Thursday, September 27, 2007

Well, here I am

Granddaughter, Hannah, on her swing

Fiction and reality sometimes collude, and that seems to be happening in my life. Over the last two years I have, with gaps, been steadily working my way through the Patrick O'Brian "Master and Commander" series of books. These novels, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars trace the friendship of a rising British naval officer, Jack Aubrey, and his close friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, who sails with him as the ship's surgeon.

What makes these stories so fascinating is the developing relationship between the two men, their marriages, their children, their shipmates, even their enemies. Written by O'Brian late in his career, they represent the mature fruit of an author who is a master craftsman, someone who is an acute observer of people. The last book in the series is simply entitled "21." This wasn't what O'Brian intended, but he passed away at the age of 85 leaving 65 pages of typewritten manuscript and a further dozen more of rough draft. We are literally left in the middle of a sentence as Aubrey and Maturin leave the reader's life without any idea of what happens next, how their lives would continue to evolve, and where the tides of time and fortune would take them.

I tell this at such length because that is much how I am feeling at the moment. On September 3 I got onto a plane at Nashville and left behind my old life in Tennessee, arriving here in Cambridge on September 4, and beginning my new life at Ridley Hall on September 5. The threads of the past which had always been so important were suddenly severed, and new threads and relationships needed immediately to be crafted. What made it more difficult was that I left my wife, dog, cat, and home behind, and found myself living in a single room in a Roman Catholic institution just round the corner from the seminary. It was like being back in boarding school!

It was as if I had slipped through a wrinkle in time and been stripped of my identity. Just as I lost my friends, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, in mid-sentence, so it seems to be in my own life.

One very helpful woman, a retired priest's wife, gave me a several page piece written by a Japanese woman who had spent fifteen years in Britain before returning home, and she was talking about the reverse culture shock she was experiencing. As soon as I read it, it rang bells with me. You come back to your place of origin a very different person from the one that left so many years before, and in reality your home is now the place from which you came. There is grieving that needs to be done, not the least for me over the business of trying to sell our American home which I love dearly.

During my first couple of weeks here there was a strong impulse to break my contract, jump straight on a plane, and go back to Tennessee where we have lived for so long. I miss its climate (Cambridge is already getting awfully damp and cold); I miss its people (I am realizing just how dear some of my friends there actually are); and I miss the familiar word where I knew who I was, what was my place, and how I fitted.

I think I am over that now, helped along by large doses of daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law, but I recognize that I am still in survival mode in what is, by and large, an alien world and culture. I am getting into my work and discovering just how huge the challenge is, and that is engaging my creative energies, and I must say that I am enjoying that sense of rootedness which is inevitably there in a city as old and significant as Cambridge.

Last Sunday I went church-shopping. I didn't want to be part of one of the big congregations in Cambridge that cater overwhelmingly to students and the young, but I wanted to find somewhere for Rosemary (when she gets here) and myself where we can be part of a loving fellowship and make our contribution to the advance of the Kingdom. I found my way to St. Andrew's Church, Impington, a delightful village on the north side of Cambridge, and next door to the one in which I will soon be living.

After having been part of two congregations in Tennessee, each of which was under 25 years old, I now found myself worshiping in a village whose existence was first recorded in the 10th Century, and whose church is a 14th Century foundation. The congregation of fifty or so was older rather than younger, and there was a faithfulness about the whole thing that I appreciated and found a great blessing. In the coffee hour afterwards I was made to feel more welcome than almost anywhere I have ever gone. I have promised to go back, and I have this funny feeling that this is going to be a place where we could have a part to play. (

Several people have been asking what's happening to me, so there's my first report. Perhaps in later items I will go into some of the other things that I am adjusting to, one of them being thousands of miles from the maelstrom that is the Episcopal Church, but that's for another time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Revd. Dr. Robert D. "Chip" Nix

I learned when I logged on to my email yesterday morning that my friend of thirty-five years, Robert "Chip" Nix was promoted to glory, taken home by the Lord yesterday evening. Chip had been ill for several months fighting cancerous lesions in the brain. I was in the midst of having my haircut on a hot July Saturday when my phone rang and Chip broke his news to me. He said then that it didn't look good.

I had hoped that I would be able to see Chip before leaving the USA for my new work and ministry here in England, but try as I might to arrange a quick visit to Texas, such a thing proved impossible, so I had to make do with phone calls. Actually, I had been planning to call him from England today, but that is now not possible. I continue to wish that somehow I had managed to get to Austin, and share one of the precious days with him.

Chip Nix appeared in my life in the early 1970s when I had just become the assistant at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Stoke Bishop, a leafy suburb of Bristol, England, and he arrived as a seminarian at Trinity Theological College, just a few hundred yards from our church. He was there as part of a triumvirate of young Episcopal evangelicals whose lives had been influenced for Christ by John Guest, then Rector of Chip's home church, St. Stephen's, Sewickley, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA. Chip had a lot of hair in those days, a droopy mustache, and was a Vietnam Vet.

And so our lives became entwined, but I thought when he returned to the US with his newly-acquired English wife, Carol, that this was just about the last I would see of him. I never at that time expected that America would be in my future, but several years after we first met my life took its American turn, and on my first visit I spent a night with the Nixes in their Manhattan apartment when Chip was doing his Episcopal year of studies at General Theological Seminary.

From then on our paths continued to cross. As is often the case in the Episcopal Church spread across a huge continent, we would stay in touch, but there would often be several years between being able to see each other, although we talk on the phone, exchange emails and occasional instant messages.

Chip's ministry, like all of us had its highs and lows. He worked in various corners of the USA in parishes large and small, and there is a trail of lives who have been shaped positively by his ministry. But it has seemed to be that it has been during his latter years that he found a role that so well fitted his extraordinary array of gifts -- that of an interim minister. There are several congregations today who have been profoundly blessed because the Nixes have been there, and Chip has been their rector for a while.

Perhaps the fairest thing that could be said about Chip was that he was someone whose life was devoted to Jesus Christ with passion, and he lived out that discipleship to his very last breath. He was certainly one of the kindest men that I have known, and always had a listening ear and shared good counsel when this friend was struggling or in trouble. We would talk about ministry and its struggles, share titles of books that ought to be read, and would just sometimes shoot the breeze. He prayed for me often, I know, and I prayed for him, and have prayed constantly for him during these last couple of months of his life.

Chip had his weaknesses and shortcomings, which of us doesn't, but if I were to find a way of summing this person up it would be as a man who sought to be mastered by God. He will be sorely missed. He now shares the joy of eternity with the Lord he has served wholeheartedly, and for that we can be glad. Yet he leaves a wife and two daughters who are bereft without him, in addition to those many, many friends that he accumulated.

I am thankful for the privilege of knowing this delightful man, and I pray that he will remain an example to me as someone who I should seek to emulate.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

God's Continent - A Review

A Review of Philip Jenkins' book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) US$28.00 ( $13.00)

I am writing this as I seek to adjust to the fact that after more than three decades my homeland, England, is once again truly my home -- although in many ways I feel a total stranger. I finished reading Philip Jenkins' latest book, God's Continent, as I traveled back to Britain to take up my new position at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and coming here added urgency to the task. Not only have I worked harder than I might sifting Jenkins' words, but often this has been accompanied by long moments of staring into empty space attempting to grasp the implication of what he has written.

Philip Jenkins, the Welshman who is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, is one of those rare individuals who is capable of digesting huge quantities of information, and from his synthesis of it emerges theses that are calm, considered, and sensible, and sometimes slightly contrarian. There has been an awful lot written and said during recent years about the rise of Islam in secularized Europe, some of it frightening, much of it hysterical, and often seemingly designed more to sell books than to enlighten.
God's Continent comes, therefore, as a delightful relief. Philip Jenkins, instead of fanning flames of anxiety tries to digest the realities as they are on the ground and to put them into some kind of historical perspective. Jenkins sees it as his task to enlighten rather than to terrify, believing that responding to the facts as they can be ascertained is far the best way of proceeding. God's Continent is chock full of facts, while the endnotes suggest many, many more are stored away in the recesses of the author's brain!

As he has gathered these facts Jenkins has obviously asked of them endless questions, and then sought to put them in some kind of perspective. Jenkins sees his task as enlightening rather than terrifying, and builds his case from the facts as they are on the ground. God's Continent is chock full of facts about what Europe is like, how secularism has become so influential in Europe, yet how vibrant are certain strains of Christianity, coupled with the vibrancy of many less mainstream forms of the faith. The other morning I was driving early through the industrial town of Luton (where it happened I had been born), and was surprised to see that one of the huge old movie theatres is now the UK headquarters for what I suspect is an African, Afro-Carribean denomination.

Then there are facts about Islam in Europe, whose dynamic growth in numbers and influence is the unexpected outcome of post-World War Two immigration policies, coupled with the decline in birthrates of the domestic populations. Britain and France, for example, allowed significant immigration of workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Algeria, never having thought through the consequences for second, third, and fourth generation descendants of these eager newcomers.

Unlike Britain and France, Germany did not have an empire from which to import people to do the menial jobs, so guest workers were imported from countries such as Turkey, the expectation being that they would return home when their time in Germany was up. This did not happen, and so there is now a growing Turkish and Islamic group within the heart of German culture and society. In the last dozen years or so Europe has woken up to the fact that there is a whole new challenge before it, the nature of which Jenkins spells out using demonstrable facts and circumstances to make his case rather than appealing to emotion and fear to make his point.

First of all he debunks the notion that the Islamic crescent flag is going to flutter in dominance over European skies any time soon -- if ever. The statistics of past, present, and future immigration from the Islamic world, he contends, do not support such a notion. This is not to say that Islam won't be a significant minority in Europe but it radically overstates the case that Westminster Abbey's future is as a mosque or that the fashionable Champs d'Elysee in Paris will be peopled by women wearing head scarves and burkas!

Secondly, he encourages his readers not to write off Christianity so quickly. Yes, its traditional forms and liberal theologies are in trouble, but there is a great deal more to the faith in Europe than that. Many of those immigrants from Africa and Asia are often mistakenly labeled as Muslims when in fact they are Christians, and vibrantly so. Some of the largest congregations in Europe, in fact, are to be found in the minority communities (thus the old Odean theatre in Luton), and don't write off fresh energies in the Catholic or mainstream Protestant churches, coming in flavors and packages like Alpha.

And bear in mind the nature of Christianity, he encourages us, for as it is challenged in what has historically been its home territory there is the likelihood that it will perk up considerably. "Viewed over the centuries, perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is a widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its last days... nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses farther afiled, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home (pages 288-289).

What is clear is that Europe's secular elites, after having dismissed religion as a curiosity for the best part of half a century, are just starting to wake up to the fact that religion is not withering away, but that there are two major religions each with a significant sense of identity in their very own backyard. Yes, Jenkins tells us, as Islam takes root in Europe it is going to be changed by its encounter with modernity, secularity, and being a minority movement in an unsympathetic culture, but this "Islamic Revolution" is not going to change it into the empty and vacuous affair that has so gutted liberal Christianity, which is the elitist model of the way it ought to go.

Philip Jenkins works hard to tease out the various issues that Europeans, whether Christian, Muslim, secular, or something else, have to address in the coming years. These will include issues of sexuality, gender, freedom of speech, censorship, self-censorship, and so forth. Then there is the huge one of Islam being given great freedom to express itself in what has been the Christian heartland, freedoms that are utterly denied Christians in Islam's own heartland, a point brought home strongly to me in a conversation yesterday evening with a student who has come from one of those countries. Saudis, for example, are free to finance a $65 million mosque in Rome, while as one priest puts it, Christians in the Arabian peninsular function in something akin to the catacombs.

Then there is the whole issue of blasphemy, and what can be portrayed on screen, stage, and in the written word. The most significant and legitimate question related to this is whether it is appropriate for Christianity to be openly pilloried, as it often is in Europe, because Christians do not threaten violence and even murder when attacked in this way in a free society. However, society tiptoes around Muslims, censoring itself, because it fears that if treated as Christians are they would resort to violence.

I always feel much better when facts are out because then we can address them, Jenkins
deliberately puts the facts on the table. Some of the facts I personally do not like, some are not as bad as I feared, but all of them are grist for the mill of what is a remarkable book that ought to be taken seriously by thoughtful Christians -- especially any who have a deep concern for the future of Europe. I would add that the thoughtful Muslim would also have much to gain from reading this helpful volume.

That secular Europeans are now asking important questions about their religious heritage is itself an encouragement. That there is an alternative forceful challenge being mounted for people's hearts is something Christians need to take with the utmost seriousness. Perhaps there are signs that this is happening and there could be some very interesting fruit being borne in the days ahead. I cannot help thinking that God's providence is preparing the ground for something that could be very significant as Europe moves forward into the future.

On a personal note, I find myself pondering that maybe... perhaps... God has drawn us back to Europe at just such a time as this, and that the ministry ahead of me is a small part of a bigger Kingdom response to this huge challenge (and opportunity) that will shape the future of Europe, and therefore of the whole world.