I am priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but I am entirely English in my ethnic and cultural background. I see clearly that the essential character of the Orthodox Church is not bound by any one culture. I am, myself, an expression of that Catholic quality of the Church which insists that our Orthodox Faith is for all people in all places and at all times, and that our Orthodox life in Christ is to take root among all people and in many cultures.
In this article I do not intend to focus on the issue of different cultures in the Church. This is nevertheless a real issue. I am aware of congregations around the world who have to struggle with a tension between those members of the Church who have grown up in Western cultures, and those who are from Middle Eastern cultures. We sometimes see that an understanding of what it means to be truly Orthodox from different cultures can produce conflict, and that conflict can result in a variety of non-Christian responses of anger and hostility to others. Even where Orthodox Christians are committed to finding a resolution of these tensions in love and humility there is still plenty of scope for disagreement.
But what I am more concerned about here is the presence of racist attitudes in the UK where I live, and even on occasion in the Church. I don’t usually write about social issues, but this particular issue moves me greatly. I grew up in a family with many different ethnicities because my parents fostered children and I count as members of the family many people with skin colour other than my own. It should hardly require any detailed explanation as to why we must reject racism in the Church. In our Christian understanding we recognise that all mankind shares a common ancestry in Adam and Eve. More than that, we confess that in Christ there is a new humanity, and that God the Word made flesh has brought about a new beginning of one humanity into which all are called to be baptised without distinction. When we are taught that in Christ there is no Greek nor Jew, this does not eliminate such social and cultural distinctions but it insists that in Christ there is a new relation of persons which transcends these natural and social differences. Each person is created by God, as unique and as bearing the image of Christ, and therefore of infinite worth. In the Church we find wrong attitudes when the community of the Church is mistakenly identified with a particular ethnic community. It is possible to unite many people from diverse ethnic origins in the practice of the same spiritual and liturgical culture, this is the essence of the Catholicity, the universality of the Church. But when we hear that this or that person cannot properly become Orthodox because they are of the wrong ethnicity then what we are experiencing is not faithfulness to our Orthodox tradition but racism, and racism is a denial of the Orthodox life.
The essence of racism is that it categorises people by the accident of their genetic origin, and denies entirely that unity of humanity which the Christian Church insists upon. Now I do not believe that all cultures are the same, and I do not believe that all cultures are of equal value. Speaking out of my experience here in the British Isles, I utterly reject any culture which imposes female genital mutilation upon its young girls. Such a practice has no history in Britain and is rightly considered as child abuse. I reject any culture which considers that all homosexuals should be killed, or that those who change their religion should be killed, or that family members who bring some unspecified shame on their parents should be killed.
In fact, since I am going to be considering racist attitudes among British and European peoples, I want it to be clear that I love this country into which I have been born, and I believe its culture has been among the greatest in the history of the world. When I speak of culture I am meaning that essential character of a society which is passed on from generation to generation. This is very similar to the understanding we have as Orthodox of Tradition. We do not mean in either case the sum of everything that anyone does, but that essential life which is preserved and transmitted. It is that which makes us Orthodox in the one sense, and it is that which makes me British and especially English in the other.
Since I am speaking of culture in that coherent sense in which Roger Scruton, the British philosopher, uses it, I can and will also insist that this British and English culture is worth preserving as an integrity and is not simply a random collection of activities. But I also believe that there are many other cultures which are also worthy of preservation. Culture is not intended to be a means of excluding others, but of bringing about unity, and a sense of social familiarity. It is therefore entirely possible to enjoy the integrity of another culture. This is surely one of the reasons why there is enjoyment in traveling to other places. It is a disappointment to find that every shopping area in the developed world is increasingly populated by the same global brands. We enjoy such cultural diversity, even while societies develop in a healthy manner when there is one primary culture that preserves the integrity and coherence of that society.
When I have taken my son to Wembley Stadium, our national football venue, it is enjoyable to support our local team, however they might play, but it is also part of the enjoyment of the event to hear the cheers of the supporters of the other team. There is pleasure in knowing that others love the integrity of their own culture and familial society. This is, it seems to me, the positive experience of culture as a coherent expression of who we are. We experience this at many levels. I am a member of a particular family, and with particular relations to the other members of my family. I have one sister, three brothers, a mother and father, a wife, four children, and a grandson. This is a very particular and non-transferable matrix of relations in which I live.
The Scriptures are filled with such relationships. They are, to a great extent, essential to the history of salvation. I do not believe that it is possible to confess the Christian faith without recognising that we share common ancestors in Adam and Eve. I do not believe that we can confess the Christian faith without recognising the family relationships that God has used through the ages. The holy Patriarchs of the people of the promise, the relationship between the Virgin Mary and her son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the very fact that God reveals himself as father, and calls us brothers and sisters.
The family matters, and is part of the created order. Our Lord Jesus teaches us that such relationships are not an absolute of course. We are to transcend such natural relations within the Church. But that does not mean that they do not have value and purpose. The greatest relationship in the history of creation is surely that between a mother and her son, between the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos and the Son and Word of God, and this is an eternal relationship. At the beginning of the Creation we are to understand that God himself created such social relations when he saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone, and for whose sake he created Eve, as his wife and partner.
Our Lord Jesus chose to become part of a human family. He experienced as man the parenthood of the Virgin Mary and Blessed Joseph. He had grandparents, and belonged to an extended family. More than that, he chose to become part of a particular tribe, and to grow up in a particular social setting so that he was known as a Nazarene. This is how God has created us to live. We experience the universal reality of things only in the particular. We become members of particular families and this is where we are able to learn the universal relations between all mankind. We become those who grow up within particular and coherent cultures and societies, and it is in such a context that we are able to discover the mutual societal relations which call us to the service of others.
One of the great concerns of the present time is surely not that we have too much culture in this sense, but that we have too little, and so the familial relationships which societies and cultures should form are increasingly absent. A world in which coherent cultures are deprecated, and where all cultures are considered equal, is one in which culture as the life of a society is undermined and eroded, and the relationships between members of a society become atomised. If there is no culture then there can be no familial society, and if there is no society then there are only individuals living for themselves. This is increasingly the state of the world around us.
What am I saying? It is that I believe completely in the created nature of culture, and that it represents the essential character of a society. I believe that the nature of a culture and the society it transmits can be more or less good, and more or less evil. The culture of Nazism was evil, for instance. It represented the transmission of an evil social order, with evil relations between peoples. Does anyone doubt that? But there are cultures which have, to a greater or lesser extent, sought to preserve and transmit Christian values from generation to generation. I believe this is, in a fallen sense, what I see in my own British and English culture and history until recent times.
I need to express this strong sense of appreciating my British and English culture and heritage because I am about to criticise some who will insist they share such views, but who, it seems to me, have allowed their hearts to be poisoned by as harmful a draught as that which has been swallowed by those who think the coherence of culture and familial society is of no great value. Such persons are seeking to cure one sickness with an even more deadly poison, not least because it is not only not Christian, but not representative of our own British and English history.
My family history means a lot to me. I first started researching my family tree about 25 years ago. I’ve learned a great deal, and some of the records I have discovered go back to beyond the official registration of births, marriages and deaths in the 16th century. I have found that my ancestors came especially from the area of East Anglia in England. I can find no Irish, Scots or Welsh ancestors. I’ve tried hard to find something more exotic, but there is nothing in my family tree as far as I can see. They were ordinary people in general, but it is certain that for well over a thousand years, more than likely for two thousand years, my family have lived, died and been buried here in the land where I still live and especially in East Anglia.
If I have some authority to criticise those who have adopted racist views towards others it is because I am certainly English, and it would seem that over a hundred generations my family have become part of the very soil of England. If St Paul could criticise the Pharisees because he was surely a Pharisee, then I believe I can criticise racism because I am surely English. In the interests of honesty I must reveal that one of my great-great-great-grandparents was a Frenchman. He immigrated to the UK in the middle of the 19th century. That makes me 3% French. But as far as my family tree indicates, I am 97% English.
If I take pleasure in this is it not because I believe that the genetic material I have inherited from my ancestors is superior to anyone else’s. It is because I take pleasure in the fact that I have a part to play in the ancient story of this island family of peoples. Were I to have been born in Romania, for instance, as many of my friends have been, then I would be equally pleased to have a part to play in the story of that family of peoples. If I had been born in Egypt I would be pleased to have a part to play in that ancient story. This is surely what it means to be part of a healthy society. It is to have a sense of having received something as a gift, with a responsibility to pass it on to other generations without harm.
Indeed it is a matter of fact that since I am a native Englishman I am related by blood to every other native English person. We share the same ancestors. Everyone who lived before about 1400 AD is a common ancestor of all English people. I am related to Kings and Queens, to saints, and to all the ordinary people who lived more than 600 years ago. But so are all the other English people who come from families that are well established here. This is an expression of that sense I am trying to share, which is that society is above all a family of people who share a common life, history, culture and experience.
Those who adopt a racist attitude misunderstand and misrepresent the character of such social and cultural networks as the basis of a functioning society. The racist insists that what unites a group of people is their common genetic inheritance. When we see such attitudes we can be sure that those who hold them are not conservative at all. They have not understood what it means to be English, or to belong to any ancient culture and society.
The English people are certainly not a ‘mongrel’ race, as some suggest. In fact most of the ethnic and genetic basis of all the native inhabitants of the British Isles is found in the ancient British people who were here before even the Romans invaded. Relatively few Romans came to Britain. It was not how the Empire worked. They took over the management of society and employed local royalty and nobility, Kings and Chiefs, now Romanised, to run the province for them. The population remained essentially the same, with the small numbers of immigrants assimilated into the wider population. It is estimated that migrants during the Roman period made up no more than 3% of society.
The same thing happened when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded. They were at first warriors, then their families came. But they did not replace the local population, they simply became the new masters. They were also assimilated in time. In the area where I live there are the remains of ancient Roman churches, and nearby there are very often early Anglo-Saxon churches. There was a continuity of social life even when the landlords and nobility had changed. For most ordinary rural people nothing changed.
And then again the Danes came, but not so many as to replace the population. They certainly added their own influence to the organically developing culture of England. Even the Normans were a relatively small population when they invaded. Perhaps no more than a few tens of thousands. Throughout these centuries the various waves of invaders were not actually so deep. Between only 5-8% of the population. Certainly dominating society and influencing the development of culture, but not significantly changing the ethnic nature of the population as they became members of it.
The English are not a mongrel nation in any ethnic sense. No more than I am because I am 3% French. But we have assimilated both the ethnic qualities of those relatively small number of migrants in historical times, and elements of the culture of these migrants, in a manner which has produced a unique and particular society and culture. This is what it has meant to be English. It is an organic development from the indigenous and ancient British tradition, with fruitful growth of the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman and later influences.
What the racist fails to appreciate is that the social unity which was established over a thousand years, and which has produced the English people, was always one built on a shared culture and not a shared ethnicity. Some of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had rulers with ancient British names. There was inter-marriage. One familial society developed with a shared and common culture. That shared and common culture was essentially one rooted in the Christian faith.
But the racist rejects both of these, since they object to the idea of a shared culture being the basis of our English society, and that it is Christianity which is the foundation of that culture. While pretending to love our English society and wish to protect and preserve it, in fact the racist has exactly the same attitudes and intentions as those who have no time for the English culture or Christianity. The racist is in fact the ally of those who already have set themselves the task of subverting and destroying the historic English Christian culture and the society based on it.
This is so because he insists that the colour of skin has more relevance to social cohesion than culture, history and shared faith. But this is antithetical to the reality of the development of English culture and society. I have nothing in common with the Nazis of Germany, even though they and I have white skin. Indeed this illustrates the weakness of making ethnic background the basis of social unity. When white Germans invaded the lands of white French, Belgians and Dutch, and attempted to invade the islands of the white British what social unity was being expressed?
If we are supposed to accept that there is a pan-European white identity then on what is that based? We do not see it expressed at any time in European history. It is a modern fantasy which has been developed entirely in support of 20th century racist ideology. When the Franks invaded the Gauls which of these tribes represented the pan-European tribe on the basis of which social unity should be predicated? Likewise when the Angles and Saxons invaded the lands of the British? Or the Danes invaded northern France and Ireland? Where is this pan-European sense of unity? It has never existed. And having never existed it cannot represent any sort of positive attitude towards English society and culture, since it is requires subverting the reality of the history of our society and culture.
It took some time, even in what became England, for a sense of coherent social identity as an English nation to become established. The counties of England still represent in great part a landscape of independent kingdoms and peoples who did not think of themselves as having a pan-British identity, far less a pan-European one. My own county of Kent has a name based on the British people who made up most of the population, the Cantiaci. It was an independent Kingdom, and St Ethelbert, the first Christian king among the English, was High King during his reign. It was not until the very end of the 8th century that the Kingdom of Kent was finally extinguished and subsumed into the Kingdoms of Mercia and then Wessex.
County names such as Wessex (the land of the West Saxons), Essex (the land of the East Saxons), East Anglia (the land of the East Angles) remind us that identity was never based on race in England. There were many other smaller regions which indicate that identity was found in much smaller social groupings than found today. These included the Haestingas (the people of Hasta), and the Paecsaetan (the people of the Peaks). These various social divisions existed, and they represented particular societies and even cultures, but they were not based on race.
The racist must reject all of this historical fact. He suggests that, on the contrary, even while the peoples of England represented themselves in this multiplicity of societies, in fact they really understood themselves members of a pan-European tribe based on race. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed pan-Europeanism is a modern concept based on an anti-nationalist and multi-cultural agenda. While pretending to defend the integrity of English society and culture, the racist allies himself to the same ambitions of the most extreme left-wing groups, such as the Frankfurt School, who also wish to see the end of local culture and have no place for local histories and tradition.
Who are those who have promoted the concept of pan-Europeanism? Napoleon, as the natural end of his goal of European domination by force of arms. Hitler, as the outcome of his aggressive and evil plans for European hegemony by whatever brutalities were required. And then those extremists on the left, who understood that socialist revolution need not require violence but did require the subversion of local cultures and especially the destruction of Christianity. These are the people with whom racists have common cause on the basis of their own pan-European ideals. Each effort to create a pan-European identity requires the extinction of those historic cultures and societies which have been formed over a thousand years or more.
It is not an ideal which has any reality, indeed it is an ideal that runs counter to all European history, and therefore it requires violence towards, and the undermining of, all local cultures and societies in Europe to bring it about. It does not exist and has never existed therefore it cannot in any sense be a continuity with European, let alone English, culture and history. The racist cannot be said to love England or the English culture at all. He has nothing in common with it. What he is seeking is a new world no less discontinuous with the past than that proposed by Hitler or Stalin.
Indeed the racist has many real connections with Nazism. He also identifies Christianity as a weakness, which is best overcome by the adoption of either atheism and the worship of man, or paganism and the worship of a fictional god who endorses whatever attitudes the racist chooses to adopt. If Christianity is so weak it is difficult to understand how and why it has been able to become the basis of all European culture and society. When it was introduced to Britain it was not with any force of arms. Those who adopted it did so because having understood its message, and the actual documents of the time show us that it was indeed carefully explained, it was a belief system that was entirely preferable to the paganism that had been practiced.
We can actually hear the words of the pagan High Priest who heard the Christian Gospel and confessed it himself. He says…
“The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he. is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
and then he says…
“I have long since been sensible that there was nothing in that which we worshipped; because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship, the less I found it. But now I freely confess, that such truth evidently appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them”.
Here is the voice of one who actually practiced the pagan religion of the English, and more than that, was a High Priest. He says that there was no benefit in all of their service to these pagan gods and that there was no truth in it. Neither he, nor his fellow pagans, were forced to become Christian. But having heard the words of the Christian Gospel it became clear to them that it was truth and life, while their paganism had been empty and fruitless.
If Christianity is weak then how was it able to conquer so many hearts and minds without the shedding of any blood. Indeed St Ethelbert, when he became a Christian, following the instruction he received from St Augustine, insisted that there would be and could be no compulsion in becoming Christian. He had been married to a Christian princess, Bertha, and part of the requirement of his marriage was that he allowed her the free exercise of her faith. But he had not been required to become a Christian himself. He would have become a Christian at the time of his marriage if that was the case. On the contrary, it was by his own free choice and the acceptance of the truth of the Christian message that he was baptised and chrismated into the Church.
These are all facts. Without force of arms the pagan English turned to the Christian faith in their thousands and tens of thousands, kings and commoners. When the racist says that Christianity is unfit to be the religion of white European people he manifestly shows that there is nothing English about him at all. When offered the choice between paganism and the truth of Christianity, the English actually, really and historically chose Christianity. To deny this is to deny the very culture and society which the racist pretends to be supporting.
Racist groups have, nevertheless, turned to a fictional paganism to endorse their attitudes towards others. Odin has proved particularly popular. An entirely fantastic Odinistic religion was created, out of nothing, in the early 20th century. Academics have described it as ‘riddled with uncertainty and historical confusion’. But the religion of choice for many racists, based on the invented worship of Odin, was not even introduced until the 1970s, and has no connection whatsoever with the pagan religion of the distant past, a religion that was willingly abandoned by the English people when they heard the Christian message.
Why is this so? It is often because racists believe that Christianity is a feminized, weak, self-destructive theology created by Jews and forced on white people who were by nature supposedly very different. Yet this could hardly be further from the truth. And it is certainly not historically true. How was a weak religion forced on the warlike Germanic peoples of England? It makes no sense? If it was able to do such a thing then it is not weak at all. And how was it possible that those nations and societies which adopted Christianity came to dominate the whole world, if it such a debilitating philosophy?
The English people deliberately chose to become Christian and abandoned their paganism as being untrue and fruitless. This choice, among others, is what defines our English society and culture. To reject Christianity, especially in choosing an anti-Christian religion, is to fundamentally cease to be English in any meaningful sense. There is nothing English in adopting paganism. Our British, English, Danish and Norman ancestors all rejected paganism and it plays no continuing part in our social and cultural history. To focus on race and not culture as the means of social cohesion is also to fundamentally cease to be English in any meaningful sense. We have always assimilated the visitor and the migrant, as long as our common culture was embraced, and in embracing it the visitor and migrant organically modified it.
It is easy to understand why mass and uncontrolled migration in recent decades, and the rapid subversion of our historic culture, with the consequent destabilisation of our society might produce many anxieties. I share many of them. There are reasonable and proper questions to be asked of our Governments and of ourselves. But it is only at the worst of times that people in these British Isles have ever considered race as an important characteristic. We need not do so now.
We should certainly be concerned about the loss of culture. It is this which provides societal unity and coherence. We should certainly insist that those coming to live here are assimilated and value that which makes us English and British. We can be concerned about the scale of migration and the effects this has on the most vulnerable already among us. We can be concerned about those agencies and influences which are subverting our local culture and tradition. We may even resist and reject aspects of other cultures which are antithetical to our own, especially those which cause harm to people or which wish to undermine our freedoms.
But none of these concerns require us to focus on race, when it is culture which makes the difference. The racist would say that if the population of England were replaced by white Europeans that would be fine. In this he says no more than the multi-culturalist who wishes to eliminate the sense of being English. But the one who understands what it means to be English, and what it means for each culture to have a valuable integrity and coherence, sees that such a population exchange, even among white Europeans, is entirely harmful to the ancient culture and society that has been present here in these islands for two thousand years.
The Englishman is not afraid of visitors and migrants, and will offer the open-hearted welcome that our Christian history teaches us we should give. He will expect that those coming to live here will wish to assimilate themselves to a great extent with our local culture and society, and in doing so the Englishman recognises that they may also become English, and that certainly their children and grand-children will naturally do so. It is not a matter of the colour of skin, but the quality and nature of our culture.
The racist who insists that a person cannot become English because they have the wrong skin colour is as far from being English as a Christian is from being Orthodox when they say that you cannot properly become Orthodox with us because you have the wrong ethnic origins. Neither in the realm of social or spiritual relations does a focus on race have any place. There is a real English identity. We are not a mongrel race. But what matters about us is our shared history and culture, rooted in the Christian faith. This is open to all who will embrace it as their own, whatever the colour of their skin.
But as one who is English, with a thousand years of ancestors buried around me, and with a relation to all other English people. As one who loves the history, tradition and culture of these islands above all others. I will insist that the racist who rejects our Christian heritage, and especially chooses a false and fantasy paganism that our own fathers have already rejected, and who rejects the cultural basis of our society for a racial one that has no history at all, such racists are not English and are undermining everything it means to be English, for the sake of personal hatreds that will destroy them.
Where does it end when we start insisting on racial purity? I am 3% French. Is that too much in the racist England where genetic origin is everything? What if I am 12% foreign? Does that preclude me really being English? What about 25% foreign? At what point do the restrictions I place on others begin to affect me? At which point do I cease to be pure because I have too much French, or Italian, or Russian, or Jewish blood? And if I hate myself because I am of mixed race then what can the outcome be but a personal and social psychosis.
This is why the healthy society, and the Christian society, is one in which it is a shared culture which unites those of various backgrounds, while an insistence on genetics drives people apart. To discover racism in the Church is a terrible thing, but my concern in this brief text is to resist and reject the racism which is apparent in the society around me. It is a racism which finds an easy target in members of this ethnic group or that, while avoiding the more complex questions of culture which are actually the issues we face and which are the greatest threat to our society.
Racism wants us to view people with certain ethnic origins as dirty or unclean. But Christianity absolutely rejects such a view. What people do and think may well be good or bad. I think that female genital mutilation is wicked. I think that so-called honour killings are evil. I think that those who are murdering homosexuals, or beheading those who change their religion are inspired by Satan. But this has nothing to do with their ethnicity, and everything to do with their culture and their own responsibility. Their culture may be criticised, and they should be held accountable for their actions, but those who share a common ethnic origin with them are not to be swept up in a general condemnation.
It seems to me that the white Englishman who despises his culture and undermines the societal bonds that provide coherence to our society is to be condemned. But the one who has become English, from whatever ethnic origin, and embraces our common culture without ceasing to be who he is, this one is to be commended. As a true Englishman, 97% pure according to the measure of the racist, I have little in common with the first, and much in common with the latter. It is ironic that the racist, one of those slowly destroying what it means to be English pretends to be a patriot. While the one the racist hates, simply on the basis of ethnic origin, may well be one of those seeking to preserve what it means to be English.
The path of racism is not a patriotic one. It is certainly not a Christian one, which is why many racists have abandoned Christianity and invented a religion of their own. It is not a means to sustain our English culture and society, it undermines it. Certainly we must pray that racism has no place in the Church. But we must also strive to ensure that while proper questions are asked of our Government in regard to the important questions of migration and the relative worth of different cultures, this must never be allowed to become a question of race, nor the stereotyping of any peoples on the basis of their ethnicity.
The great sadness for me, when I consider those who embrace racist attitudes, is that it is impossible for someone to draw close to God when they have a heart so full of hated and intolerance – because God is love.