Thought for the Day - Rev Roy Jenkins - 29/09/2012

Headlines trumpeting that the prime minister’s ‘ignorance’ had been revealed on the David Letterman show might be literally accurate, but I can’t imagine who could be seriously bothered.

So he didn’t know who wrote Rule Britannia? Neither did anyone else I’ve asked this week. He couldn’t conjure up an immediate translation of Magna Carta? Simple enough, maybe, but he’d have been slated more if he’d got his Latin wrong.

The programme reinforced my reluctance to join quiz teams of any kind - either general knowledge in a pub or Bible knowledge in church: the trivia can always trip you up. (I can never remember who begat whom, and can’t get worked up about it, either…)

Mr Cameron probably didn’t worry, as one correspondent mischievously suggested, about border staff submitting him on his return to a citizenship test to show that he knows certain basic facts about life in the UK. New citizens might well find this test helpful - unlike, maybe, the familiar experience of cramming heads full of information to be regurgitated on an examination paper, and then lost without trace forever. Clearly not all facts matter.
More important sometimes is grasping the principles behind them.

It’s of no consequence who wrote Rule Britannia. We might find its sentiments mawkish and its aspirations about ruling the waves pandering to the worst kinds of jingoism. Yet its insistence that ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ does say something about attitudes to liberty which have helped shape the country.

Similarly Magna Carta, ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times,’ according to Lord Denning, ‘the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.’ I’d be glad if every new citizen - and those of us who’ve been here all our lives - understood this commitment to freedom as a core element of what it means to be British; and especially glad if it challenged us to safeguard the rights of even the most deeply undesirable.

Teachers in all religions affirm that it’s not knowing the right words which matters: it’s living them. A group of Christian believers can be passionate about the value of an encyclopaedic knowledge of scripture and concerned for every last detail of doctrine, or they can insist that ritual is performed with a rigid regard for formality and precedent: yet their communities can be cold, graceless contradictions of the Christ at the heart of their message.

Others can be chaotic, unpredictable, with little decorum, flaky at the doctrinal edges, made up of fragile people nobody else wants who sense that they’re accepted and loved, both by the God they thought had rejected them, and by the motley crew around them. I’m always humbled in such company, where the words are not simply affirmed - they take flesh and live.

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