Monday, February 20, 2012

Notes from a Canterbury Pilgrimage

Between 19 January and 1 February I was in England. The primary purpose of the trip was to attend a program for new(er) bishops from around the Anglican Communion that is offered by Canterbury Cathedral. I also spent a little time on my own in London, and visited clergy friends in the Oxford and Salisbury dioceses. The day-to-day experiences of the trip are chronicled on my diary blog, so I won't try to reproduce that here. This will be more by way of random buckshot observations about life in the U.K. as I experienced it, both in general and from the perspective of an Anglican Christian.

England Wasted on the English

An American friend of mine living in England observed that "England is wasted on the English." People who live in a country where they might find Roman coins while digging in their garden are apt to not even give that possibility a second thought, but be consumed with anxiety over the next episode of their favorite reality TV series. (In America, by contrast, there are groups devoted to the preservation of mid-twentieth century architecture.) This photo is taken in the chancel of the parish church of St Nicholas in the village of Tackley in Oxfordshire. The church has stonework dating back to Saxon times, but most of it is Norman. What we're looking at is the grave of one of the previous vicars of the parish (my American friend Mark Clavier being the present incumbent). Nobody knows his name or when he served. But there he lies, nonetheless, a constant reminder to his scores of successors of their own mortality. It kind of makes me wish I could keep Ash Wednesday in that church.

In the nearby village of North Steeple (also looked after by Fr Clavier), some medieval artwork, dating from the time it was a monastic foundation, was recently rediscovered in the parish church, and is in the process of being restored. It's amazing that such things as these are lying around a country church.

Antiquity itself seems to confer a sort of "right of eminent domain." The Puritans, both in the 16th and 17th centuries, defaced countless images (often by whacking the heads off), and smashed a tremendous amount of stained glass. Some of this has been restored or replaced (usually by the Victorians, and usually quite well, IMO), but most of it hasn't. The act of destruction has been neither completed nor erased. If vandalism (or just normal wear and fading, such as the wall painting in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, which, in its day, was stunning and bright) were to occur today, it would be immediately repaired. But if vandalism or wear occurred centuries ago, it seems to enjoy a certain protected status. I can't see a consistent pattern for what gets fixed and what doesn't. At some times, the guardians of these historic places seem quite comfortable with their being organic, living entities, and install things like glass doors, contemporary art, and very modern-looking light fixtures and chairs. At other times, they act like museum curators, and leave a statue headless because the act of desecration itself is deemed "historic." I honestly don't get it. Still, I am able to find some of it amusing, such as these graffiti on a column in the nave at Canterbury.

Right Out of Central Casting
A lifetime of watching movies and TV shows by and about England and its people leads to certain stereotypes, both explicit and subliminal. Middle-aged and older people, especially in rural areas, are most apt to confirm these stereotypes. Case in point: A man who dons a necktie (you can't see it here, but he was wearing one) to do manual labor or otherwise traipse around in the outdoors is probably not an American. This gentleman is a churchwarden at North Steeple happened to be walking his dogs (which are themselves sort of a stereotype), which was a good thing, because the church was locked owing to the restoration work going on, so he was able to let us in.

This lovely extroverted lady in her winter tweeds is a member of the regular worshiping community at Canterbury Cathedral (cathedrals in England are generally not parish churches, though they effectively function as extra-territorial parishes) who showed up at the study centre looking for a particular bishop. I didn't catch her name, but I do recall that she is 83 years old and her bicycle's name is Gertie. She was very gracious to allow me to take her picture.

Of course, village churches that date back to medieval times are themselves stereotypes. The four that I saw (Tackley, Steeple Aston, North Steeple in Oxfordshire and Hilmarton in the Salisbury Diocese) are very high on exterior postcard appeal and rather low on interior functionality. There are so many structural idiosyncrasies, and liturgical sensibilities have changed so much since the Middle Ages, that actually worshiping in most of these buildings is a challenge.

On the other hand, I was delighted to discover how seriously they take church bells. When I arrived at St Lawrence's in Hilmarton, accompanying Bishop Graham Kings to a special service honoring the original edition King James Bible that they discovered tucked away in a cupboard, there was a dedicated group of bell ringers producing a wonderful peal for several minutes. I even recorded a nice video of this activity, but don't seem able to put it into a form in which this blogging software's server will load it. Sorry.


This is a city that I absolutely love. Upon retirement, if my health and finances were to permit me to live there for a year or two, I would be elated. For an aficionado (such as myself) of urban rail transit, it doesn't get any better than the London Underground (aka "tube") system, with its ubiquitous logo, and the unfailing admonition to "mind the gap." In some parts of the city (especially along the north bank of the Thames west toward Westminster, and including the theatre district), Underground stations are so plentiful that I found myself rather unconcerned with being able to mentally retrace my route as I meandered around (an impossible task anyway, even for someone with as finely-tuned inner an compass as my own!), since there would always soon be a tube stop at which I could reorient myself and quickly be on my way toward wherever I wanted to go next.

When I was last in London, in 2005, the Edgware Road corridor (shown above looking north from my hotel window) was already quite Middle Eastern in flavor. In the intervening seven years, that character has only gotten more pronounced. A significant percentage of women wore some form of Muslim attire, ranging from a simple head scarf to full body and face concealment. Restaurants and stores with signs and menus in Arabic abound, and men are seated at sidewalk tables smoking hookas (I was there just before the weather turned foul).

Speaking of smoking, however, the most welcome change since 2005 has been the cessation of smoking in indoor public places. So pubs and other restaurants and bars are now much friendlier environments. Sidewalks, however ... not so much. Those who are addicted to nicotine simply just stand outside the doors of said establishments to take care of their needs. On balance, though, it's a huge improvement.

Part of the fun, of course, lies in noticing how Brits and Americans are, as Churchill observed, two peoples divided by a common language. It's not that we say different things, or in ways that the other group cannot understand; we just say the same things differently. I get it that this trash can is not for recyclables. But I would not think of putting it that way. When I got some cash out of an ATM ("cash machine" in local parlance), I was asked whether I required an "advice slip." What no doubt strikes a native as a matter-of-fact inquiry strikes me as polite to the point of endearing quaintness. Why is that? Here's another one (slightly blurry, but readable) at a railway station in Oxford.

Also since my last visit, there seems to have been a large in-migration from eastern Europe, and most of the young women from that migration seem to have landed in the hotel industry. Way too broad a generalization, I realize, but that's how it felt.

Benedictine monasticism was a huge component in English culture, both civil and religious, for the better part of a millennium. Under Henry VIII, of course, the monasteries were dissolved. Nonetheless, even as the remains of abbeys continued to dot the physical landscape, artifacts of the Benedictine ethos were absorbed and given new context in the reconfiguration of the English Church. The services of Morning and Evening Prayer were no doubt intended by Archbishop Cranmer to make the essence of the Benedictine tradition of daily prayer accessible to the ordinary faithful, and they indeed did so. Yet, folk art will inexorably find a way to incarnate itself as fine art. Anglican Choral Evensong is the fruit of that process. It is a refined form of worship that some find decadent and elitist. If it is the only way one worships corporately, that charge might have some merit. I prefer to think of it as an elegant dessert that caps off a well-balanced meal of Eucharist, life in Christian community, and private prayer. And, in the tradition of "life is short; eat dessert first," there is some anecdotal evidence that Choral Evensong is itself a vehicle on which some hitch a ride in the direction of that fuller diet. Suffice it to say, however, that I ate a lot of "dessert" while on the Mother Ship--nine Evensongs in five locations (Canterbury, St Paul's, and Southward Cathedrals, and All Saints Church, Margaret Street). It is an expensive and labor-intensive endeavor, so I am all the more impressed that the cathedrals (even the smaller ones, if Southwark is indicative) seem to take it as an obligatory part of their ministry to offer this service five to seven times a week. Impressed ... and grateful. Even this feline Canon of Southwark (Canon Mousecatcher?) is eager for it to begin.

On Being the Church of England

I went to England as an Anglican Christian, as a member of a church (indeed, a bishop in a church) that is in every way a child (a rebellious child, at times!) of the Church of England. Not unexpectedly, then, there was a deep sense of still being "at home," of being with "my own people." Indeed, at some levels, there was a sense of being at home and among my own more intensely than when I'm actually at home and among my own.

Still, there are vast differences. Size, both geographic and numeric, is one. I've been told that the Diocese of Springfield is roughly the same number of square miles as the whole of Ireland. Yet, we only have 36 worshiping communities, and barely 20 full-time clergy positions. In England, this is hardly enough to make up a decent-size deanery. There are over 800 parishes in the Diocese of Oxford. The Bishop of Sherborne, who is a suffragan of Salisbury, told me he oversees more than 200 parishes.

But there is not only absolute size, there is relative size ... and not only size, but influence. The Church of England, of course, is established. This means that parish boundaries have not only ecclesiastical significance, but civil significance as well. Everybody who lives in a parish has a legal right to the services of the parish clergy for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, regardless of whether they are active in church life in any other way. Clergy are civil servants, functionaries of the realm. There is a good chance that the local public school (in the American sense of "public") is church-affiliated, with the local Vicar serving ex oficio as a member of the governing board, and in charge of overseeing the mandatory religious instruction component in the curriculum. In many villages, the Anglican church is the only church in town, and if there's another, it's likely to be Methodist. Outside of cities, Roman Catholicism is largely invisible, and even in urban areas, you have to hunt for their churches, whereas you can barely throw a stone without hitting a Church of England building. The smorgasbord of church brand names that is so taken for granted in America is just not to be found.

Sounds pretty wonderful, right?


In fact, Christianity in Britain is in a much weaker position than it is in the U.S. The general tenor of society is substantially more secular, and the level of vocal opposition to religion of any sort is much louder. It is considered unseemly to mention God in political discourse. The religious instruction component in the schools is not instruction in religion, but instruction about religion. Church attendance as a percentage of population is markedly lower than among Americans.

So why does an Episcopalian feel like he's in a world where "my people" are dominant while traveling in England? I think I figured it out. In England, members of the established church enjoy a very large piece (a decided majority) of a very small pie, along with the institutional detritus from an era when the pie itself was much larger. In America, the pie is considerably bigger (though increasingly shrinking), but Anglicans (whether Episcopalians or the various other iterations) have to share it with many, many others--and, in fact, can barely lay claim to a crumb. So we feel ever more invisible. These are two very different worlds, but the challenge is the same: being a mission-driven (by which I mean evangelistic) church in a secular society. Neither of us knows how to do that very well yet. We need to learn fast.