International Series: England

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Jessica F.  She is currently a Masters student in the study of religion at Kings College. Her research centers on the intersection of technology and religion. She graduated from BYU in 2003 with a BS in Marriage, Family, and Human Development. She and her husband Tom have four daughters ages 6-11 years old.

 

England_Jessica_1

I feel slightly self- conscious writing this blog post since I have only lived in the UK for the last 2 years, but I love to over-analyze everything sociological so here are my thoughts. I should also mention that I study religion so a lot of the people I interact with are probably atypical, and for the most part seem fascinated by mormonism. I have been asked “so you are a real Mormon, like a real one?” I think it is particularly interesting to people given the popularity of the Book of Mormon musical in London. Most people here tend to not discuss religion; even without a separation of church and state there is very little discussion of religion (ironically unlike the US, which is actually when I talk about religion the most: when English people like to comment on this irony). The UK education system also includes general religious studies across multiple years, so most people are at least familiar with various world religions, much more than those in the US, so when religion does come, good intelligent conversation normally arises.

Before moving to England, I lived in Utah for 12 years and I have found being a member much easier here than in the Utah. I think however a lot of the conflict and cognitive dissonance of being a member comes during adolescence, and early adulthood. I thankfully am done with that period of my life, and my kids are still young enough that it has not been a direct issue, but the stories of ward members definitely reflect the tension that comes especially from trying to socialize in a drinking culture. The Mormon population is small in the UK, but larger than other European countries. I have heard the UK referred to as “the Utah of Europe.” Which theoretically does provide more possible cohort friendships, but most members tend to be the only Mormon in their school.

Compared to the US, the church is apolitical: we just do not discuss politics. We did not discuss when the UK legalized gay marriage and we did not discuss Mitt Romney and Obama. Every once and a while someone from the US will be in the ward and say something and it’s very awkward while we try to ignore it and move on. I have to say the absence of political discussion is lovely, but makes American church leader’s political statements in general conference all the more confusing and feels increasingly disconnected from my lived church experience. It is much easier here to be in favor of gun control, income redistribution, health care, birth control, and many other taboo subjects in the US.

I think the most harmful church policies revolve around the lack of understanding of the educational system in the UK, which is radically different than the US. I think the lowering of the mission age back to 18 was a great policy shift for the young men, but needs to be the same for the young women. Unlike the US, where mission deferral is possible even at non-church schools, it is almost impossible in the UK, or at least highly risky. The education system is based heavily on cohorts and social networking, and exams. While some students take a ‘gap year’ the length of a mission seems to me at least a difficult obstacle to overcome especially at competitive universities. I think that LDS Church leaders would do well to really understand how the differences in the education system impact the future success of church members, and examine the underlying biases in policy making.

The church could also support members by understanding the transportation situations that impact various areas. For example, in Cambridge, students are generally not permitted to have cars (for obvious issues once you have seen the city center). But the church building is rather far out of town and not near the majority of student housing, making travel costly and time consuming, especially for those on limited incomes. Even if one has a car, gasoline is so expensive that attending stake meetings or functions is often cost-prohibitive.

I think this is a common issue, but the church could take the time to make church materials less American-centric, maybe even use British spellings, or cultural references. It is difficult to teach many Sunday School lessons because they are very American. For example, maybe English people are not that into the 4th of July, or the divine design of the American Constitution. Or we could incorporate many of the beautiful English hymns into our hymn books.

I will end on women’s issues in the church in England. I will start by staying sexism is alive and well in the UK, but it looks different than the sexism I have experienced in the US, I will not go into too much detail. One major issue that I have seen stems from the traditional single sex education system in the UK, for example my kids’ school did not go co-ed until the mid 1990s, so many male leaders were educated with only men. The combination of educational sex segregation and the cultural ‘old boys club’ (they are literally clubs here) and the intersection with LDS gender policies does not make room for a lot of progress.

I have enjoyed living as a member in the UK. I think as a whole the LDS Church needs to put forth a lot of effort to understand cultural variations, and allow for more freedom for local traditions and culture. Of all the foreign countries England has a lot of overlap to the US, but it is not the same culture at all, I think that needs to fundamentally acknowledged on multiple levels.

England_Jessica_F

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9 Responses

  1. Hedgehog says:

    Great post!

    “I have heard the UK referred to as “the Utah of Europe.””
    Not an idea I’ve heard expressed, but it might my make sense of this, if that’s the view from Utah: you may be aware of differences, since I’ve never been to Utah, and you’ll have see/’heard what leaders say/do there, but my impression has ever been that visiting GA’s from Utah seem to expect that we are exactly like them. Er no… we aren’t. So a hearty yes to your:
    “Of all the foreign countries England has a lot of overlap to the US, *but it is not the same culture at all*, I think that needs to fundamentally acknowledged on multiple levels.” (my emphasis)

    “makes American church leader’s political statements in general conference all the more confusing and feels increasingly disconnected from my lived church experience”
    Often they are not recognised as political statements at all, so we’re left with statements and teachings wholly out of the US context, which many then try to use to inform life here. It’s only since I’ve been reading and participating in blogs and been more aware of the religious environment in the US (especially wrt the religious right) that I’ve been able to see these things in context. And have since gone back and researched the context, such as the ERA debacle, of much earlier talks and Ensign articles. Those talks and articles had a huge influence on the way women here thought of their roles and responsibilities totally out of context, without the balance of the opposing view points.

    “lack of understanding of the educational system in the UK”
    Yes. Back when my brother served a mission, British males were permitted to leave at 18, to accommodate this, but it was later decided policy should be uniform globally, and was put up to 19 (making a 3 year deferral between finishing A level and beginning University, which is huge – since as you say a “gap year” is not unusual, and the application process accommodates it, 2 years requires reapplying whilst on a mission, but works best if you already applied beforehand and told them at interview you would be taking 2 years out and reapplying, so they remember you, and don’t need to interview you again, and you are being interviewed with your cohort. But 3 years was bad!) The change back to 18 came earlier here than the big announcement, but the massive increase in applications with the big announcement caused problems because start dates kept being put back until it was going to be too late for the missionary to begin the university term by the time the mission was over, there being only a brief 3 month window in which they were reasonably able to leave, and was now being missed. Girls waiting until 19, will probably not then attend university. It’s more likely they’ll go on to university and continuing serving at 21 once undergrad is finished, imo. I don’t know of any girl who has left at 19 from my stake.

    “by understanding the transportation situations”
    Yes. Fuel is really expensive. Many members do not have transport. And the geographical arrangements of wards and stakes seem to be based solely on the number of MP Priesthood holders, and no reference to travel distances involved (boundaries can be very strange shapes) looking at where buildings are located, and how far leaders will have to travel to minister to those in their care.

    “we could incorporate many of the beautiful English hymns into our hymn books”
    My dream!

    The prevalence of single sex education varies quite markedly across the country. Where I grew up all single sex schools had amalgamated to become coed by the time I was 12 (1981), so I only experienced one year of single sex education. However when my husband and I were living in Kent only a decade ago, single sex secondary schools (11-18) were the norm, and I assume still are. But yes, my parents generation would all have experienced single sex education from age 11. So it’s a good point, and one that had never occurred to me.

  2. Jenny says:

    Great thoughts! I never considered before how the rigid eighteen-month, two-year mission would be a challenge for members in other countries, and how it wouldn’t fit into their gap year. Being more flexible on that is such a little thing that the church could do to enhance missionary work, but it requires thinking outside the Utah box and listening to people from other cultures. That’s what we need to do if we really want to be a global church.

  3. Emily U says:

    That’s such a good point about recognizing different education systems. Is it common for members in the UK to serve missions, given the challenges with attending/returning to university? Also a great point about the mission age for women – when the change was first announced people seemed so pleased they reduced the age to 19 for women, which does make a difference, but I was frustrated the age wasn’t the same for women and men. It seems patronizing to me.

    I lived in England for 3 years when I was 8-11 years old, and my family loved it there. I didn’t experience the education system in the higher grades, but even in elementary school (or primary school) there were many differences compared with my American schools.

    And I would *love* for the Church to include beautiful English hymns in UK hymnal – I always thought it was weird the members there had to use a hymnal that includes the Star Spangled Banner. Hopefully those lovely Anglican hymns could make it into the hymnal the American church uses, too.

  4. spunky says:

    Thanks for this great addition to the series, Jessica!

    I agree 100% on the education system. It made me wonder– when president Monson announced the change in missionary age, he said that some 18 year olds had already been able to serve in some countries. I always presumed that places that had compulsory military service had different missionary age rules, but many of the same issues apply in Australia and New Zealand (and I presume most Commonwealth countries) because the education is based on the English rote system. In Australia, one can “finish” high school at age 16, ad start University immediately– while I don’t envision 16 year olds serving missions, it would be nice if the stigma were removed so students could finish their degree before starting a mission.

    I always thought there was a strong UK connection to the church because there was such a concentrated effort with the first missions of the church to gain UK converts. I also agree that church materials, though now seem to have more of a Spanish-language flair (when I was a kid, it was all the Polynesian flair– I don’t know how many ward Luaus I went to as a kid, but it was common…) , are still lacking in international stories, experiences and applications.

  5. Liz says:

    I wonder if it would benefit youth in the UK (and elsewhere) to have another option of “missionary” service – like what if youth were encouraged to use their gap year to do humanitarian work, either through the church or through another organization? Or what if it was acceptable to join the Peace Corps post-university instead of serving a traditional proselytizing mission? Your post makes me wonder whether expanding the word “mission” would be of benefit to the church worldwide.

    Thank you! This is fantastic!

  6. Em says:

    I appreciate some of these thoughts especially because they never occurred to me, and help me to see my own America-centric view. For example the different spelling — it wouldn’t be that hard to make a different manual, especially since much of the English speaking world uses the UK spelling, not the American. I think this is also something of a problem of having the Presidents of the Church be our RS manuals. I think it is problematic for other reasons too, but without question it means that American experiences will be privileged.

    I would like to sing more English hymns. Some of the ones we have are very much of English extraction, though often with words changed “Guide us O thou great Jehovah” vs. “Guide us O thou great redeemer.” I’m often surprised when watching BBC programs how often I recognize Anglican hymns. But we could learn more!

    I think the patriotic hymns should either be removed from the hymnal, or there should be parity with all countries using the book — instead of three American and one English. Technically God Save the Queen is the last one there, but for reasons that are unknown they went with God Save the King — a song that makes no sense unless you’re willfully ignoring the longest reign of a monarch in history. The King can’t be referring to Christ, because it doesn’t make sense, and it sure isn’t referring to the Queen. So it is just pointlessly sexist? I’m not sure. By why aren’t O Canada or Advance Australia Fair or any of the others in there?

  7. Hedgehog says:

    To respond to some of the comments regarding missions and the education system.
    One issue is that the education system requires our youth to begin to narrow their field of study first at age 14, and narrow it further at age 16. For many of the boys in this country, a mission can loom so large, they just can’t think beyond it, and what they might want to be doing with their lives afterwards. The mission is so huge a goal that it becomes the coin in front of the eye mentioned in an earlier post in the series. This can lead to poor choices about which subjects to study, and can be seen in a lethargy about study at all, giving rise to poor results. Many of them seem to have to get a mission out of the way, before they can begin to think about what they want to do with their lives, which is too late for earlier educational choices, and has a huge impact on which universities will take them (typically not the best universities) once they have made up their minds later. Those affected this way are unlikely to have attended university open days, submitted initial applications for courses in order to be interviewed ahead of a mission, and are thus poorly placed to apply whilst serving.
    Also it should be born in mind the percentage of young people in the country attending university now is much greater than it was back in the late 80s, when I first attended, and competition for places is high. Unless a youth has parents who themselves attended university, which is not so common – most converts are/were not university graduates, and in my parents generation many members (though thankfully not all) were not in favour of their member children attending university (they themselves not having had the opportunity or experience) for fear it would lead to them to leave the church – their parents do not always realise the consequences of the subject choices at 14 and 16 on the options available when it comes to university applications. A good school can help address that issue, but the schools typically don’t know how to deal with the mission issue.
    Some do manage to attend top institutions, either serving a mission before or after. Most often they will be the ones whose parents view university education as important, and hence understand the importance of subject choice, they are the ones who have a clear idea of the subjects that interest them at an early age, or who show particular aptitude for a particular subject, or whose families are better off financially. Some attend university first, serve a mission and then return to university for a masters degree afterwards. However, the cost of university education has increased enormously over the last few years. And either way, whilst serving a mission, the missionary will need to complete application forms both for a place, and for loans/funding, yet will be unavailable for interview.
    Fixing this kind of thing after returning from a mission can take at least a year, so that they can finish up 3 or 4 years behind their peers educationally. Still, where there is family support for the returned missionary to attend university, many manage to straighten themselves out and attend following a mission.
    Finally, I don’t think the record shows that more YM who attend university but who don’t serve a mission is any greater than the percentage who both don’t serve a mission and don’t attend university. Both a mission and attending university are aspirational goals, and faithful families raise their sons with the mission aspiration. Faithful families with academic aspirations don’t differ in this regard, in my experience. But it is a lot more complicated to achieve. I don’t know if the feeling is any different in the Jessica’s Cambridge Ward though, I would imagine a greater proportion of academic aspirations in that ward, than those I’ve generally attended.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for this post, Jessica! I appreciated hearing about the apolitical aspect of your ward. I wonder if this is common in areas that aren’t heavily populated with Mormons. When it’s harder to find people who share one’s religious beliefs, perhaps the political ones just don’t matter in a religious setting?

  1. September 5, 2014

    […] I feel slightly self- conscious writing this blog post since I have only lived in the UK for the last 2 years, but I love to over-analyze everything sociological so here are my thoughts. I should also mention that I study religion so a lot of the people I interact with are probably atypical, and for the most part seem fascinated by mormonism. I have been asked “so you are a real Mormon, like a real one?” I think it is particularly interesting to people given the popularity of the Book of Mormon musical in …read more […]

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