Saturday, January 14, 2006

Homesickness

Quite regularly I find myself overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of near paralysis, by homesickness. This has been part of the pattern of my life almost since we arrived in the United States thirty years ago. Sometimes I can feel it coming on so I can prepare myself for it, on other occasions it creeps up on me unexpectedly pouncing like a cat upon an unsuspecting mouse.

I always thought that as I got older the pangs of homesickness would ameliorate, but if anything the reverse has happened. Certainly, the nature of the longing is somewhat different than it was three decades ago, but it is always there lurking in the background. I try to brush it aside, as one swats of pesky mosquito, but it refuses to disappear so easily.

After my parents had died my brother and daughter were going through Mother's correspondence and found a large collection of letters written by my father from Africa, Sicily and Italy. My parents had been apart since ten days before Dunkirk in 1940, and these missives are the fascinating record of a young married couple trying to hold a relationship together in time of war. Amidst them was one written from outside Naples on July 17, 1944, just three months before Dad went home and barely four months before I was conceived!

I am, at the moment, sitting in a deck chair outside the Mess Tent enjoying the cool of the evening and what a relief it is after the heat of the day. The sun has already disappeared over the hill which lies behind me and as I look in front of me its pink light is lighting up the cone of Vesuvius away in the distance. Its very beautiful but somehow or other I do not feel capable of appreciating it, for, as the days go by my mind runs more and more on memories of the green fields and woods of England for which I pine so much.

He goes on, Four years -- to me such things seem an awful long way away and sometimes I have to think hard before I can visualize scenes which four years ago were everyday things -- the view of the hills behind Englemere, the view over Mentmore from the top of Icknield Way, the view of Aldbury from the top of Toms Hill and countless others that I can think of. Lord how I long to see them all again when at last this exile is finished...

I go back and read these words from time to time, but cannot get through them without a lump forming in the back of my throat and tears coming to my eyes. It is as if history repeats itself because I yearn for precisely the same things that my father did, and did so a great while before I discovered he had written in such a moving way as he plodded up the west coast of Italy with the rest of the British Eighth Army. It is interesting that the same scenery dances before my mind's eye, filling me with nostalogia and a sense of being far, far away from something that is precious.

I have not had to face the physical hardships of war that my father endured, and at least my wife and I are together, but even as I look out of my window across the beautiful rolling fields of Middle Tennessee, part of me wishes with all my heart that I was watching the sun setting over that funny little town, and the countryside surrounding it where both my father and I grew up, and where my brother still lives.

Yet, and here is the twist. The England I left in September 1976 is not the England that exists today. Great changes have taken place, not just physically but also in the British personality. The England for which I dream is part real and part figment of a romantic imagination. I am like so many others as they age, because much of what I really long for has disappeared with the inevitable passage of time.

I would love to return to live in Tring, the place where I grew up, and to be able to stand on any spring, summer, autumn, or winter morning that I wanted and look out from the Icknield Way across the Vale of Aylesbury toward Mentmore, but I probably never will. Although we have done quite well on our real estate over the last twenty years, Rosemary and I can never afford property where land for development sells at close to $2 million an acre! But despise this dose of cold water, I would love to end my days where my life began, and to have my mortal remains lowered into the same chalky soil as my parents, perhaps even in the same village churchyard.

I suspect that there is a close relationship between homesickness and fantasy. Seldom is it rainy or cold in the England of my imagining, and I conveniently forget those long dark dank winter nights that are the counterbalance to the long beautiful summer days. Yet even if there is a close relationship between dreams and homesickness, it has a reality that is beyond dispute.

I am at the moment reading about the emerging church movement, something that may be far more significant than the serpentine machinations of the Episcopal Church, for it is attempting to turn the church into a missionary community effectively addressing the Gospel into this postmodern world. I applaud the younger people who are pioneering this massive task, often marginalized or laughed at by denominational leaders. As I read Eddie Gibbs' and Ryan K. Bolger's Emerging Churches (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2005) I have to accept that these new expressions of the faith in the postmodern world are coming into being at the expense of the church that I love, the one that I grew up in and which nurtured me. This is the church for which I am homesick.

The intensity of this comes home when I am faced each day by the difficulty of a person of my age and background reaching the people in the target area set for my own little congregation. The sort of church that I am, perhaps, capable of bringing into being is not necessarily going to cut ice with a thirtysomething couple newly transplanted fromt the West Coast, and trying to raise kids in Thompson's Station, Tennessee. I was formed and shaped by the modern world that is fast disappearing, that is where all my points of reference are, they are the shock troops for whom postmodernity is the only real culture that they have ever known.

So, our task as Christians is to translate the enduring message of Christ's love into a language and culture that is foreign to the likes of me. This means that there is a great deal about the church which I dearly love that is going to need to be put to the sword, to put it bluntly. While I long for the glories of Tudor liturgy, boy choirs, and the simple dignity of classic Anglicanism, tomorrow's congregations are going to see such things as being about as relevant as the secret rituals of a group of Coptic monks on the high plateau of Ethiopia.

My generation can do one of several things in such a situation. We can, for example, as is the case in most denominations, hold onto leadership and stand in the way of all that a younger generation of Christians brings in terms of richness. In many places we are doing just this. Not only are pastors of (conservative) Boomer-driven megachurches unable to get beyond their own enculturation of the Gospel, but so are most within the leadership of whatever (liberal) denomination you can think of.

One of the fascinating things about the emerging church movement is how much it values the contribution of Anglicanism -- although they can see what we are passing on needs to be radically messed with. Yet we Anglicans don't seem to have found a way to nurture and encourage these sort-of-Canterbury-pilgrims, nor will we really allow ourselves to be enriched by their vivacity and capacity to bring so much to life. If I could find some way of doing it, I would love to be set free from so many of my responsibilities to stand in the background to mentor, advise, and generally be a midwife to this movement in one form or another.

Yet even as I say that, I know it spells the end to the kind of church that suits me best. But the Gospel isn't about what suits me best, it is about being obedient to Jesus's Great Commission so that it works for the emerging world. My kind of church is in decline, but that does not mean the Gospel is without its grace and power to transform. The baggage that I appreciate needs to be either cut away or reconfigured so that a newly contextualized faith will work in the West, even if it does not show the world the face that I would like shown.

Homesickness is a self-indulgence. I actually sometimes enjoy wallowing in the nostalgic misery of homesickness for John Bull's England, sometimes even crying my eyes out as long as no one can see me! While it is a pretty harmless pursuit when indulged in as an individual sport or hobby, if we use it to hold onto yesterday's church, then we are committing an awful sin and standing in the way of the Gospel's advance. There will be a lot to answer for when we stand before the throne of grace.

12 comments:

Call Me Ishmael said...

I've enjoyed reading your blog. Whatever else may be emerging right now, I trust the church is in there somewhere. When I have a thought or two about what I see, I post it at http://thatisnotmyblog.blogspot.com.

Jill said...

This is really good writing. So true and thought provoking! I'm going to share it with my rector/boss. I can totally relate -- the hometown I miss is not the same. It's not there anymore, having changed (as I have) over the decades. Thanks for sharing about your parents also.

Craig (mars-hill) said...

Sobering and encouraging thoughts beautifully written. Cheers.

ron said...

Richard, thankyou for your honest refelection of what so many are feeling and struggling with. Pax...Ron+

Richard M. Wright said...

1) I lived in UK (Reading area) from 1978-1983. I also have heard that the UK has changed quite a bit since then. Could you say more about what you see as some of those dramatic/significant changes?

2) On the emerging church issue - I find that I resonate/sympathize with this movement. But at the same time, how much do you think emergent Anglicans could "mess with" prayer book worship before you/me/anyone would say "wait a minute - is this still Anglican worship?" How compatible is emergent movement with Anglicanism? (I think it is - but how/much?)

Sue said...

Called to be a missionary we often long for what we perceive to be home, that which we knew, but He brings us to a new land. We can cling to the old and feel safe, or we can ride the winds of a new adventure. Great thought provoking post.

ron said...

Richard said...

2) On the emerging church issue - I find that I resonate/sympathize with this movement. But at the same time, how much do you think emergent Anglicans could "mess with" prayer book worship before you/me/anyone would say "wait a minute - is this still Anglican worship?" How compatible is emergent movement with Anglicanism? (I think it is - but how/much?)

Richard, you've raised a huge question...or should I say, a can of worms. Being involved in leadership in an Anglican church in Canada for some 16+ years, being involved in Alternative worship, and Cafe' church initiatives, this was a huge obstacle that kept popping up.

So much of Anglican identity is wrapped up in its liturgy...it is by our liturgy that we know who we are. It didn't matter that we were reaching in Alt. worship settings and in the Cafe'...if we altered the liturgy, or omitted the liturgy we were called to the synod office. It was obvious that perserving that " Anglican " identity was more important, than be relevant and attracting people to Jesus. It got to the place where I had to make a choice.

Richard Kew said this in the original post, " So, our task as Christians is to translate the enduring message of Christ's love into a language and culture that is foreign to the likes of me. This means that there is a great deal about the church which I dearly love that is going to need to be put to the sword, to put it bluntly."

I know the C of E is starting to make compromises, and has been initiating some very radical initiatives. Some of the House of Bishops here in North America. need to really assess what is essential and what is not...precious time is running out.

I apologize for the rant, Hmmm, I guess Richard Wright touched a wound that hasn't quite healed. Peace to you all...a great post Richard K it should make us all reflect.

Anonymous said...

hi richard,

thank you for your thoughts.

our little community is trying to do something about this in our small way, by offering learning party worskhops to any interested diocese to share some of the gifts and insignts of the next generations to help re-enliven a passion for the missio dei within our beloved anglican tribe.

we excited that some new episcopal life can emerge

from karen ward, church of the apostles, seattle

Bob said...

Richard,

Thank you for your wise insight. We Lutherans struggle with this letting go as well. Your dedication to the Gospel is an inspiration.

I hope you can find a way to mentor young priests trying to bring about the church that is emerging. Your wisdom will be a great gift to them.

Richard Kew said...

Bob,

Thank you for your kind words. Alas, I have to say that while I very much would like to exercise that role of "elder," both in age and experience as well as presbyter (priest), there is today little in the way of resources to support such a ministry. Elders, if they are to put bread on the table have to make ends meet. I do think I (like a good few of my peers)have something to share to the rising generation, but the question is how to do it.

Bob said...

Richard, you raise a really crucial point. To pass the baton in a healthy fashion, we need not just to think about how to free new generations to experiment but how to engage support and insight from the majority church. I, too, am frustrated that there's no good way to do such a simple thing. Maybe that's something to take to your leadership. As an "elder," maybe you can challenge the system more easily than a younger colleague?

andy gr said...

Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. For what it's worsth - and this may not help your homesickness! - my experience as a (UK) anglican vicar is that as long as the "big seven" are included in an act of worship (a confession of some kind, a collect, an affirmation of faith, intercessions and the Lord's Prayer, at least one song, Psalm or act of praise, a Scripture reading and a reflection on it in some form) no one quibbles that anything "non-anglican" is going on. On the contrary, the flexibility (these items can be put in many different orders and done in a host of styles and in various different words) seems to me far greater than in "non-liturgical" churches, which tend to have the same structure every week.

Moreover, if (as I'd argue) the essence of anglicanism is a protestant doctrine of revelation and soteriology married to catholic leadership structures, with the greatest possible adjustment to local vernacular needs, "emerging church" might be a deeply "anglican" way of proceeding.

This does not meran that anglicanism has done a good job of adjusting to the need for something more "emerging" - but it does mean it has the built-in flexibility to be able to do this.