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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
I'm loathin' it
May 2005

Don't press me as to why, but not so long ago I had the privilege of becoming a member of the Austin Maestro and Montego Owner's Club, an association devoted to a pair of peculiarly rust-prone and hard-to-love sons of the late British Motor Industry. As soon as the club magazine Monstro (oh yes) plopped onto my doormat I realized with a shiver that, for the first time, I belonged to something less cool than the Church of England. An experience like that puts things into perspective, I can tell you.

A discerning glance at photos of the organizing committee showed me two things: a) that none of the membership (of which I was number 243) were likely to have been among the first to be picked for school sports teams, and b) that each cared not a jot for their cars' woeful reputation. I have to say I was encouraged by this breezy disregard for how the world at large might perceive their cause, even if parts of the car did keep snapping off in my hand.

For one of the more aggravating features of our age is an absurd degree of self-consciousness on the part of organizations and institutions. The most obvious, and irritating, indicator of this trend is the strapline – that phrase or sentence designed to define the corporate spirit. Straplines have been around for years, of course, but now, with the unstoppable reach of branding into every area of life, they are blooming everywhere. Even no-nonsense bodies like the British Army, whose beefy strapline is Be the Best (at fighting, presumably), have to parade the blighted things, along with sensible agencies like English Heritage, which has recently opted for the nauseating It's Mine. Well, you can keep it.

Some straplines are archly hip, as with McDonalds' I'm lovin' it, whereas others are just plain mystifying – enter the catastrophic Doing the right thing from British Gas. Even after quite serious consideration I still haven't the foggiest idea what this has to do with my boiler.

The purpose of all this drivel is, as we know, to lend organizations a more accessible, personal face and to enhance the consumer's sense of belonging in order for business to boom. A kind of covenant is being sought, along the lines of "you will be our sort of person and we will be your sort of people". The general effect, however, is of being roundly patronized or jollied along. It's also just a bit embarrassing when respectable bodies turn all coy and need to talk about us. My heart sinks when I realize that another organization which previously required just a quarterly cheque now also wants me to like them.

I shan't go on. But the interesting – and unnerving – thing for the Christian is that the New Testament is crammed with corporate-speak of one sort or another. You only have to ruffle its Rizla-esque leaves to find you are defined by your relation to the whole – as a member of God's household, a living stone in a spiritual temple, a body part in the corpus of Christ. St Paul, especially, pushes the metaphors to their creaking limits to show that, together, we are "in Christ".

But, in the antithesis of consumerism, this extreme degree of belonging is achieved, not by having your every need met, nor by enhancement of your lifestyle, but by denying and dying to self: by getting the glorious knack of putting yourself second.

It is this that enables the church truly to be a body made of different members, defined only by its centre, Christ, and not by the type of people who may belong to him or, indeed, who would normally want to belong to each other. In other words, unless your church car park is a healthy mix of Leyland and Lexus, something's wrong.

This is just the sort of generous catholicity straplines tend to qualify and, thereby, restrict, for they raise a perimeter fence that requires the outsider first to ask "am I that sort of person?" before gaining access. The same could be said for the particular agony and hilarity of local church advertising, which can likewise become a kind of day-glo barbed wire around places of worship the passer-by might otherwise drop into.

The church can never be completely comfortable with marketing itself, for that requires the kind of corporate self-consciousness we are rightly uneasy with. I live, however, in daily fear that my own Anglican church, alarmed by a Montego-like tendency to disintegrate, may, even as I write, be devising its own strapline in a misguided bid to boost membership. You might like to mull over this nightmare prospect in the bath and send me your suggestions. I've had a few ideas – Love will tear us apart, possibly, or, for our more conservative brethren, I'm leavin' it, but the only one I'm currently happy with is The Church of England: it's not about us.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
also see
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Stephen Tomkins' regular column of tales of religious lunacy from the far reaches of the Net
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Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
loose canons
Also by Stephen Tomkins... a regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
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