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.