The death of Diana marked a watershed in our culture, an event so visceral in nature that it shook our British life to the core. Some ‘earthquake’ events change a nation’s life because a key figure is gone: Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Chairman Mao, or, most obviously, JFK. When they are the person whose power drives the nation’s life, their passing changes everything. Diana was different. She had no power, and yet she became a defining character of the 1980s and 90s, a fairly blank canvas onto which people projected their own hopes, dreams, and ideologies. Whether Diana herself believed half of what is claimed for her now is so hard to know. She died young and so she became the stuff of myth and legend, though not ‘the stuff of which fairy tales are made.’ While much will be made of Diana over the next few days, allow me to draw attention to that culture shifting week between her death and her funeral. It tells us little about Diana herself, but so much more about British life now, as it flowed from that watershed moment.
The watershed of paganism
The way the public responded to tragedy was extraordinary. Flowers and candles spread from Kensington Palace down to Kensington High Street, and they extended out from the railings of Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill. As Diana’s coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey out of London up the Edgware Road onto the M1, people stood on bridges to drop carnations onto the hearse, and the undertakers had to use the windscreen wipers to clear their view. This seems normal now, but at the time it was still quite a new phenomenon (perhaps only having been seen previously after the Hillsborough disaster).
What did those evenings of candlelight and weeping in Kensington Gardens really signify? Neo-paganism came of age that week. You could read it in the inscriptions on the flowers, describing Diana as an Angel and a gift from ‘heaven’. The spiritual ignorance and folk religion on display was extraordinary. Paganism worships created things, and begins to attribute to the chosen god such powers as they never had. The actual facts don’t matter. In those days all the flaws and failures of Diana’s character were ignored and she was elevated to sainthood by public opinion. Chatting with a friend a few weeks later, she said ‘I want to draw attention to the fact that if she wasn’t gallivanting round Paris with a very dodgy boyfriend, she might still be alive, but I’m not allowed to say it.’ The Diana cult expressed itself in the funeral service in two ways: in Elton John singing Candle in the Wind (still the best selling UK No 1 single ever), and in Earl Spenser’s tribute, which stands as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, both for what it said and for what it tells us about the way we live and feel now. Continue reading “The death of Diana – a cultural watershed”
The desperate tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire may prove to be a defining moment in our culture, a tragic combination of events that serves to reveal so much in British society, both bad and good. The tower stands as a charred obelisk as you drive down the Westway, like some terrible gash on the face of London that reveals tooth and bone such that you don’t want to stare but cannot look away. Last Friday I went to pick up my daughter from University, and with the car loaded with possessions (a poignant fact in the context), we drove past on our way out. At one point you can see daylight right through the building, where once there were homes with all their possessions and their shared human life. There are so many strands to this terrible tragedy, so much that could be written, but I want to focus on one theme. The Grenfell Tower tragedy has much to teach us about the biblical concept of home, and to highlight the problems of making a home in a vast global city.
God designed and created the idea of home. Continue reading “Grenfell Tower and the biblical longing for home”
London is a great city. Through fifty years it has been my capital city, and I have lived my life in and out of it, walked its streets, enjoyed its parks, discovered its neighbourhoods, and bathed in its history. I’ve visited every Museum, queued up to get into Parliament, walked its art galleries, ridden almost every tube line, arrived at every major rail terminal, ridden in a black cab and numerous buses, seen the crown jewels at the Tower of London, and cheered the Queen down the mall. I was ordained in SW London twenty five years ago this September, and in recent years have enjoyed preaching in so many of London’s churches. When my work takes me away to other continents, there is no joy like the joy of flying in over the suburbs, seeing the Millennium Dome and the Shard, and coasting up the Thames to Heathrow, as I did this week. It is a wonderful city that welcomes you home.
Therefore those like President Trump who suggest that we are alarmed by what happened last night on London Bridge just do not know the place. There is something in the British spirit that looks terrorism in the face and carries on. London is a resilient city. We have lived through much worse. 351 years ago the old city of London burnt down, and the Corporation set to work to rebuild, raising the second St Pauls Cathedral from the ashes of the first. In Dickensian London, life had become unbearable in the ‘great stink’ of 1858, but London showed the way in building the great Victorian sewerage system, and in building the first underground railways as well. After the killing fields of the First World War, it was Londoners who had the vision to build ‘Metroland’, the rolling suburbs that brought the country to the city and were so celebrated by Sir John Betjeman.
Then came the Blitz. Continue reading “London – a resilient city”
Africa has a middle class. This is a surprise to many people in the West, but in a country such as Kenya the middle class is growing rapidly. They pay their taxes, drive their cars and live in decent housing, often doing white collar jobs and generating income for the wider economy. This is very obvious in Nairobi, but it is also true in Western Kenya. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third city, life is much quieter than the throng of Nairobi, but there are a few opulent hotels, a large new high-rise University building, and suburbs where the middle class and ex-pats live in walled compounds shaded by trees, protected with heavy security. During my visit there this February, we drove home with some curiosity one day to find men digging a trench down the street to install fibre optic cables. Even in Bondo, the home town of Presidential candidate Raila Odinga to the West of Kisumu with its ‘frontier town’ atmosphere, the town now plays host to a small university. Development is changing rural Kenya, and yet life still remains in so many ways the same.
Rural Kenyan life is still organised around the land, and it is farmed in small ‘shambas’, where each family lives and eats what their land produces. Whereas British farms are organised in units of hundreds of acres, each Kenyan farms about an acre of land or less, which means that homes are spread out fairly evenly across the countryside, rather than gathered into village clusters. Most farmers grow maize and millet, along with cassava and green vegetables, and keep a few cattle and goats, with some stray chickens. Their plot may be fenced in with bushes and sticks, and pieces of board or corrugated iron fill the gaps and make for ramshackle boundaries. If this seems untidy to those who are used to large British farms with fences and thick hedgerows, as an allotment holder I felt rather at home! I chatted to several of the local pastors about what they grew on their plot, and how they made a living. Of course, everything still depends on the rain, and they rejoiced that it had rained for the first time the night I had arrived (not cause and effect, I assure you!). However, as I had come to visit a village church gathering that Saturday, half of those who would have come to the meeting were busy turning their soil as the first rains had softened it, something I could fully understand.
In the West we are told that everything in Africa is a disaster. Continue reading “Real life in rural Kenya”
Nairobi is a thriving middle class city. It is also known for its massive slums. How can those two realities exist side by side? The inescapable fact is that they do, just as they did in Dickens’ London. The contrast reminds you to arrive in Nairobi with an open mind, not letting your preconceptions dictate what you think of the place, but to get to know the city on its own terms. It is a happening city, enjoying a building boom, with plenty of signs of spiritual life as well. At the same time, as a westerner it is advisable not to go out after dark. Living securely here is an issue. On the scale of world cities, Nairobi is not vast. Nearly 3.5 million live within its boundaries, so by comparison with Manila, Chennai or Mexico City, it is fairly average, but it is the heart of Kenya. Chosen by the British colonists for its cooler climate at altitude, Nairobi is nearly 6000 feet above sea level, making the air thinner than perhaps you realise.
I arrived in mid-February, on my way to visit missionaries in Western Kenya, and had arranged an overnight stop in Nairobi to see some of the people and places where our Mission used to be involved. I met local pastors, was taken to the ACTS bookshop on the beautiful campus of the African International University, and visited a couple of churches. For someone just passing through, the Kenyans put on a remarkable welcome, and treated me with an interest that I don’t deserve. I found Kenyan Christians warm, easy to chat with, serious about the Bible and zealous in proclaiming it. There is an earnest quality to Kenyan Church life that is lacking in Britain. Continue reading “Nairobi, rich and poor”