Thursday, August 02, 2012

Isles of Wonder: God, Great Britain and Glory

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak'd,

I cried to dream again. 

How to encapsulate a nation? What to choose, what to omit? 

I was certainly ready to be thrilled as I sat down with friends on Friday. Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is one of my all time favourite films, and I had no doubt his Olympic opening ceremony would challenge, entertain and amaze. I had no idea that he would provide a near-perfect reflection to the nation in which we live. He wouldn't show everything; but in his choices, he would find what matters.

The pre-ceremony show ended with Nimrod, the crowd providing the ocean around the central island, a protective blanket around an emotional paradise. And then...

A lone chorister (Carols from King's, anyone?) began Blake's Jerusalem. It's easy to be sniffy about Jerusalem. Pure nationalistic bombast. Religiously questionable. Yet here was a single voice, echoing one of our greatest annual Christian occasions offering words which with sweet melancholy question the idyll set before us - was such a scene ever real? We dream of such days, but were they ever so? And we found ourselves not in the theatre, but in liturgy, public worship in an open air cathedral. 

Hello world. This is Britain. We look at our glorious past and feel some loss. The past we so often proclaim might ever really have been what we thought it was. And the only way we can make sense of such a thing is to worship. We may not be the most Christian country. Yet we come back to this place.

The British don't go to church; but every census says we believe. From the earliest age, it's different and the same wherever we come from - as we saw in the children's choirs singing around the country, before the choir in the stadium pulled us back with Jerusalem's second verse. Whatever the past, whatever the mess of today - we will strive to do better, and this striving makes most sense in God's presence.

And then it falls apart. The hopeful dream is split apart by the greed and the marvel of invention. A classless society (which never was) becomes split by masters and slaves. Protest is born. Beijing stamped down on protest - it was invisible. London celebrated protest. It is our voice. 

It is human, it is divine to protest the breaking of the world. It is human, it is divine to celebrate the mending of the world. 

Redemption is the healing of past hurts. 

So the industrialisation that spoiled the fields led to the creation of new hopes - the five rings showering down light, bringing people together. Brunel invented the steamships that crossed the Atlantic; we had the Windrush come back, bringing people home from the other side of the Empire which Brunel's work helped establish. Ultimately, technology was turned into a gift not to separate but to unify, with Tim Berners-Lee and the Web and "This is for everyone" lighting up the arena. But healing hurts is also for everyone - so kindness and health and imagination and the NHS and children were all brought together with amazing energy. The fear of brokenness starts young; the celebration of healing that, and the determination to get there never ends. 

All of this was never allowed to feel preachy - because like the best sermons, it was filled with a delicious self-depricating humour. Rowan Atkinson pricked the balloon of "Chariots de feu". Bradley Wiggins was simply Bradley Wiggins. Paul McCartney was out of time on a song he's only had forty years to get right. And, in the greatest TV moment ever, the Queen turned around from her desk at Buckingham Palace and said, "Good evening, Mr Bond," before apparently jumping out of a helicopter. 

Welcome to Britain. We have a past. We have a present. They are not perfect. We'll laugh at ourselves along the way, because we deserve it. We'll protest, and do it in our leaders' faces (the Sex Pistols being played in HMQ's presence? Twice? Two Jubilees ago they were banned!) and do it together so that past hurts get healed and everyone gets to play.

And first and last, we do this as a nation that holds its seminal moments in the presence of God. 

At the start, a lone chorister. At the end Emeli Sande hymning those who have gone before. A beautiful dance group. And Henry Francis Lyte's Abide with Me, written three weeks before he died, sung in its entirety, pointing us to the skies. 

There are questions. There are uncertainties. But there are essential British values that fire through us along the way. And we celebrate who we are with passion, with thousands of ordinary people, with boundless creativity, with stunning music, with a smile and a tear, with pride and humility, with Christian faith suffusing the whole thing on and under the surface.

This is the Britain I love. 

Then we welcomed the world, marching behind their flags. And seven anonymous children received torches from seven stars and the flames of the nations united to become a fire of peace. Our nation is for everyone; society that at its best builds on the shoulders of giants and cherishes children.

O yes, I cried to dream again.      

1 comment:

KWRegan said...

Really nice essay---that and the Telegraph link in your Twitter. It heartens me to see that kind of "capital return" on the investment---meaning the Brit appreciative use of "capital" there.

For a counterpoint, here are the sports headlines in my Buffalo local paper and the NY Times this morning:

1. It's Fraser-Pryce at wire Jamaican star defends title in midst of Great Britain's great day.

2. Pistorius Advances to Semifinals.

The Buffalo paper put Pistorius on its frontpage. Both sports pages have Serena Williams below the fold, but for Phelps #22 and other golden Americans you have to look inside.

It's worth giving a few paragraphs of the AP story on the w100m final used by the Buffalo paper:

"LONDON - Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price leaned across the finish line of the women's 100 meters, then looked up at the blank scoreboard for the name of the next Olympic champion.
Five seconds passed, then five more.
Was it Fraser-Pryce or American Carmelita jeter?
The race couldn't have been any closer, and when Fraser-Pryce's name finally came up first, she fell to the ground and shouted, `Thank you, Jesus!'
But really, was there ever any doubt?"

My own answer to the last question is that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce had a clear advantage for the margin at the finish line: two hyphens :-).