Karen Lord came to the UK in 1998 to study on the world famous Oxford Foreign Service Programme at the University of Oxford. It wasn't her first period of study in the UK nor was it the last.
The first time I met my housemate we soberly shook hands and exchanged names. The second time I saw him, he was dressed to go out, resplendent in a fetching black mini-skirt with matching, midriff-baring top. "It's a 'Pimps and Hos' themed night", he explained, looking slightly sheepish underneath his expertly-applied makeup.
Ah. Welcome back to the UK, I smiled to myself.
This is my third time studying in the UK. My Masters degree was in Scotland, and then I was a Chevening Scholar for the Foreign Service Programme at Oxford. Now I am tackling my Ph.D in Wales and marvelling once more at the paradox that is the United Kingdom.
The five years since my Oxford days have brought many changes and insights. I took my training and experience in diplomacy, dabbled in a bit of theology, and started to ask questions about the kind of ethos on which NGOs are based.
I found that in many countries, faith-based organisations are essential to social welfare efforts, both independently and in partnership with governments. I began to study the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Barbados and in Wales. Along the way, I discovered an interesting concept called 'implicit religion', which was developed by Edward Bailey, professor and priest, and can be described as 'the secular quest for meaning in life'. Or, in the words of the philosopher Didactylos from Terry Pratchett's "Small Gods", "Yes, But What's It Really All About, Then, When You Get Right Down To It, I Mean Really!".
I have been told repeatedly that the British are not a particularly religious people. I have my doubts. The search for meaning in life is a serious business that does not only happen in churches. It causes people to attend regular gatherings of friends and strangers in buildings of ancient reputation (ah, the pubs and chapels of Oxford – why do I associate C. S. Lewis with the Eagle and Child pub rather than the university church of St Mary?). Therein both the conservatively garbed and the unusually costumed consume ritual beverages, sing songs, and then, if all goes well, depart on a spiritual high, prepared to face the world once more. Religion can make men do strange things, including dressing up in robes, and even miniskirts.
When visiting foreign parts, be prepared to make allowances for the odd customs of the natives. I wished my housemate well and advised him to be careful walking the streets. Some day, I will go down to the pub with him for a game of pool. One day, I may even invite him to church. Who knows? He just might fit in.
Scholar content 29th November 2004
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