2015: Advent Religion: Very White and Very English

by on December 3, 2015

I remember one dark-skinned family. I think they were Middle Eastern but they might have been North African. I remember one white South African woman, married to an Englishman, and two or three American families.

Everyone else I can remember was white and English. Not Irish, not second or third generation Brits; bone china English, and almost entirely middle-class. (Summarising the English class system is somewhat beyond my present scope. Those unfamiliar with it will have to trust me that there was a range of incomes within the church, but a much narrower range of social customs and expectations.) The thing is, I don’t think those things are seperable. We were white because we were middle-class. We were, by a hundred tiny forms of unwelcome, exclusionary to the lower social strata. We passed offering bags around every morning service, and yeah, they were closed bags so you couldn’t actually see what other people had put in, but you passed them hand-to-hand and could sure as hell see if your neighbours weren’t putting in at all. We didn’t have a written service sheet, so if you didn’t already know when to stand or sit or assume the prayer position, you’d feel out of place. Socially, when it came to coffee-and-fellowship time, we talked about the things middle-class English talk about, which are not things that lower-class English can easily join in with, because it’s all a status dance and people from the council estates generally lack the prerequisites for that posturing, and know it.

And that, broadly speaking, is why we didn’t have black people in our churches. We were reflexively unwelcoming to anyone who wasn’t exactly like us, and especially anyone outside our class. And most of the non-white people in our neck of the woods were therefore doubly barred. They’d have to be the platonic ideal of middle-class to fit in, and indeed that one dark-skinned family were – both parents had degrees, she was a working professional, he did something unspecified for the UN, and the children were at private schools. Even so, they were exotic outsiders.

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