There is an American comedy film called ‘National Lampoon’s European Vacation’; in it an American family travel around Europe, spreading a trail of chaos and destruction wherever they go. In each city they visit they cause some grave misfortune to an English tourist played by Eric Idle, and each time the Englishman apologises, how careless of him to be in the way of their car when they ran him over, and so on.
Idle’s character is a caricature of Englishness, but it makes the point that there was a tradition of politeness and understatement. English politics is a very gentlemanly affair compared to the political process in many countries.
The tradition of politeness, of being nice even if sometimes you didn’t really mean it, seems to have come out of the history of the country. In the 17th century the country was torn apart by civil war and there followed the rule of Oliver Cromwell. The restoration of the monarchy and re-establishment of the Church of England in 1660 had a great deal of compromises. The Church sought to embrace as wide a range of people as possible, the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 seemed to provide something for almost everyone, you could be very high church or very low church and still feel that there was a place for you.
This spirit of comprehensiveness was followed in the 18th century by the influence of the Enlightenment – the feeling that religious belief should be reasonable and rational. So there developed a Church which stressed reasonableness and the reconciliation of widely differing beliefs. As the Anglican Church spread and grew through the 19th and 20th centuries it carried with it these qualities, this desire to find the middle way and to bring people together.
So we find ourselves here, at the beginning of the 21st century, as products of this long history. We are ‘nice’. It is part of our tradition to be ‘nice’. There is nothing wrong with being nice, I once heard a Church of England clergyman respond to the charge that the Church was ‘nice’, by saying he felt that it was more Christian to be nice than to be nasty.
One of the problems of being ‘nice’ is that it can cause us to avoid seeing the world as Jesus sees it. We can wish for a world that fits in with our views, that plays the game and keeps the rules and is reasonable. Jesus knows that the world is not like that. He warns his listeners that he has not come to bring peace, but division. He does not mean it is his intention to cause conflict, but that, when confronted with the truth and the demands of justice, there will be some people who will go their own way. Division will even appear within families.
These are hard lessons for nice Anglicans to learn. We don’t cherish confrontation, but there comes a point where it is necessary. When our liberal values of freedom and tolerance are threatened, when our aspirations to be inclusive and to respect the dignity of all human beings are challenged, it is time that we actually stand up and say ‘enough’. To be liberal we must be illiberal, to be nice we have to learn to be nasty. It is time to stop apologising and to start asserting, to say we will be run over no more.