During our first weekend in the UK we went to church in a small provincial town west of London. The preacher was from Australia, having arrived in the UK via travels in several parts of the world. The lady operating the sound desk was from Llanelli, a town in South Wales, and the location of World Horizons’ origins. She had left more than twenty-five years ago to study in England and never gone back. Then the people who greeted us over coffee in the church hall after the worship service were from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Work had given them the opportunity to live in the South of England.
A couple of days later we went in search of a neighborhood park where the boys could practice their skills on a tennis court. Guys playing tennis on the court next to us were speaking Romanian. In the kiddie playground which Sarah Grace enjoyed, were mothers speaking to their children either in Polish or in Urdu. If we had not known we were firmly planted in England, we could easily have wondered what international cross-roads we had arrived at. We certainly found ourselves wondering where the English were.
In the last fifty years, England, along with several other nations of Western Europe, has become a multi-cultural nation. Driving up to London to visit the Olympic park we skirted the borough of Tower Hamlets. This municipal district in East London publishes its social services information in more than twenty-five languages to cater to the diverse Asian community that resides there. In the Westfield Shopping Center, the largest mall in Europe, which has recently opened just beside the Olympic park we saw plenty of Japanese and Korean tourists. But there were also plenty of people speaking clearly in local English accents whose complexions betrayed their status as second-generation arrivals from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Adding these experiences together you could well forgive us for wondering where the real English were to be found. By that I am of course referring to those whose families go back generations in England.
Our second weekend in Britain was actually in South Wales. Nonetheless we got to see plenty of the celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on TV. A pageant of a thousand boats on the river Thames, followed by a Concert with light show on the front facade of Buckingham Palace, and then a Christian service of Thanksgiving in the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral, showed plenty of the very best of British to the world.
But in the midst of it, the Queen, the monarch, the ultimate symbol of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, let alone the Commonwealth of Nations; an eighty-six year old woman, who has served her people for sixty years; the very best of British. And across the nation thousands of communities came together to celebrate in the streets. Union Flags and celebratory bunting were in evidence everywhere. Even across the English Channel in European nations that long ago abandoned monarchies for republicanism, communities expressed their fascination with the institution and the woman who currently holds the role.
The England and the Britain of today may be very different to those of fifty years ago, but there’s still a clearly discernible identification with the history and institutions that have served well to build such a pluralistic and cosmopolitan society.