ugaric speaking peoples across Scandinavia and Russia and key to this was helping them form indigenous expressions of faith separate from the dominant Eastern Orthodox or Lutheran Churches. These became not only centres of empowerment but also preserves of language and culture. Internationally iEmergance http://www.iemergence.org directed by First Nation American Christian Matt LeBlanc (no not the actor!) are doing this kind of work supporting many indigenous people groups. What these people all hold in common is that global economic interests and colonisation have tried to obliterate their culture. It may perhaps be that those from the cultures that have done this, like my English culture, will have to sit down with these indigenous people groups and allow them to teach us how to reconnect with our land and become newly indigenised Christians.
The Scots by a 10% margin voted ‘No’ to independence BTW