Sunday, June 14, 2009

Aggressive Informality | Evangelical Alzheimer’s

Yesterday’s Commissioning marked the end of our time at St John’s. One of the joys of the Leavers’ Course has been input from part-time member of faculty, David Runcorn, a man of great gentleness and wisdom. Something he has mentioned a couple of times over the past fortnight what he refers to as the “aggressive informality” of our culture.

Since the 1960s, our society has sought to dismantle the deference of the class system. We have moved away from a formality that would today be caricatured as stuffiness – though such a view may well be anachronistic. For example, we have moved from BBC presenters being required to speak in RP (Received Pronunciation, or the Queen’s English) to a greater diversity of regional accents. There is good in this: certain things have been honoured and so allowed to flourish. But over time we have, arguably, replaced one set of evils with another.

Informality fosters familiarity – and familiarity, as the saying goes, breeds contempt. We have moved from a culture where certain people were respected for the role they performed on behalf of society – teachers, doctors, police officers, vicars, for example – to a culture where we respect no-one. From a culture where respect can be lost, to one where it has to be earned: where our childrens teachers have to prove themselves to us, and, moreover, we will not permit their teacher-training or years of experience in the classroom to be considered admissible evidence.

Again, people who performed certain roles on behalf of society – roles that needed to be performed for society to function smoothly, to live with day-to-day confidence – were generally identifiable by the clothes they wore. Indeed, the clothes they wore were part of the symbolic world they helped to create, a symbolic world that created meaning. So, the teacher’s black cloak, the doctor’s white coat, the police officer’s uniform, the vicar’s clerical robes and collar, were in themselves signifiers of trust. They helped us to navigate life, to know where to go to for direction.

In our informal culture, teachers no longer wear cloaks, and, in the highly informal evangelical tradition, vicars see robes as a barrier between themselves and their parishioners, and collars as provoking a deferential response among older parishioners that the vicar feels uncomfortable with. (Doctors no longer wear white coats, as a preventative measure in the combat of hospital superbugs.) Now, while it is completely inappropriate to seek to create a power hierarchy (“I am more important than you because I wear this sign of my importance”), in removing the outward signifiers of trust is it not possible that vicars – along with teachers, and doctors – are colluding with an aggressive informality and denying the population the symbolic world by which almost every culture has made sense of the world? When a culture loses such symbols, it becomes senile: it has a disjointed recollection of its past, but can’t remember what it did only yesterday.


  1. Interesting thoughts and I find myself agreeing to them more than I had expected. My question though is what are those clothes symbolic of? Perhaps for some they are of trust and even of something sacred but for other have they not all become symbols of abuse of authority and power. This is of course not solely the fault of the clergy, police, teachers etc but also because of the steady erosion of authority that has taken place in our culture through a number of different ways (not least the media).

    So is there still enough positive resonance in the symbols to be able to re-use and re-capture them, do we have the energy to invest new, fresh meaning into those old symbols or is it a time simply to be finding different ones?

  2. Good questions, Ben. I'm intending to post further thoughts on the idea of aggressive informality, and might get round to offering tentative answers to some of them...but we move tomorrow, so it might have to wait...

    My initial thought on whether to reclaim, renew, or replace symbols is to wonder whether a time of huge transition, of values and the symbols that we attach to them, is ever the right time to replace? Might we not end up having to replace and replace and replace, at a pace dictated by culture, as opposed to stand ground? Clearly we need to 'change in order to stay the same,' to quote Maggi Dawn - that is, as certain words no longer communicate what we mean to communicate by them, we need to reinvent ways of telling the unchanging gospel. But that is not the same as ditching symbol because society has forgotten the ignificance of symbolism...only to find that certain groups within society are rediscovering the significance of symbol and we are no longer able to speak that language.

  3. On going catechesis is the only answer - and the final end of the baby boomers who ditched everything in favour of "familiarity" and "relevancy" and final made God into that and look what has happened since! Symbol and sign in the Christian tradition are so important - look at the Catholic tradition - but we need to breathe new life into them frequently. This would be a great point to say that the Catholic Tradition is the summit and hasit all together on this issue . . . .but sadly I can't and won't - we have as many problems with this as most others, but at least the tradition maintains their importance to worship and spirituality . . .

  4. I think I agree with you both. Perhaps replace is the easy looking way and the immediate fix. Become informal and surely people will like our message (and by implication us) more. But it doesn't seem to have worked.

    Re-discovering symbolism in in language, dress, ritual etc is longer and harder but perhaps the reward goes deeper.

    Who knows, perhaps we may even uncover things that still deeply resonate with others.

  5. I think the pursuit of being relevant has proved to be one of the great weaknesses of the evangelical tradition in recent years - and one I am sure I have been guilty of myself. In part, relevance is determined by the perception of the person you are trying to be relevant to. But how relevant is God to an atheist? Not at all. In part, the degree to which we are successful in being relevant to one group makes us irrelevant to others: he who marries the spirit of the age finds himself a widower in the next. And in part, relevance is far too restrictive, too mean an idea: God is generously irrelevant in the extravagance of his grace!

    The things of God are not relevant, but rather they are resonant: they sound through creation, and the longings of the human spirit resonates with the longings of God, even where the human heart and mind perceive no relevance.

    Rather than pusuing relevance, we ought to listen for resonance, and seek to live lives that resonate back in worship and out in witness.