Wednesday, May 17, 2006

When A Wanderer Returns


It always takes a few days to readjust to being back in Britain. While it doesn't take long to get used again to driving on the left hand side of the road, or to thinking in pounds rather than dollars, there are some elements of reacclimation that require more significant acclimation.

The first emotion I always feel when I arrive back here is an overwhelming sense of 'home-ness.' Whether it is the rich green fields and the hawthorn in full bloom (as it is at the moment), there is that sense of relief that comes with knowing that this is where I came from, and ultimately, as a result, this is where I belong. Yet on every trip there are the moments that tell me I am perceived as something of an interloper: like the comments of the young Muslim woman in the watch and clock department of a Birmingham store the other morning who drew attention to my vaguely mid-Atlantic accent.

Whenever I return to England, the visit begins with the romantic haze of a returning exile, and it takes five or six days to get beyond this and start seeing the country as it really is, as Oliver Cromwell put it when posing for a portrait, "warts and all." In the last few days I have found myself seeing and hearing things that make the country stack up poorly against the American South, where I have lived for more than two decades now.

What impacts me almost every visit I now make is how secularized a nation this is. Little by little over the years the trappings of Britain's Christendom heritage have been peeled away as the layers are removed from an onion. When we left some thirty years ago, for example, there was barely anywhere on a Sunday where a store would open, but the other morning in search of food for my mother-in-law, we slipped into a supermarket and discovered wall-to-wall people. I would hazard that Sundays are now a healthier business day for many British retailers than any other day of the week. The quiet English Sunday with worship as a primary option is a thing of the antediluvian past.

Then there is the way in which the churches in general, and the Church of England in particular, are pilloried. Very little of any good news about the church is shared by the media, and good news there is, but do anything that questions the prevailing values of the land and bishops, archbishops, or faithful laypeople are howled at by a ravening hoard. Last week, when the bishops and other religious leaders speaking in the House of Lords opposed the Assisted Dying bill on good solid theological grounds, they were mauled and accused of not listening to the voice of the majority.

Yet if the churches were then to start reflecting the prevailing culture, they would be accused of not doing their job properly and watering down what they believed in order to curry favor with the masses. The Church of England is not alone as the target of such criticism.

Ruth Kelly, a newly appointed minister for equality in the Tony Blair government, has been given a battering in the last few days because she is a conservative Roman Catholic and a member of Opus Dei. How can Ms Kelly do her job fairly if she holds these personal views, the critics scream, and behind that assertion is the unspoken wonderment that so intelligent and successful a person could be so benighted in her beliefs.

To the majority of native-born Brits religion is irrelevant, and it is hardly a big step from there to an increasingly ferocious opposition of things religious. It may have been there before I left this country, but these days there always seems to be a sting in the tail of this criticism that is both poisonous and barbed.

This all stems from the fact, I believe, that Britain has shed almost all its historic Christian clothing, and with that comes an increasing intolerance of faith, and in its place is put a crass materialism that I find intensely unattractive. This is not to say that the USA is not also an intensely materialistic nation, too, but in the corner of America where I live there is still enough overt faith within the public system to soften some of the harder corners of this one dimensionalism.

As I wandered around the center of the city of Birmingham the other morning I could be forgiven for being tempted to believe that Muslims are the only observant people of faith in that city. Perhaps 10% of all the women I saw were dressed in various degrees of Islamic modesty, from colorful scarves thrown with studied nonchalance over their cascades of dark hair, to total coverage in black with nothing but a slit for a pair of eyes to peer through. Such women were a profound contrast to many of their non-Muslim sisters, some of whose level of undress left virtually nothing to this lustful male's imagination -- and I am not talking just about teenage girls.

I find myself now wondering whether the onion of our Christian past in Britain has now been peeled of so many layers that little or nothing remains except materialism in all its harshness, and a sensual permissiveness that has buried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Could it be, I ponder, that we are watching the last chapter of Britain's glorious Christian heritage disappearing, and what will replace it? Islam is certainly one of the contenders, but it is certainly not the only one.

Yet there might be some straws in the wind that the worm is turning, and maybe I will cling to them and hope against hope. For example, there is a modest upturn in church attendance, and a senior cleric told me last week that there has been a surprising and significant increase in vocations to ordination. Could this be the early warning of a change in the spiritual and moral climate?

What is very clear to me is that the United Kingdom in particular, and the whole of western Europe in general, is a needy mission field. While I do not expect it to be an easy field for ministry and evangelism in the years ahead, I recognize that it is one that we ignore at our own peril. Last week we had lunch with some old friends and former parishioners and talked about 'retirement.' None of us are eager to spend our golden years tending roses, walking our dogs, or looking for new aches and pains to be hypocondriacal about.

Our conversation began focusing on our peers, rising elders who are part of a generation that has up to now not taken much notice of its soul, not taken care of its personal and familial relationships, and not saved for old age as it should have done. Could it be, we wondered together, that just as we teamed up to minister together in the Sixties and early Seventies in what was then known as Swinging London, we might now team up again and reach out in Christ's love to an older generation that is increasingly restive about its own mortality? We will see what God has in mind.


Dan Berger said...

Fr. Kew, thank you. But the spelling is "ravening horde."

The image of a "ravening hoard" is interesting, though.

And that's my nit to pick for today.

Richard Kew said...

Thank you, Dan. I never was one of the world's greatest spellers, and when relaxed and on vacation that limited ability I have at spelling goes into reverse gear!