The Great British Bake Off is over and gone for ever from the BBC. It is the only cookery programme that has ever made me dare to bake something and mostly succeed. It has made national heroes out of ordinary people, non-celebrities who we can genuinely identify with, and perhaps is the only programme that was genuinely worthy of the name ‘Reality TV’ (a term which seems to be an oxymoron in relation to the programme formats it usually describes).
The Bake Off has also been valuable for another reason: it has wonderfully embodied the Great British national conversation at so many levels. (For comparison, when the format has been sold to other countries, such as Holland for example, their versions have reflected their national conversation in all kinds of ways, and the Bake Off Italia – Dolce in Forno certainly has something about it that is all its own.) In the British Bake Off, the mother/son chemistry between Mary and Paul, the bad jokes of Sue and Mel, the idyllic country house setting in verdant Berkshire, and the wonderful range of accents and attitudes in the mix of contestants all came together to flavour this rich pork pie of British culture. In so doing, they have all helped to shape the national conversation.
What do I mean by a national conversation? It is hard to define easily, but it is a uniting conversation that typifies and expresses the life of that nation and embodies its shared life together. For it to be more than just a social conversation among a few friends, however, it needs to have some key elements.
First, a national conversation requires a common language. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but this is important. When the English nation was forming in the days of Alfred the Great, it was King Alfred’s commitment to spreading the English language across the nation he sought to govern that defined England. He was committed to education, and to translating parts of the Bible into Old English. As people across the land came to read the Ten Commandments in their own language, and laws came to be written down, so an English literature began to develop, and, helped on centuries later by Chaucer and Shakespeare, so the English became more and more capable of having a national conversation. Bearing in mind that the United Kingdom unites four nations, we have found the capability of having multiple national conversations, in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, but each is still the shared conversation of a nation, whether at the level of the four nations or at the British level. Migration has always been part of our national story, and in every generation those who have settled have had to learn the language to join the national conversation. Refuse to learn the language and you remain firmly an ex-pat, but learn the language and you belong, and your children will speak it as their mother tongue. If you are the one who migrated, it may never be your heart language, but you need to be able to contribute to the conversation as best you can in the language of that conversation.
Second, a national conversation implies some kind of shared interest. It may be coping in the same climate, whether that is the arctic tundra or the African Sahel. It may be the conversation of the early settlers who compared and learnt how to till the same ground and live within a shared landscape. It may be a shared concern that flows from what grows in that climate, or what the natural resources lead that nation to produce. It can be shaped by a spiritual change, such as arrival of the gospel in the British Isles, or the impact of the reformation or the evangelical awakening. Whatever it might be, the shared interest drives the national conversation, so that anyone from the length and breadth of the nation could chat to someone else and share the same interest. The conversations we have today say much about the way we live now. For a generation the national conversation has been mediated through TV, and so we get caught up in discussing the ‘great concerns of our time’ such as the death of Top Gear, the buyout of the Bake Off, or Michael Portillo’s dress sense. In their own way these conversations demonstrate how trivial life has become.
Third, a national conversation thrives when there is a common concern. When a nation is being troubled by forces of violence, by a crime wave or the racial violence that has recently vexed the United States, a ‘national conversation’ is ordered by the nation’s leaders to get people discussing the issues in the hope that action will ensue. The fact that people are distressed about ‘the way our nation is going’ shows that they need to talk about it, and to anyone who would understand and share their concern. In moments like the 7/7 bombings, even the British overcame their inherent reserve to discuss together all that had happened, before retreating behind the voile curtains of home. In the fuel crisis in 2000, we abandoned our cars on the school run and walked together, discussing whether we would ever get fuel again. Most obviously, the crisis of 1940 brought together a national conversation that displayed itself in so many ways, from a national day of prayer (tragically unimaginable today) to the serious-minded commitment of the Home Guard, an expression of the national character and conversation whose seriousness still shines through the delicious humour of Croft and Perry’s Dad’s Army.
In many ways it is the national conversation that defines a nation, not its power structures or constitution. Good government, the rule of law, and the ability of politicians to listen to public opinion, all depend on the possibility of a national conversation. Without it there will be no cohesion, no sense of belonging or of collective decision-making. But with a national conversation, that sense of common understanding, of belonging and of being more together than just family and friends, is the very bedrock of nationhood. It cannot be legislated into existence, or defined by a passport, and yet it can drive an army or build a city. Politicians ignore that national conversation at their peril.
How does the mission of the church relate to this conversation? Churches need to be part of that national conversation. We need to be listening to what our nation is saying, what peoples’ concerns really are, always with the purpose of finding a point of contact for the gospel. The gospel is always unchanging and non-negotiable, but it is also so richly sufficient that it speaks into every area and concern of human conversation. Our task is to contextualise its many facets so that the light of God’s truth shines even into the most lurid, hopeless or depressing subjects of conversation and concern. Where the gospel has yet to shape a culture, the task of mission is to make the expression of the gospel so indigenous that it enters the national conversation as people come to faith in Christ and indigenous churches are born. Fail to understand the national conversation and relate the gospel to it, and you will struggle to get traction for the gospel. In the West, where the gospel is being pushed to the margins and churches are having their voices stifled, we need to regain the confidence to re-join the conversation. Our calling is to reclaim the apologetic edge the church had in previous generations, to defend, explain and proclaim the grace of God and the kingdom of Christ in the national conversation.