Grace Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, particularly in the UK and Europe following her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October.
In this interview (with me… yes, you heard it, me), Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I have not had time to write about my thoughts concerning David Cameron’s recent comments that Britain is a Christian nation. If you know me, you know I disagree. My colleague David re-blogged a very interesting post by Tom Rees (first published on Epiphenom)… and I shall now do him the same privilege.
It is called Who thinks Britain should be a Christian country? and contains the brilliant conclusion that:
by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency
I have also read another (American) article today on the growing constituency of those who just don’t care about religion, God, “spirituality” or whatever. Originally published in USA Today, you can access it here on the Huffington Post website. Although I am clearly interested in the social dimensions of religion/nonreligion, and plan to devote my life to studying these, I also couldn’t give a damn about the truth of anyone’s claims… I just don’t see how it is relevant to my life. The arguments of New Atheists or the advocates of various faith positions or spiritualities ultimately have a very hard time penetrating this wall of indifference… and generally the harder people try, the less likely the wall is going to disappear.
This post is pretty behind the times, but I am going to write it anyway. I have just read an article on the Church of England website about Bishops in the House of Lords, and it provoked a couple of points to spew from my fingertips. You can read the full article here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2011/11/archbishops-question-case-for-elected-house-of-lords.aspx
The first of my comments concerns the following extract:
In their submission the Archbishops express concern that the Government’s proposals do not address the question of what the powers and functions of a reformed Lords should be, focusing instead on questions of composition and election. A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords would, they argue, be more inclined to challenge the decisions of MPs and weaken the conventions that currently guarantee the primacy of the House of Commons. Conflict and gridlock between Houses would, they argue, lead to a decline in the reputation and public trust in Parliament as a whole: “We are concerned that the proposals in the Draft Bill may, by leading inevitably to a more assertive approach to conflict and disagreement with the Commons, make it harder for the institution as a whole to sustain the trust and confidence of the electorate.”
It’s lovely to see the bishops caring so much for the power of the House of Commons. One can’t help but wonder why they don’t advocate disbanding the House of Lords all together?
I think they miss a crucial point here. An elected House of Lords would not have to be made up with party-political candidates… the electorate would not even necessarily have to be the public. I think the key argument for an elected House of Lords is that being a peer does not guarantee lifetime membership. The specifics are something else entirely.
An idea I have just had, so feel free to knock it, would be that members of the Lords could be ‘banned’ from having an affiliation with any political party – much in the way that civil servants (as far as I understand it) are. If people elected to the Lords were individuals who had not affiliation to a political party (and perhaps hadn’t ever had such an affiliation) this would in some way avoid political squabbles etc. It might even be possible to introduce a three-year peerage as part of the New Year’s honours or something… Just a un-thought-through plan… let me know what you think!
Onto my second extract:
Whilst welcoming the Draft Bill’s proposals to provide continued places for bishops of the established Church in a partly appointed House, the Archbishops ask that the appointments process also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths.
The Draft Bill and White Paper proposes a House of Lords of 300 members, with either 80% or 100% elected by proportional representation. If the reformed House were to retain an appointed element, there would be places for Church of England bishops, though reduced to 12 from their current 26. Bishops would not be allowed to remain in a 100% elected House under the Government’s plans.
The Archbishops welcome the proposals in the Draft Bill to continue with places for the Lords Spiritual, and that they should continue to be diocesan bishops of the Church of England: “If, as successive governments have accepted, there is a continuing benefit to this country in having an established Church, the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is one of the most important manifestations of that special relationship between Church and State.”
They also say: “We believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church.”
This is rather a long quotation for the short comment that I am going to make, but here we go:
- Ultimately, who would make the decision about which groups constituted other faiths, and which were just random groups. And would this decision be based upon number of supposed adherents, length of time in the UK, or what? And would the number of adherents be based upon the people who actually turn up to meetings, the official figures, provided by the groups themselves, or by the vast inflation that comes from asking people the question “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” (Scottish 2011 Census)?
- And the very fact that many people feel that there should be religious representation in politics raises many questions about why it is so common to invest religion with this special significance? If the idea is that thousands of people trust these leaders to do a good job and make moral decisions, then why is the argument not made that this should be extended to people who hold positions of trust in companies, charities, sports etc? And if the idea is that religious leaders are in some way fundamentally better at making moral decisions then… I don’t even need to start on all the objections to that!
My apologies for the uncharacteristic political rant.
I have just been alerted to this report on a conference I attended last month. I even make it into the associated picture… fame at last :)
Over 130 people, including academics, members of groups such as the Salvation Army, the Church of Scotland and the Pagan Federation, staff from charities like The Children’s Society and Lokahi Foundation, a representative from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and journalists, gathered to hear about new research and debate the issues.
Thanks to the Religion and Society Programme we’re now learning more about young people and religion in the UK than ever before. As part of a £12 million strategic research programme, two of the British government funded research councils (the Arts and Humanities and Economic and Social Research Councils) invested £4 million in research on youth and religion specifically. This led to the funding of 21 original research projects across UK universities. These are now starting to have findings: we heard from 8 of these on the day. The event was hosted at King’s College London by theologians Pete Ward and Alister McGrath. This is a summary of the presentations and discussion (see the bottom of this page for the conference programme and to download this report).
The main theme which arose from the research was ‘authenticity’, with that of ‘transitions’ also emerging. Young people from a range of religious and class backgrounds, many of whom live with uncertainty and change, seem to be placing a particularly high value on close, trusting relationships. Family remains a strong influence, though parents’, and religious leaders’, religiosity may be questioned – the question is always whether people can be trusted, whether they are ‘authentic’. The inadequacy of a clichéd view of religion as church-like institutional practice for capturing the sheer variety of their experiences was apparent, as were tensions with the secular mainstream. It was clear that we need to be sensitive to young people’s religious identities, really listening to them rather than making assumptions. And in the religiously plural environment of contemporary Britain no one trend can be taken for granted as universal.
Continue reading here.
Having seen a report on this on BBC Breakfast this morning, I had to look up the article and share it with you. According to the BBC:
Universities in England may be permitted to make extra places available for wealthy British students, under government proposals.
They would be charged as much as those from outside the European Union (EU).
Ministers say the proposal would free up publicly subsidised university places for poorer students.
Under the current system, the government sets a quota for the number of places English universities are allowed to offer each year.
From September 2012, universities in England will be allowed to raise tuition fees to up to £9,000 per year.
It marks an increase in the cap from the current level of £3,290.
Universities wanting to charge more than £6,000 will have to undertake measures such as offering bursaries, summer schools and outreach programmes, to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply.
The policy was developed as the government’s response to a review of higher education funding by former BP chief Lord Browne.
Students from outside the EU pay higher fees and are not eligible for any grants or loans.
Under the latest proposals, wealthy students could pay higher fees for an extra place at the university of their choice as long as they meet entry requirements.
The move would enable the most popular universities to expand.
Universities Minister David Willetts said he wanted the government’s forthcoming white paper on university funding to liberalise the system.
BBC Education correspondent Gillian Hargreaves said the proposals “would be controversial”.
“Critics would argue the wealthiest families would be able to buy a place on a degree course,” she said.
This is absolutely disgusting. Universities are supposed to be centres for academic excellence. Whilst I definitely agree with the ‘critics’ cited at the end of this article (that these proposals will lead to the wealthy being able to buy their university degree), I also have another, much more pressing criticism.
Universities aren’t just magically going to be able to take on more students. If student places are being taken up by those who can afford to pay extortionate rates, then the number of places for ‘normal’ and ‘poorer’ people will decrease. Which people do you think universities will prefer to take on? Those who can afford to pay massive amounts’? Or those who they will have to provide bursaries and scholarships for?
I know the government will say that they will set quotas etc and ensure that this doesn’t happen… but since everything they have said so far has turned out to be so misleading – ‘we won’t raise tuition fees’… ‘okay we will, but only for a small minority of universities and courses’… ‘we’ll raise fees across the board. Hey, it’s a difficult economic time’ – this does not seem like such an unlikely scenario after all…
I came across this in my reading last night, and couldn’t resist sharing it – mostly for the benefit of my friend Mieke. However, it does have a serious point… makes us think twice about what words offend us, especially if judging that offence to be justified by the Bible.
‘Swearing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an area in which CSL [Leiden University Christian Union] members tended to be slightly differentiated though not to the same extent as OICCU and AUCU [Oxford and Aberdeen University Christian Unions] members. Differentiation was clear but it was complicated by the fact that the orientation of Dutch swearing is very different from that of English. Male members did not have any difficulty using swearwords that they knew to be sexual and even the female members had no problem using English swearwords (which was common  in Holland) which they knew to be sexual. One female member was amazed when I informed her of just how rude some English people thought that the word ‘fuck’ was. Members commented that they would use these various sexual and bodily Dutch swearwords if they were angry but tried not to. This included terms such as ‘shit’ and ‘klootzak’ (scrotum) and I would suggest that OICCU members in particular tended to reject equivalent English swearwords which were middle-ranking in terms of their perceived offensiveness such as ‘shit’. However, all CSL members did reject the strongest Dutch swearword – Godverdomme (Old Dutch for ‘God damn it’). They argued that this word was ‘insulting’, ‘disrespectful’ and even ‘forbidden by the Bible’. All but two were not even prepared to use its disguised version ‘Godverdikemme’. A non-religious Dutch student – who tried to explain Dutch swearing to me in a bar – found Godverdomme so offensive that he was not prepared to say it and, to the mirth of his friends, insisted on writing it down on a beer mat for me. However, in a sense it is difficult to compare the issue of swearing. As discussed, both OICCU and AUCU members mainly rejected profanity which is generally perceived as mild swearing in England and Scotland. However CSL members were rejecting only the strongest forms of swearing. This could reflect a low level of differentiation but it is made more complex because the reasons for the rejection may be different. On the surface, at least, the level of differentiation with regard to swearing appears to be low. Certainly religious Netherlanders found ‘God damn it’ very offensive. On one occasion I recall saying ‘damn’ in front of two Dutch evangelical Christians because they had neglected to buy any milk to go with the tea for the British evening, not knowing that the British had milk in tea. For comic effect I said, ‘damn’ – the mildest swear-word I could think of in the context of an English-language conversation, in British English at least. They evidently could not believe what they were hearing and one of them just gasped, ‘Excuse me? Can you not say that?!”
From Edward Dutton, 2008. Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of Passage and Student Evangelicals. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 115-116.
Whilst eating my breakfast, I was watching BBC Breakfast News, and picked up on the following story: “Cardinal brands UK aid foreign policy ‘anti-Christian’”
Essentially, Cardinal Keith O’Brien ‘has attacked plans to increase aid to Pakistan to more than £445m, without any commitment to religious freedom for Christians.’
The key points of his argument, as reported by the BBC, are as follows:
Cardinal O’Brien said: “I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid.
“To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.
“Pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan – and the governments of the Arab world as well – to ensure that religious freedom is upheld, the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”
He said the report’s [see article] estimate of persecution against Christians was “intolerable and unacceptable”.
“We ask that the religious freedoms we enjoy to practice our faith, will soon be extended to every part of the world and that the tolerance we show to other faiths in our midst will be reciprocated everywhere,” he added.
Now, I am not suggesting that any form of religious persecution is a good thing… it isn’t… it’s very bad. But, from my limited understanding of the basics of Christian teachings I am pretty baffled by the language utilised by the Cardinal… and the fact that he has made this statement at all.
One of the core teachings of Christianity is not only to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins et al commonly reduce it to – attacking Christianity for having an inward looking love), but is, in fact, to love your enemy. Take some of the following cherry-picked teachings from the New Testament (NIV translation):
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
People may attack me, saying that these are cherry-picked… but they are quite simply summations of universal core teachings of Christianity.
Persecution was seen in the early church as a prime sign of faith, and something to be celebrated:
2 Thessalonians 1:4
4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
Those believers whose faith withers in the face of persecution are castigated in the famous parable of the sower:
20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
I would counter Cardinal O’Brian with the following: it might just be that Britain’s foreign policy is too Christian for your diluted, decadent twenty-first century Western Christianity. I would maintain that the policy of giving aid to countries where Christians are persecuted is a supreme example of the Christian virtue of loving your enemy.
Personally, I wouldn’t be giving aid to a country which actively, systematically persecutes any people… and, personally, I think the government probably shouldn’t either. However, I am cynical, secular, and don’t have much faith in humanity’s ability to change without a bit of a push.
I would have expected a more ‘Christian’ response from a prominent leader of the Catholic church.
Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.
Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]
[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.
[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”
In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.
“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.
“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.
“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”
Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.
“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.
“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””
It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.
Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.
I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.
This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.
I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’
On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.
But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.
Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?
Feel free to send in suggestions :P
Given the strong opinions on this matter, this post may be a little risky. However, following on from my previous post, about tea… I thought it would be great to ask Samuel – the most knowledgeable person that I know, in all matters tea-related – to pen his thoughts on the matter. Being the lovely chap that he is, he happily obliged… and here are his thoughts:
Musings on the Happy Leaf: An Englishman in Edinburgh on all things TEA
It may be a touch of the “stiff upper lip” or my simple philosophy of being pleased with my lot, but I believe it is difficult to make a bad cup of tea, when one has the correct ingredients. In fact, I enjoy drinking tea from those great urns, mainly because there is a copious amount! True it is not good tea per se, but I can always know there will be an equally average cup to follow soon after!
I thought I would always remember my bad cup of tea. By being very wary of various shops propounding to sell tea I’ve managed to keep it to one in the past few years. Though darn it if I can remember where it was. Perhaps at the airport? They gave me the American thing of tea bag, pot of lukewarm water etc… just as many have described in various articles (see the links in the recent “Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and George Orwell on Cups of Tea“). Usually if you are provided with a pot, bag and UHT milk you can go up and “accidentally” spill all the water, pop the bag in and watch as the assistant puts some really boiling water in. I was surprised a few days ago when I went out for a meal and ordered Tea afterwards. We were each given very hot pots and bags, but all of my colleagues proceeded to pop the bag in to the cup and pour on the water. “Daft”, I said to them, as I deposited my bag in the hot pot and enjoyed a glorious cup! In these places where you are given the tea and expected to take your milk in its UHT pot form, then you must always protest and ask for a jug of milk. My father usually resigns to drinking it black on these occasions, but if you ask specifically for a jug then they often manage to find one.
Pots and bags
I think you should always drink tea from the pot. Well, you know, using a pot… Don’t lift your china high and dribble the spout down your top! I also like using large mugs. Make sure they are emblazoned with interesting pictures or vaguely riveting text, more for the enjoyment of your fellow tea drinkers… Or even your colleagues who choose to sin against the tea club and drink coffee in your presence. I disagree with George Orwell who said that:
“The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse”
Black teas, the only ones you should drink according to Orwell, are very suitable for brewing in a silver pot. In fact I believe that Indian or Ceylon teas should be brewed in a silver teapot, it gives a stronger flavour. Green teas (see ‘namby pamby tea’…) are better brewed in china pots as they were originally intended – the metal will impair the delicate flavours in these examples. It’s true that you get better cups by using loose leaf tea rather than bags, but it is very easy to be very lazy. Personally I hate using baskets or muslin bags for this loose tea, – you’ve bought it to be different to the paper bags, then you re-enclose it in a different receptacle! Pointless! Much better to use a tea strainer as you pour from the pot. I do admit, though, that loose leaf tea is of a higher quality so naturally it will make tastier tea than the usual bags even when constrained by a mesh cage.
Starting off, you should always use freshly boiled water. People often re-boil the kettle or top it up. This isn’t the best as the repeated boiling drives off the dissolved oxygen in the water which is an essential component of delicious tea. Pop three teaspoonfuls, (or three bags, if you must!) in a warmed teapot first and then pour in the boiling water second for a normal pot, if you feel you need it a bit stronger, then one or two more should suffice! I agree with Douglas Adams et al. when he states you should warm the pot on the stove; my grandmother always leaves her teapot on top of the water heater in the kitchen, but regrettably I don’t have a suitable warm surface in my kitchen. Ergo I still have to swish my teapot with water…
Pouring the tea.
Always pour into the milk. Anyone who complains that “I want to see exactly how much milk is needed after I’ve put the tea in my cup” or sim. either hasn’t drunk enough tea or is just a bit loopy. If you drink the same cup of tea every day, then all you have to do is realise how much you put in after the tea and just switch the order. I tend to find that most people like about 8-10mm of milk in the bottom of the cup. This is varied slightly on the diameter and depth of the cup, but generally remains about the same. If someone, like Lawrence, especially enjoys milky tea, then simply putting 12-15mm of milk in is usually suitable! I know this rule of ‘milk in cup then follow it with the tea’ is a slightly outdated (and in fact lower class) rule, but I prefer to follow it. I am led to believe that it stems from the days when people with not much money bought poor quality china which would crack with the high temperature of the scalding hot boiling tea, and so putting the milk in first would stop the cheap china cup cracking under the sudden temperature change.
Those upper classes who could afford it would buy more expensive china which was less susceptible to sudden temperature changes – thus they would happily, and unthinkingly, drink it black. Another element that can mar the flavour on occasion is when stirring the cup. When imbibing with those who choose only to partake of the evil bean, some might unconsciously take a used teaspoon from a coffee mug and stir their tea with it. This is a definite no no. I also find that when others use my teacups for coffee this leaves a horrible hint of the bitter coffee flavour in the cup even after washing. If you don’t have such delicate taste buds then these are less important points.
To get good tea for yourself, the easiest thing is to go to a good tea shoppe… there are two excellent examples in Edinburgh. My favourite is the quaint AnTEAques shop on Clerk street. It sells tea and antiques, as you might expect from the name. They have a choice of a perfect plethora of loose leaf teas from Assam pekoe fannings to chocolate mint tea! And have delicious fruit scones for accompaniment. On the other hand, if you want more space (AnTEAques seats about 10 people and has no facilities) then try Tea Tree Tea on Bread street. They have a much larger operation which includes coffee, sandwiches, cakes and a similar selection of fine leaf teas. For china pots and elbow room, go to Tea Tree Tea and for the choice to purchase the delightful bone china tea service you use, go to AnTEAques!
Or indeed make a date to sample tea a la Samuel!
This morning, I had the pleasure of coming across an article on Slate, written by world famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, on “How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea” (inspired, in part by George Orwell’s 1946 “A Nice Cup of Tea“). It was a thoroughly entertaining read, and certainly told me a few things I didn’t know about the idiosyncrasies of the British tea-drinker.
Particularly humourous passages include the following, regarding his disdain for the way tea is served in his now-native United States:
“It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate.”
And his ridicule of the standards set by our (Brits) second favourite hot beverage… the wonderful coffee!
“Until relatively few years ago, practically anything hot and blackish or brackish could be sold in America under the name of coffee. It managed both to be extremely weak and extremely bitter, and it was frequently at boiling point, though it had no call to be. (I use the past tense, though there are many places where this is still true, and it explains why free refills can be offered without compunction.) At least in major cities, consumers now have a better idea how to stick up for themselves, often to an irksome degree, as we know from standing behind people who are too precise about their latte, or whatever it’s called.”
Upon singing the praises of this article, my friend Alex chipped in with “I see your Hitchens and raise you Adams”, and directed me to the following article on Douglas Adams’ love of “A Proper Cup of Tea“. Another entertaining read, filled with a similar disdain for the typical American tea-making ability.
However, whilst these two idols (appropriate choice of words, no?) of mine seem to agree on most points regarding tea-making, there is one major point of contention. Adams writes:
“Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk, then it’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea, you will scald the milk.”
However, Hitchens writes:
“If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour.”
Clearly taking his cue from Orwell, who wrote:
“One should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
What are we to do? What am I to think? My family always put milk in the cup first… I always put the milk in after. But then I am a heathen and make my tea with a teabag in the mug. Oh the dramas which occupy our middle-class lives, eh?
I think in this, as in all other tea related matters, I shall defer to my dear friend and unassailable expert tea-drinker, Samuel. Perhaps I shall invite him to respond to these three literary greats. [UPDATE: In fact, I did… you can read his response here.]
Looking through Orwell’s 11 “outstanding points” on tea, I would emphatically agree with the following:
“Tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”
I don’t think I have EVER had a good cup of tea that has come out of an urn… cafeterias and burger vans take note.
However, I think he is being somewhat harsh when he pens:
“Tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”
Drinking tea with sugar was certainly something that I grew out of a long time ago, though it was only thanks to tea with lashings of sugar at my Grannie’s that allowed me to appreciate tea in the first place. However, sugar in a nice cup of Chai Tea rarely goes amiss… and you can’t beat some Peppermint Tea and Honey… although Orwell wouldn’t have approved: “there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it” – I think I would disagree on the optimism part!