Over the years National Public Radio (NPR) has found a niche among listeners who want in-depth reports on complex issues. Their offbeat radio essays offer a sometimes idiosyncratic alternative to those who want more diverse fare than "news radio" and cable news may offer.
Recently NPR aired a five-part series in which one of their reporters, the British-born Rob Gifford, retraced the route taken by Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims as they walked from London to Canterbury. With rather brazen chutzpah, NPR terms Gifford's trip "The New Canterbury Tales" as he addresses such topics as immigration, identity, and Britain's social problems, like alcoholism.
In one report Gifford looked at the status of Christianity in England. While the concept of a Chaucerian re-do 600 years after is wonderful, this segment, for example, is distinctly uneven. Part of the problem is that what was posted online differs in some respects the actual interview. Why didn't NPR offer a transcript instead?
Let's look at one example from the summary.
"I'm still torn. I believe in evolution. Sometimes I believe in God, a Church-of-England-type-of-God," she says. "I go to church occasionally, and sometimes I don't."
What people tend to mean by a Church-of-England-type-of-God is that the church has settled on a moderate -- critics say wishy-washy -- type of God who doesn't challenge people too much. But now that premise itself is being challenged within the church.
In the actual radio essay Gifford notes that the Church of England of was often known as the "Conservative Party at prayer." First of all, that's not how many of her critics would describe her now -- it's certainly not what's causing all the ruckus. Secondly, if his characterization of British Anglicans is accurate, it sounds like she'd be a perfect fit. And lastly, British bishops have been vocal in criticizing governments, including the left-centrist Labor Party, for policies that favor the wealthy -- not a picture of a Conservative Party at prayer or of a "God who doesn't challenge people too much."
This essay falls into an odd category -- part travelogue, part news report, and part, frankly, commentary.
While I won't quibble with Gifford's paean to the British as among "some of the warmest, most hospitable people on earth" I do question his description of Anglican Bishop Michael Azir-Ali as one of the "new intellectual evangelicals." The nation has a long history of evangelical Anglican clergy -- and some of them were also intellectuals (why does this continue to surprise)?
It's unfortunate that Gifford focused on the Church of England, which has been on the decline for years, instead of embracing a wider lens and looking at Protestant and Catholic evangelicals and what non-Muslim immigrants may be doing to alter the general picture. It's also too bad that he went the "Charles Darwin versus C of E" route -- I suppose that the coincidence of having Darwin's cottage en route, and his 200-birthday celebration was too much temptation.
But kudos to him, in what is after all a brief impressionistic analysis, in noting that there are some who believe, like Adunla Ogunlade, who believe that England needs to experience an influx of Christian missionaries -- and that England is no secular paradise, with a rampant alcohol problem that continues to dog its young people, whether believers or nonbelievers.
It's not at all clear, from Gifford's report, that "post-Christian England" is any improvement on Chaucers. But in one respect it remains a place he would have recognized -- everyone has an opinion, and no one hesitates to share them.
Picture of Canterbury is taken from Wikimedia Commons.