A small storm blew up around Dame Janet Suzman this week, after she was quoted in the Guardian as saying that: “Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare.”

Of course, theatre, if not narrowly defined, is much older than Shakespeare. It is probably as old, if not older, than language itself – and a feature of ancient and modern cultures around the world. As a vocal opponent of racism, Suzman was, no doubt, referring to the persistently non-diverse audiences that patronise Britain’s leading theatres – and the struggling efforts of various publicly-funded bodies to broaden the appeal of the arts.

It’s a reminder that the institutions that make the biggest show of their commitment to diversity don’t always embody their principles. For instance, our politicians are always going on about how inclusive they are, but if you walk around the Palace of Westminster, observing the people who work there, you notice that most of those who aren’t white are wearing a uniform (and I don’t mean the ermined variety).

It isn’t just elite institutions, but less formal aspects of ‘modern Britain’ too. The whole cult of ‘cool’, for instance, operates according to a ruthless exclusivity. Whether in terms of ethnicity, class, education, age group or physical and mental norms, we are not, in practice, the integrated nation that we think we are.

The irony is that one of the most inclusive institutions in our society is one that is often regarded as uncool, anti-modern and intolerant: the church. And yet, together with sport, the church is (in most parts of the UK) a powerful force for cohesion.

In the Sunday Telegraph, John Bingham reports on a study by the Social Integration Commission:

“Ground-breaking new analysis of the friendship networks of almost 4,300 people aged from 13 to 80 has identified churches and sporting events as the last bastions of neighbourliness and integration in Britain.

“Overall, it found that churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.”

And while our society has never been more liberal in theory, the practical inclusivity of church life is as necessary as ever:

“Initial findings published earlier this year analysed how closely different groups of people mixed.

“They raised questions about whether decades of efforts to promote multiculturalism have gone into reverse, by showing teenagers are no more likely to meet people from other racial backgrounds in a social setting than those 40 years older suggests.

“The study also suggested that class could be a more enduring source of division than race in the UK.”

Looking back on my own experiences, I can’t help but contrast my churchy upbringing in a semi-rural part of the country, with my London-centred work life. You might think that in the midst of the most diverse city in the world, it would be the latter that gave me the greatest contact with different cultures, classes and age groups – but, in fact, the opposite is true.

To be fair, my time in the ‘Westminster village’ has enabled me to meet quite a lot of posh people that I might not have met in other circumstances; but generally it’s through church and parachurch organisations that I’ve got to know humanity in at least some of its fullness.

Indeed, in my experience, the only Westminster gatherings where the attendees show much resemblance to the rest of London are the prayer meetings of the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

5 comments for: Heresy of the week: Britain’s most inclusive institution is the church

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