Why The British (Or At Least The English) Take Nothing Seriously
And why we need to break the habit
As an Englishman who works predominantly with Americans, it’s been interesting over the last few years to see which stereotypes about our respective nations actually hold up to scrutiny.
One thing that Americans generally presume about Brits (and the English especially) is that we are a rather serious people. After all, we don’t like to make too much of a fuss about things.
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This is a stereotype which I think is fundamentally mistaken. Indeed: I think the reason that Brits don’t like to make a fuss is often because we don’t take things seriously.
What I want to explore here is something of the history of why we don’t take things seriously, and to suggest why British Christians need to start doing so a lot more.
Why do people think the British and/or English are so serious? Well, we are, in theory, a more polite, formal, and traditional folk than our American cousins. But Americans are, in my experience, infinitely more polite and formal than us—we are simply more reserved.
It’s a shock to the system for any Brit in America to realise that you’re meant to call law enforcement officers “sir” and “ma’am”, and that small children may do the same to you. In my trips to the States last year, there were numerous occasions where I saw someone mention they had served in the Armed Forces, and at least one person present was always swift to say “thank you for your service.” Sad to say, this Englishman cringed every time.
Deference to law enforcement, respect for elders, honour for the military—none of these are things which the average Englishman prizes highly. To do so would come across as… well, a bit serious.
If you need a prime example of how the British take nothing seriously, look no further than Boaty McBoatface. In 2016, a poll allowed the British public to name a new polar scientific research ship. They voted overwhelmingly for “Boaty McBoatface.” This name was eventually given to one of the vessel’s underwater drones, the boat itself being named, more sensibly, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. I honestly struggle to imagine something similar happening in America.
This British aversion to seriousness goes further than how we treat law enforcement, elders, soldiers, or polar exploration vessels though. It stretches to the kinds of things which shape the society we live in: social issues, politics, and Big Ideas.
You can see this in the fact that “the Culture Wars” which so dominate American life—debates over abortion, transgenderism, elections, and other hot potatoes—are not directly mirrored in the UK. Our Left Wingers are not as liberal as American Left Wingers; nor are our Right Wingers as Right Wing; and so we seem to dodge the Culture Wars (note, I say “seem”).
But what is the cause of the British (or certainly the English) struggle to take anything seriously?
My tentative suggestion (and stay with me here, for a quick history lesson) is that it has a lot to do with the English Civil War.
The English Civil War (Yes, Really)
It is astonishing how little we English tend to know about the English Civil War (1642-1651). Its death toll in England was greater than that of WW1 and WW2 combined, as a percentage of the population. Its outcome and legacy shaped much of the Britain we know today—yet many of us (and perhaps, reader, this is you) know nothing about it.
The headline of the English Civil War war is this: we killed the King, but then brought him back.
The war’s origins lie in the faults of King Charles I. Charles was often at odds with his Parliament about both religion and government. He favoured and enforced a more high-church form of worship in the Church of England, having little tolerance for low-church Puritanism. He also believed in his own personal right to rule as he saw fit, with no input from Parliament. From 1629 to 1640, Charles called no parliament at all, governing simply through “personal rule”.
Given that Parliament under Charles became increasingly Puritan and democratically minded, conflict was inevitable. In 1642, all this boiled over, and war broke out. In 1649, the defeated Charles was executed. Britain ceased to be a kingdom and became the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (“The Protectorate”). This, supposedly, was to be a new and more democratic Britain, ruled by Parliament and led by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out as they’d intended.
For one thing, Parliament itself never exactly held all the power during the Protectorate. Huge power laid with the New Model Army—Charles I was sentenced to death after what was, in effect, a military coup. Cromwell’s England can be fairly described as a military dictatorship.
For another, England’s republic was famously short lived. Charles I was executed in 1649. Cromwell ruled until his death in 1658—but throughout his protectorate, England was an unhappy mess, and his son Richard was a disastrous successor. So, in 1660, the late King’s son returned to the UK at Parliament’s request and was enthroned as King Charles II. After all the bloodshed of the Civil War, and all the promises of the Protectorate, England had lasted little more than a decade without a monarchy.
Of course, it wasn’t a return to business as usual. The King’s powers were diminished. Yet Parliament’s prestige was lessened too—they’d been forced to admit that England needed the monarchy. The military, likewise, having risen to such heights under Cromwell’s leadership, were not exactly in the nation’s good books after making too much of themselves. The three institutions all settled into a new dynamic, acting, in that now familiar phrase, as “checks and balances” on one another.
So, imagine it’s 1660. Imagine you have invested blood, sweat, and tears in the monarchy, parliament, or the military. How inclined will you be, in the new administration, to take any of these great institutions and their philosophies quite so seriously as you had done before?
Or better yet, imagine you are an average English peasant. You have some good things to say about all of them, but aren’t overly invested in any one in particular. You just want an end to war and unrest. How would you feel about the idea of taking any of them and their Big Ideas very seriously again?
After all, considered one way, it was the seriousness with which each party took themselves which led to war and the chaos of the Protectorate: Charles I, ferociously stubborn even at the moment of his death; the political and religious radicals within Parliament; the military with its authoritarian streak. All of these had blood on their hands.
In the wake of the Civil War, then, an informal agreement set in among the English. This agreement, over time, became a national disposition: don’t take things too seriously—particularly Big Ideas, politics, and religion. If we manage that, our ancestors thought, we can avoid another Civil War.
Now, much more could be said here. This didn’t happen overnight. Also, it was a very long time ago, and I’m sure that much else has added to the picture since then. But it strikes me as basically correct to pinpoint the Civil War as the moment when the British (or at least the English) began to not take anything too seriously.
You can very much see this today in how we relate to both parliament and the monarchy. Parliament is the power; the monarchy is the glory. We hold politicians in low esteem, but let them run the country; the monarchy, by contrast, is a national love object, but given no hard power. This contrasts heavily with the American presidential system, in which the President is effectively monarch and parliament rolled into one.
The military is a funny one for the British—our relationship to them is still very much tied up in the memories of WW1 and WW2. Because of the scale of conscription and the national war effort, we view these wars more as having been fought by we the people than by the military. But it is fair to say they do not have the same status in British life as they do in America. I have never heard a Brit say “thank you for your service” to a serviceman.
So. If this brief theory is true, what might British (or at least English) evangelical Christians today gain from reckoning with it?
Why So Serious
There are, it must be said, some obvious benefits to not taking things too seriously. We’ve not had another Civil War, for starters (well, there was the Glorious Revolution, but that’s for another time). Also, we have avoided a lot of undesirable cultural extremes seen in places like America, France, or Russia—countries that did away with monarchy but, unlike us, never brought it back.
However, this virtue comes with an equal and opposite vice—and it is a vice which is particularly dangerous today.
It is all very well and good not to take things too seriously. But what do you do when something comes along which demands to be taken seriously—even if it’s in that dreaded arena of Big Ideas, politics, and religion?
Unfortunately, the British (or English) response is usually that we fail to act—even we Christians, and perhaps especially evangelicals like me. We don’t want to “make too much fuss.”
This is particularly true of things which we try to label “cultural issues.” When British evangelicals today label something a “cultural issue” this is, more often than not, a dangerous sleight of hand. It palms the issue off as being a mere “cultural” dispute, rather than a moral one, suggesting it’s all just a matter of taste and that everyone is getting too het up about it.
Let’s take one current “cultural issue” as an example: transgenderism. We Brits look at the heat generated by something like transgenderism in the USA, label it a “cultural issue”, and think “well, it won’t happen here”. In the USA, the Left Wingers can have their Drag Queen Story Hours, and the Right Wingers can ban gender transition treatment for minors in Republican states, but over here, we think, neither side takes things that seriously.
Yet when we don’t take transgenderism seriously, we fail in two huge areas which, as evangelicals, we generally think you should take seriously:
Loving our neighbours
Failing to Love Our Neighbours
The fact is, the same gender madness we see in the US is already happening and has already happened in the UK—maybe even at your local pub. We’ve also had the Adam Graham (AKA “Isla Bryson”) fiasco in Scotland, where a convicted rapist was placed in a women’s prison because he suddenly claimed to be trans during prosecution. We’ve had the Tavistock gender clinic scandal, which uncovered how thousands of young people—mostly vulnerable teenage girls—have been carelessly directed onto life-altering courses of drugs, counselling, and surgery which could go on to leave them mutilated and sterile.
Refusing to take the extremes of transgenderism seriously, and believing that “it will never happen here”, has allowed these things and more to happen right under the noses of British evangelicals. And the damage they cause to our neighbours—who we are meant to love—is already with us: exposing children to kinky Drag Queens, locking up female prisoners with convicted rapists, shuttling teenage girls into soul- and body-destroying “transitions”.
These stories should make any Brit, let alone evangelical Christians, incandescent with rage. Yet, on a deep instinctive level, we shy away from that kind of reaction—lest we take it too seriously. Lest we make too much of a fuss. There are few places an Englishman would less like to be than stood outside a courthouse, hospital, or school, protesting with a placard. It seems dreadfully American.
Failing to Disciple Christians
In my experience, most British evangelicals, to the extent that they think about transgenderism at all, simply hope they never have to deal with it. Most folk I know have never had any formal teaching on the topic—if they have, it has been incredibly brief, and usually tacked onto the end of a session about other sexuality issues.
We do not want to devote time and space in our church ministry to tackling topics like transgenderism. We do not treat them like they are a big deal. Why?
Being generous, I think it’s because the average pastor feels he lacks resources to help him think the issue through for himself before teaching his congregation. But why then are those who provide pastoral resources not producing those resources as a matter of urgency?
I think it is because doing so would smack of “American Culture Wars”. It would just take things too seriously. We fear becoming like the nutjobs in the classic 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, crying out “BELIEVE IN JESUS!” and “END ABORTION!” in the same breath on an endless loop.
But the fact is, most people are going to have to deal with transgenderism—or they already are. This might be through someone in their life becoming trans—perhaps even their own child. Or it might be through trans ideology moving into their kids’ primary school. Or it might just be through talking to people about the latest trans-related news story.
If we shy away from discipling Christians—discipling ourselves—about transgenderism, what will happen in these situations? Perhaps you’ve even been in such a situation, and simply desired “not to make a fuss”—but it’s troubled you ever since.
Today, I’m offering no answers on this particular issue. I’ve only hoped to bust a myth about the British (or at least the English): the myth that we are a serious people. Quite the opposite is true—and we’ve been on that trajectory ever since Charles II sat back on his throne in 1660. That has been a virtue in many ways—but every virtue brings with it an opposite vice, and the opposite of the best is always the worst.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll close with a Shakespeare reference. I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV recently, which revolves mostly around the young Prince Hal (later King Henry V) and his relationship with Falstaff—a charismatic, partying glutton and drunk who, above all else, takes nothing seriously. Henry IV Part One ends with a great battle, and Hal thinks Falstaff has at last come good. He asks to borrow Falstaff’s sword. Falstaff offers the blade. With men fighting and dying all around them, Hal goes to take the sword… and finds instead a bottle of wine. It was all a joke.
At a time which at last should finally have demanded seriousness, Falstaff fails again.
When our non-Christian neighbours, or new Christians who need discipling, reach out to for help in the midst of our cultural madness, what will they find Christians offering them? A sword for the fight? Or a bottle of cheap wine?
As we face the cultural realities of 2023, British evangelicals would do well to consider Prince Hal’s response to the disappointing Falstaff: “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?”
*Image Credit: “Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I” by Paul Delaroche (1831).
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Good stuff Rhys, really enjoyed it and was challenged by your knowledge of history. Will probably upgrade to paid subscription once I’ve seen a few more.
Are you up for positive criticism? At times sweeping generalisations didn’t help, and use of the word ‘nut jobs’ probably not helpful - those who genuinely suffer mental ill health deserve more sensitivity.