People are so mean about Didcot. Which is unfair, because Didcot is the only Oxfordshire town for miles that doesn’t have its view ruined by Didcot. That makes it a pretty desirable place to live, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s the centre of the British Baptist universe (sort of – and good luck getting any Baptist to think in such conformist terms). What more could any rational human being want?
I live in Didcot and I want to tell you why its recent coronation as “most normal place in Britain” is fair, significant for the Church, and not as bad as it sounds. And why, despite the sniffiness and embarrassment that has accompanied the news of Didcot’s normalness, not even the most average Didcotians should care.
The first thing we should keep in mind about the earth-shattering news that Didcot represents some kind of average of British experience is that the term ‘normal’ means nothing. I don’t say this as an ageing Goth who never grew out of black clothes and scary music despite his mother’s predictions (I am still waiting for that black wall paint for my room, Mum!) or as a Christian who will occasionally find himself out of kilter with society’s ideology and philosophical fashions. I say it as a Didcotter. A Didcotian. A proud Dicotteer. And as such, my words should carry the entire weight of a power station or parkway (whatever the heck that is). No one person is normal. It sounds obvious but it’s important for the Church to remember.
In Didcot I have many times strolled past a trans woman in a wig and very pretty dress on the high street. I’ve bought food from the Afro-Caribbean shop/hairdresser’s and been served by lovely and incredibly hard working eastern European immigrants in coffee shops. I’ve encountered homophobia, racism, anarchism, faith and profound tolerance. I’ve almost been run over by several different characters on uniquely souped-up mobility scooters and had barmen enquire for months after my cancer treatment, about how I am.
I’ve watched the community reel after a murder and building collapse and I’ve listened to the chaotic, beautiful singing in a non-chain pub of special-needs karaoke – performed by people with a range of abilities and disabilities. I myself am an ardent socialist evangelical South African / British former Alternative DJ working for a mission agency and writing silly things like this on the side. Last week I drank beer in a Didcot pub with several Christian millennials, a man who takes things out of lorries and the editor of an extreme sports mag. Which one of us is normal in that scenario? And isn’t the impossibility of answering that question beautiful in itself?
My point is this: ‘normal’ is at best a statistical mid-point, an aggregate of a whole bunch of stuff that at least half of us will find daft, dangerous or dumb. When the Church aims to seem more ‘normal’ to outsiders, it’s sometimes wise and sometimes painful, but mostly it’s just missing the point that no one way of doing things is normal. There is transcendent truth, obviously. And it’s the least normal part of what we do.
This is why I think it’s cute that Didcot is where the main headquarters of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and BMS World Mission (formerly the Baptist Missionary Society) are housed. Baptists have a heritage and tradition of non-hierarchical ways of doing things, without needing to conform to too many norms (apart from the core of Christianity).
We’re all about freedom of conscience and freedom or religion, even to the point of having a tradition of defending the rights of people we disagree with to practice their faith. We like believers and church communities to relate to Christ in the way that feels normal to them. We have a strong evangelical stream in our identity and a strong liberal stream, and both are important. Personally, I like these things. They are why I consider myself a Baptist in an age when denominationalism is becoming less and less normal.
But forget normal. Forget conforming to other people’s expectations of how we should be. Forget a view where we have to live up (or down) to labels, and forget the other view, that says we should religiously avoid them, too. Denominations may not be cool, or normal to care about these days but I say: become a Baptist . Move to Didcot. (Or, you know, don’t.) But forget normal. There are more important things to worry about. Like how to avoid being killed by a mobility scooter. And what a parkway is.