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.