by Roberta Topham
A conversation overheard in a book shop between two assistants this July:
Assistant 1: The Cubans are going to do their best to keep their culture and identity now that diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the US.
Assistant 2: Oh, a bit like us and Brexit then. Now we’ll be able to keep our identity. [Pause.] But what is British identity?
Assistant 1: Not sure, but I suppose we will just have to become more like Boris!
I guess I might not be alone in sincerely hoping the speaker was joking.
This little incident nicely illustrates the question of identity which has been talked about in our country a great deal in recent months. I am wondering what Christian faith has to contribute to this issue? And what the recent discussions on the subject might have to say to us as Methodists?
I come to these questions as a Methodist minister who has studied as a social anthropologist. Culture and identity have long been key tools for the anthropologist in understanding societies. Culture has been defined as referring to “those socially transmitted patterns for behaviour characteristic of a particular social group”.[i] Writing more recently, Dutch cultural anthropologist, Toon Van Meijl suggests that after the concept of identity was imported into anthropology from psychology, it came to be understood as “the historically and culturally rooted self-image of a group of people that was predominantly sketched and sharpened in contact vis-à-vis other groups of peoples.”[ii]
Coming from Northern Ireland, where I spent my youth during “the Troubles” among people who constantly defined themselves as Protestants or Catholics, Unionists or Republicans, I recognise the truth of this. Identity is something people talk about more and put increased energy into when they feel under threat. After the EU referendum there was much talk in the press about how a large proportion of the vote to leave the EU had come from the more economically deprived areas of Britain. A perceived lack of social and economic capital coupled with an inability to change that situation is usually experienced as threatening. For some in the UK the reclaiming of a supposedly independent British identity seemed to provide a means of regaining these things.
There are, of course, positive aspects to having a strong sense of cultural identity. Where I live in Yorkshire there has been a never-ending sequence of village fetes, feasts and galas through the summer. Local culture and a celebration of identity seems alive and well here and is a stimulus to social integration and human well-being.
As modern anthropologists point out, however, few if any cultures are static or tightly bounded. In an increasingly globalized world, cultural identity is becoming more complex. For many, old ways of living and thinking are being challenged and changed as a result of the contact with others from different backgrounds that happens through work, media and travel. The increased pace of globalization and the millions of people migrating each year mean that most societies are constantly encountering new ideas and practices. Individuals who migrate are taking their ideas, cultures and practices with them while also learning new ways to live in their new home societies.
Methodist communities in Britain are in the middle of this. Many congregations, perhaps especially in our cities, have become and are becoming more diverse. Others might not yet have experienced much cultural diversity themselves but will be aware of the changing nature of wider society. It strikes me that we have choices to make between retreating and proclaiming a traditional identity or moving outwards to embrace the new while keeping in touch with our roots. In last week’s blog Inderjit Bhogal reminded us of the call to love the stranger. I am suggesting that we might also let the stranger love and change us and see that openness as part of our identity.
One anthropological account of culture may help us in this. French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu suggested that culture is embodied in individuals as a set of dispositions which have been internalised through socialisation into a particular society.[iii] He called this set of internalised dispositions the habitus. From the habitus people know how to carry on. That is, in a particular culture they know what is culturally appropriate at any moment, even when facing new circumstances.
When it comes to living in an increasingly multicultural society, there is, in my observation, something especially valuable in the Methodist habitus. Methodists learn to internalise an openness of heart when encountering others, especially those in need. In short we might call this a disposition towards welcome and inclusivity. In this, of course, we draw our example from Jesus, who crossed regional borders, travelling to Tyre and Sidon, and the Decapolis, mixing with Syrophoenicians and Samaritans and being inclusive. Of course Methodists are not alone in this, but we are well placed to take a lead in developing a modern British identity that is open to others. We know very well whom we would suggest to the shop assistant in the overheard conversation that “we will have to become more like”!
[i] Roger M. Keesing, Cultural Anthropology (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), p. 68.
[ii] Toon Van Meijl, ‘Culture and Identity in Anthropology: Reflections on “Unity” and “Uncertainty” in the Dialogical Self’, International Journal for Dialogical Science, 3 (2008): 165-190, on p. 170.
[iii] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity Press,  1995.).