Wednesday, September 26, 2012

View From America

I'm in America to attend the Sentralized Conference, and with a rest day between travelling and the conference beginning, I'm thinking about some of the differences between US and UK culture and what that means for church culture. My point is not that either culture should become more like the other, but that stepping outside of our own culture often helps us to critique it better.

A friend of mine who has lived in both countries recently told me that Americans invest in land, while the British invest in property. You can see this in our respective houses. As I walk around here, the houses are temporary structures. Every element will only last so long, but they are easily and inexpensively replaced. This allows for extending or remodelling or even building/re-building. Home is important, and when you enter an American home, the way it is decorated will tell you the values of the family that lives there (in a much less self-conscious manner than back home). But the structure is far less important. Family is the principle, and the house adapts to meet the changing needs of the family.

In contrast, in the UK we buy houses that are built to last, but come with high maintenance costs and are expensive to adapt. The family almost always adapts to fit the constraints of the house (with perhaps one big last-a-lifetime extension/conversion project).

If you have seen the period drama Downtown Abbey, you might be forgiven for assuming that Americans are more pragmatic, while the British are more principled. In fact, we operate according to different (often unspoken and certainly usually unchallenged) principles, each requiring their own different pragmatisms (US adapt, UK conserve).

This has an impact on our churches. Here I am concerned with my own British context. Rather than starting with the church family as it is now and as we perceive it is most likely to develop next, and asking what shape our structures need to be to hold this, we start with our structures and ask, how can our present family inhabit these existing structures? Who will take responsibility for this room or that room?

This takes us back to Downtown Abbey, and the challenge of running a Pre-WWI house after the cultural crisis (not to mention population loss) of that world-changing event. It can't continue as it was. This is the challenge facing us in our own different moment of equally rapid and discontinuous change.

It isn't sustainable.

The Americans invest in land, not property. Funnily enough, Anglicans also invest in land, at least in theory: long-term commitment to the parish. The problem arises where we see our role as preserving a building and/or set of practices.

My own interest is in asking, who are we? Recognising a continuity with the past and a responsibility to pass on what has been entrusted to us, yes: but not seeing that in inflexible terms. If anything, our preoccupation with the structures (the physical building and the institutional roles) prevents us from engaging in being family on mission to bless the world as it is now (in need of a family who will bless others) not how it was.

The American church faces its own challenges. In the UK church, we need to invest in more provisional and adaptable structures, seeing the family not as guardians of a way of life but as those who are alive, whose God-given life guarantees life.


  1. Andy Batchelor3:02 pm

    I would suggest that, if our experience of a modern British home is anything to go by, the concept of building to last is now a thing of the past!

  2. I hear what you are saying! But I think there is a difference between quality - which can be poor or excellent - and purpose - which can be lasting or provisional. I'd advocate provisional excellence over lasting poor quality...