Saturday, 4 February 2012

Isles of Wonder

As the six-month countdown to the Olympic & Paralympic Games began, the artistic director Danny Boyle revealed the theme of the opening ceremony. Boyle’s inspiration for hisIsles Of Wonder is derived from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest in which Caliban refers to the wondrous beauty of the island. “Our Isles of Wonder salutes and celebrates the exuberant creativity of the British genius in an Opening Ceremony that we hope will be as unpredictable and inventive as the British people,” said Boyle.

“Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,” declares Shakespeare’s Caliban. This week I have been more aware of the island’s noises than its beauty. Amid the rumours of the allocation of bonuses, the clanging of the decline thereof and the cacophony of calls for stripped knighthoods, it’s hard to detect any sense of wonder, beauty or unpredictability. For all the while a predictable British exuberance of a less noble quality abounds.

And yet, when we delve into history, these isles indeed knew a sense of wonder, a kind of genius that combined nobility and entrepreneurship; an understanding of citizenship that measured success in terms of communal wellbeing rather than personal enrichment.

A historic glance would, for example, shine a light on George Cadbury: "We can do nothing of any value to God, except in acts of genuine helpfulness done to our fellow men". Such commitment to the less privileged shaped the working conditions in the Cadbury factories, as well as housing, pension, medical and dental care for their staff. Every summer, Cadbury provided food and entertainment for 25,000 children from the deprived areas of Birmingham. Reflecting on his life, he wrote: “I have for many years given practically the whole of my income for charitable purposes….”

“’Charitable’ is too narrow a description; ‘reform’ would be more apt. Successive generations of Cadburies were catalysts in a wide range of social reform. The wider Quaker community only made up 0.2 per cent of the population, yet its contribution to British society is massive. The business and banking ethic of Cadbury, Rowntree, Boots, Barclays and Lloyds was derived from their Christian faith, as they followed “the Divine Light”.

Historically, the English Protestants understood the whole of life as a vocation – a sacred space of worship through deeds of love, righteous service and commerce. “What mattered was not worldly riches but a richness towards God expressed in gratitude, generosity and a life of virtue,” writes Peter Heslam in Transforming Capitalism.

Isles of Wonder indeed.

Recent research by the University of Essex concluded that the British are less honest than we were a decade ago. The business and political commentator Jeff Randall voiced this week a poignant question: “What kind of people have we become?”

The script God has given us continuously engages us in a dialogue who we want to become. Whatever our vocation, we daily make choices affecting communal wellbeing and personal integrity - choices which either accommodate the dominant culture or align with the alternative script.Critically, it will not only shape our personal life but also the institutions we are part of. We can all pursue a vocation that has its home in faith and virtue and is concerned with the wellbeing God intended for the wider community.

As the eyes of the world are upon us, may the Olympic ceremony celebrating the best of Britain be genial, inventive and exuberant. Beyond that, may we see the growth of the city on a hill comprising a people whose character is pure, merciful, humble, peace-building and just. In the words of the creative director: “the light of the world”.

Marijke Hoek, Coordinator Forum for Change - Evangelical Alliance

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