One of the unique parts of American Mormonism seems to be the penchant for pageants. Although I have never previously attended a pageant I have seen pictures and they seem like strange affairs, like LSD-soaked Roadshows with a glossy sheen of sentimentality. Geography (I am from the UK) is not the only reason I have never been to a pageant, it would very likely not be something I would enjoy. Recently, members of the Church in the UK – after obtaining approval from the First Presidency no less – announced that in 2013 the UK will have their first pageant. I am not convinced this will be a good thing.
There are three reasons for my lack of enthusiasm. First, pageants tend to be superficial and emphasise spectacle over substance. Second, I suspect that the British public will find this weird. Third, it continues to foster a form of religious capital which is accrued through a desire to emulate American Mormonism.
Pageants by their nature reduce or simplifying the stories of pioneers or Book of Mormon prophets to trite platitudes or moralistic stories. No doubt these are well-intentioned efforts to ‘share the gospel’ but I think that parading our faith in this matter does little to demonstrate the beauty and depth of our theology nor the faith of those who have sustained us as a church.
A UK pageant will likely draw on a variety of anglocentric narratives that have special relevance to British Mormon saints. I am sure that many members of the church will find this inspiring but these stories will not speak to those who are not of our faith. Recounting the early years of the church in Great Britain is not, and will not ever be, like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Nor is it like, to look at the other side of the theatrical coin, The Book of Mormon musical which is currently sold-out in London. Those non-Mormons who do attend (and I imagine they will be few and far between) are unlikely to resonate with these stories nor understand why they are important because they will merely see deluded, poverty-ridden Northerners seeking a new life in a new world where we see faith-filled sacrifice. The reality is that both of these narratives are important but I suspect that the pageant will not be able to accommodate or facilitate that nuance. More than this, efforts to recreate and perform these stories will strike attendees as odd – the British do not seem to have the same penchant for kitsch and hammy theatrics. In short, the pageant will not increase good will toward the church.
All of this would be fine, of course, if it were not an effort to raise the profile of the church in the wake of the Mormon moment. In fact, it is difficult not to see the pageant as a response to the Book of Mormon musical coming to London. However, assuming that this pageant is primarily an opportunity for local members to rejuvenate their faith through a re-telling of our sacred narratives, then surely this is a good thing.
I suspect not; and this leads to my third point. A British pageant would inevitably draw on a form of religious capital that is tied to the cultural imperialism of American Mormonism. Religious capital is a term which refers to the accrual of status or position in a religious context. Over the last few years, American Mormonism has begun to offer the UK (and, I assume, other places around the world) their cultural exports. First, EFY and now Pageants. British Mormons have been all too willing to jump on the bandwagon and promote the virtues of American Mormonism and thus implicitly these values become a standard worthy of emulation.
By seeking to import pageants to the UK we are inadvertently undermining our own claims to a British Mormon culture. Increasing ethnic diversity in British Mormonism highlights the importance of developing forms of cultural expression which are able to give voice to the eclectic mix of languages and heritages which is our local experience. Inserting white, British Mormon history into this imported format will seek to reinforce cultural codes that are quite alien to both new converts and long-standing members.
Pageants have a high likelihood of being superficial, they are unlikely to resonate with those living in Britain, and they do not represent the cultural forms of local people. If we must develop UK-wide cultural events, then lets use the creativity and intellect of the council who are currently organising this pageant (and others who are not listed but who I am sure would love to help) to develop new ideas about how we can celebrate our Mormonism in ways which values our rapidly changing communities.