Cultural Identity and the Anglo-Saxon Mission

One explanation for the poor health of certain people/areas is ‘a loss of cultural identity’. We in the arrogant West tend to nod sagely when the people in question are Native Americans or Australian Aboriginals, but I wonder whether we ever think it applies to us. For example, does the obesity epidemic have less to do with junk food than with the way we eat the junk food, i.e. with the loss of family table rituals that require us to eat together in a certain way at a certain time? The traditional family meal places several restraints on the individual (sharing, serving one another, waiting) but it also re-affirms family bonds through conversation and the display of mutual concern. St Benedict’s idea of the monastic meal as a sacramental, linking the domestic liturgy of the community with the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church, is a powerful one, and throughout the Rule there are reminders of the importance he attached to the common meal and the way in which it was eaten.

Today we celebrate the feast of St Boniface, the apostle of Germany, who, together with a comparatively small band of monks and nuns from these shores, took the gospel to the pagan peoples of Germany and Frisia. We are fortunate in having a remarkable letter collection which tells us of the day-to-day problems Boniface and the others encountered, and of the help and support they gave one another. Quite clearly, they retained a strong sense of cultural identity. Boniface, for example, sent a barrel of beer to one abbot, so that he could have ‘a merry day with brethren’; he thanks Eadgitha, a nun, for the gift of towels she sent him. These are the habits of home planted in a foreign soil, and they enabled Boniface and his companions to face the difficulties of the Anglo-Saxon Mission with composure.

So, can we learn anything from this today in multi-cultural Britain? Is uncertainty about our own cultural identity affecting the health of the nation, making us less confident, less sure of our purpose in life? As we saw in the recent European election results, many people have a problem with the concept of multi-culturalism, but I am not sure they necessarily have anything positive with which to replace it. Certainly, my own experience has been that ‘not giving offence’ is made the highest multi-cultural good, in a weird parody of Newman’s idea of a gentleman. Appreciating cultural diversity must surely mean more than that. However, the loss of a common religion, of reading common texts, of sharing a common history has, I think, weakened the sense of belonging. We are adrift on a sea of our own making, not sure there is any port we can make for.

It would be interesting to know what you think.


10 thoughts on “Cultural Identity and the Anglo-Saxon Mission”

  1. The persent world is beginning to seriously invite a great many questions. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater was never a way forward though.

  2. On the nail as usual: my only (very minor) misgiving is about ‘not giving offence’ as the highest multi-cultural good.

    Obviously, as a final objective it’s just not good enough; equally, however, I would think that if, as a society, we could get as far as ‘not giving offence’ it would be a worthwhile aim in the short term. It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people in positions of importance who don’t seem to have got even that very limited message yet, as the recent remarks by Peter Robinson about Islam would indicate.

  3. Thank you very much for this post, as Christians who express concern about our loss of cultural identity tend to be shot down by other Christians and accused of being racist, when we really just have a deeper understanding of human nature and are a bit more honest in admitting that some cultures are indeed more life-affirming and fruitful than others. We just want to protect and preserve our cultural inheritance not only for ourselves, but also for those from other cultures who feel kinship with us and wish to join us. I’ve never understood why we are expected to behave as if every culture on earth is worth preserving except our own.

  4. I so agree about social connections and rituals having a purpose.
    When my family grew up at home we always cooked together, then sat down to table and ate our meal together in the evenings. It was a precious time, not only for eating but for catching up with eachother’s doings of the day. I am delighted that now the young people are grown and married with children, they all similarly sit down together as families with their children to have a meal in the evenings, both to eat and to talk. Even the littlest ones get a chance to join in. It’s the glue that holds families together.

  5. What a wonderful, creative leap from the art of the table to the Anglo-Saxon mission. My neighbours’ daughter is setting up her first home and I have been fortunate enough to source a table for her and also a sewing machine. Together we are now making two cloths and some napkins from some pretty remnants of cotton, some of which are left over from the making of her childhood dresses. It never occurred to me that the young woman, who by the way is slim as a pin, would not have need of a table for eating meals and it certainly never occurred to me that what we were doing together had connection to St Boniface.

  6. I have to agree, there is something disturbing if ‘not giving offence’ has become the only standard people apply. Some truths may offend – some offense may be accidental. If meant in a good way it should be accepted for what it is – not as an attack or deliberate harm. Human communication is not always smooth running. Fear of offending people who may be different in some way to us can prevent communication and cause a ghetto mentality. We should be polite and considerate but not shy away from the truth or the need for real understanding between all people. We can agree to differ. Fear and ignorance of the “other” is a recipe for the darkest human behaviour.

  7. Thank you for all your comments, which, as usual, have taken the subject further. I am not advocating ‘not giving offence’ as the highest multi-cultural good, merely citing it as how it has often appeared to me when questions of other religions/cultures than my own are raised.

  8. Thankyou for this fascinating piece, although I’m inclined to see the multiculturalism angle per se as possibly a bit of a red herring.

    A really remarkable book to read is Weston Price’s Nutrition and Physical Generation, written in the 1930s. It tracks the health of native groups around the world (from Switzerland to the Arctic) – before, Western influence when they seemed by and large healthy and coped well with things like childbirth – and afterwards when there was an epidemic of caries, alcoholism and social breakdown. You only have to look at the stats for chronic disease in the UK (‘one in four adults borderline diabetic’ says one recent headline) to see that the same failure of food culture is happening here, only in the context of cultural dominance, not invasion by the ‘West’.

    What’s interesting about many traditional foods though is that they take time to prepare – whether it’s slow rising sourdough bread, bashing cassava for ages, or going off hunting for yer non-factory farmed elk. The time that these things take, and the communal effort to make it all work, tend towards ritual and carefulness, and it’s easy to see how at the end of it, you’d eat up your food with some reverence. I suspect that the ‘everyone sits down and eats a proper meal together’ culture in the UK is a sort of parallel to that, and is as much as an effect as a cause of a healthy relationship with food: the two go together. Is anyone really going to order up a greasy low nutrition microwaved takeaway, and then be bothered to get out the dining room table and lay out the cutlery?

    The recent history of mainstream supermarket food has really been a history of shortcuts that might not have been a good idea after all – plentiful food, which has a nutritional profile that’s a fraction of the fruit and veg from 1900.

    I think the relationship of multiculturalism with this is rather mixed – @stevhep was saying a while back that if you see a person going to a vegetable shop and buying a big bag of veg to make food for their family, then you can virtually guarantee that they’ll be an immigrant – from a place that still has a culture of home cooked food. My former landlady, a Pakistani Muslim, still retains a respect for food and a horror of wasting it, and used to tell me off as another load of rotting and wasted food headed from the fridge into the bin. I think it’s probably the fault of our culture rather than ‘multiculturalism’ that we managed to mainly turn the culinary innovations of other nations into horrible takeaways.

    There’s a third issue in this, which is of course women’s liberation. My old mum is not exactly an Angel in the House style 50s housewife (she’s too grubby from all the gardening for a start) but the fact that she strenuously avoided the traditional job market for 40 years did mean that she had time to grow and cook proper food: it’s still the case that if you eat round my mum’s in the growing season, you’d struggle to consume less than 10 fruit and veg a day. I’m a very different person – as wedded to women in the workplace as she is to dodging it – but I admit that I learned from her not to be mortally scared at the thought of sewing a dress or making a cake. I have the feeling that lots of people have just lost that entirely.

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