Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Long and Winding Road Home -- Part One

Around this time thirty-one years ago I was wrestling with a whole cascade of ideas and emotions. It was one of the hottest summers on record in England, but it was the United States that was so much on my mind as the days ticked by, and we found ourselves getting ever closer to pulling up our roots and moving across the wide Atlantic Ocean.

We were venturing into the unknown. As exciting as the prospect was, fears and anxieties jostled and adrenalin pumped. Was this the most colossal mistake we had ever made in our lives? How would we ever adapt to living in such a strange and alien country as the USA? How would our children fare amidst so much change? How would we adjust to the American Church? And so the inner debate went on and one.

Between keeping our little girls clean and fed, we were packing up our home, and bringing to an end the happy years of our ministry in Bristol, England. During the long light summer evenings Rosemary and I talked endlessly about what we were about to do, praying, and at times holding onto each other as both reasonable and silly fears swept over us.

I will never forget the moment the British Airways 747 lifted off and the roofs of Heathrow Airport quickly disappeared beneath the mist. I fought back tears, felt nauseous, and wondered whether ever again we would see our beloved homeland. It seemed we were about to fall over the edge of the world. If crossing the Atlantic was as emotionally fraught as this for us, how must it have been for the first settlers in Virginia and the Pilgrims?

Three decades have passed since these things took place and many of those same feelings have again become our companions. However, this time we are preparing to make the return journey. The days are ticking by for us to go back to England, and after a half a lifetime of Americanization I now find myself anxious and concerned about whether I will be able to fit back into a very different Britain, and a much altered Church of England from the one that we left.

While there is a sense of adventure about all this, in my calmer moments I wonder whether issues of sanity come into play when people consider migrating across an ocean for the second time in their lives! Yet how many folks get the chance to serve the Lord in a position that perfectly fits their gifts and skills when they are in their early sixties?

A number of years ago when trying to prepare for the latter years of my active life, I had this sense that God's purposes for me might be in the realm of bringing to birth the next generation of Christian leaders, but as time passed and nothing came of it I concluded that I had misread the signs. Then when such dreams had been forgotten, out of the bright blue yonder came Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Now I find myself amazed that I will be able to wrap up four decades of stipendiary ministry playing a small part in this vital enterprise of getting the next generation onto the front lines. In many respects I can hardly believe my good fortune, but leaving our world here is the price that we have to pay.

Right now we are wrestling with realtors, and beginning to part with precious possessions, wondering all the time whether we can financially make it in a place where a modest apartment costs about as much as a significant mansion in this neck of the woods. There are fears galore, and while England isn't an unknown there are trends and subtleties within the culture that are sure to come as a huge surprise. How will we adjust back to the English Church? Isn't it going to be very difficult to leave our younger daughter, a physician and wife, here on this side of the water? Meanwhile the question of thirty years ago comes up again to haunt us: are we making the most colossal mistake of our now considerably longer lives?

My late Aunt Mary has been a warning to us. After twenty-five happy years in Montreal, Canada, and having been widowed, my father's elder sister returned to our hometown in the 1970s to live. It didn't work. The woman who had left the United Kingdom for the Dominion of Canada in the year of the Queen's coronation, had been altered by the New World out of all recognition. She chafed at the smallness of English life, and it wasn't too long before she sold up and returned westward, never even wanting to visit her birthplace again.

I find myself wondering in my darker moments if it is going to be the same for us. I am already bracing myself for my first year back in England's green and pleasant land. Like my aunt there are bound to be elements of English life that will chafe, irritate, drive me mad, make me angry, and trigger reverse homesickness. I live here amidst a residual Christian culture within which I am comfortable, how will I adjust to the European side of the ocean where such a thing is long gone, and the most significant religious challenge of the 21st Century is how to address the rising tide of Islam?

During these many years spent in America we have experienced periods of intense homesickness. At first it was an agonizing sense of loss, but as time has passed it has turned into a delicious bittersweetness -- more romantic yearning for a Masterpiece Theatre figment of the imagination than a longing for the England that is really and truly there. At this point I find myself walking into a bracing north wind that is blowing such dreaminess away. England is not about rose-covered cottage doorways and Jane Austen country house society, but is an over-populated, thrusting, secular realm which at times has a very nasty edge to it. It is to this England that I am returning, and to which I must readjust.

It should be no surprise that as we let go of our American life we should be be looking back and assessing what it has all been about. For a start, I am immensely grateful for the time that I have spent here. For nearly a quarter century I have been a citizen of two countries, never entirely at home in either, and I expect this to be true for the rest of my life. There is so much about the United States that I love and admire, and I hope that during our years here we have been shaped bysome of the very best in American culture and Christianity.

The United States may be far from perfect, but I recognize that this is an extraordinary country that still has extraordinary potential, and while here I have had the privilege of knowing some of the most remarkable people that walk the face of this planet. I hope that I will carry back to the Old World some of the great benefits that are mine because of the time that I have spent here in the New.

I am not entirely sure of how it is there now, but the Britain I left was one where some of the brightest ideas would very politely have cold water poured over them (unless they came from someone who was very forceful, or who had the right background and connections). The America to which I came was one that was willing to take a calculated risk and give something new and different a try. Failure was not seen as terminal, and space is given to folk to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and move forward after such a hiatus. I still believe this to be the case, and it is part of the strength of the American spirit.

I want to ponder the Episcopal Church at length in a later piece, but I cannot finish this one without some reference to it. I came to the USA believing that God was asking that we play our small part in its renewal. During the years I have been here we have seen some remarkable things happen and God acting in ways that were beyond our wildest dreams. But now as I prepare to go back to England, the Episcopal Church has reduced itself to a pitiful tatter of its former self.

I grieve the fragmentation and the rich web of relationships and ministries that have been badly damaged or terminally broken. It seems increasingly evident that the Episcopal Church I have known and loved has committed itself to the garbage heap of history, but I am not sure the course which has been taken by many who have been fellow-travelers and colleagues in the past is the right one. I said many years ago that if the Episcopal Church were to split then the only people to gain from it would be the attorneys. Alas, from what I am seeing and hearing, this sad prediction looks set to turn out to be true.

I try to comfort myself that we are passing through that time of confusion that inevitably precedes a new beginning. It is my prayer that after this time of upheaval steadier hands will take the tiller of the Episcopal Church and its separated daughters, and with it wisdom and willingness to face up to what the Kingdom of God demands will emerge. Perhaps the Spirit of God will take that American can-do mindset and enable us to come out of this slough of despond into which we have fallen, and help us to create a missionary body that knows how to reach the hearts and souls of post-Christian, post-modern America, with the Good News of Jesus Christ in all its fullness.

Meanwhile, my job is to get on with the process of sorting my things, wrapping up my life here, and getting ready to go back to my homeland and all the challenges and opportunities for the Gospel that await us there.


Jill C. said...

It may be more common than we think -- to be torn between two places we call home, but neither place is truly home. (That would be heaven, after all!) I wish you God's peace and joy as you get resituated back in England after all these years. Please continue to blog when you can. We enjoy reading your posts!

Anonymous said...

Have we not a personal version of Tolkein's Scouring of the Shire?

Our thanks for your ministry here, and our prayers for your continued faithfulness.