Sunday, April 19, 2009

Being an Anomaly

Some weeks ago I met another Anglo-American returnee, a professional woman who has been back in England several years longer than myself. Over lunch she "comforted" me with the news that I have at least another two years of adjusting to do before I will have come to terms again with being back in this country again. I was grateful for Liz's insight because I guess I was beginning to think along such lines myself.

Re-acclimating to Britain has been a seesaw kind of business, positives and negatives mingled with one another in a hodgepodge kind of way. There is the sheer exhilaration of coming into work on a soft spring morning with the sun breaking through the mist over Kings College Chapel and the Backs, only to be greeted when I get to work by something annoyingly English that has me grinding my teeth!

I love the work that I have been called to do, and feel privileged that for the last lap of my stipendiary ministry I am able to do something that could have a real long-term impact on the advance of the Kingdom, but at the same time I realize with every passing day that I am an anomaly. As when a radio station is slightly out of tune, so do I feel about my inability to fit here.

To begin with, development and institutional advancement has a puzzling flavor to many on this side of the water -- and that a priest should be doing it further intensifies that puzzlement. But playing a part in bringing the noble work of gathering resources to the fore is the sort of challenge that I have always relished. I guess that having played a role in widening the commitment to global mission among North American Anglicans over the last thirty years, which was no small feat, getting people used to raising of funds for ministry and mission should be a no-brainer here... but I am not sure that it is. However, my life has been a succession of challenging interludes, so I suppose that what I am doing fits me admirably.

But then the waters are muddied by the fact that I am really much more American in my attitudes than I had ever imagined when I came back. A friend who is the CEO of one of the largest container ports in East Asia, and who was back home for a couple of weeks leave over Easter, with typical North of England bluntness said things about the British with which I found myself agreeing with 101%. His work has taken him all around the world, and the attitudes of the British do not enamor him one little bit. I often find myself scratching my head that this nation once put together the greatest Empire in the world, because now visionary thinking is very much a minority sport in most areas of enterprise.

I love that American expansiveness that says, "Let's give it a try," and I caught that bug in my three decades in this States -- something that makes me very much an anomaly on the British side of the Pond. What is lovely, however, is that it is not entirely dead. There are great successes that people have when they think and act that way, rather than playing protective games that erase the excitment that comes when taking a calculated risk.

Two sayings from my American years have indelibly imprinted themselves on my consciousness. One is from Martin Luther King, who said that if a man has not found anything worth dying for, then he isn't fit to live (remember King spoke before gender inclusive language became the norm). The other is that we need to take on challenges that are so big, that unless the Lord is in them they are bound to fail. That's what gets my juices flowing.

But such thinking doesn't cause much of a ripple here, and yet could unleash such talent if it was tried. It isn't that such big picture thinking isn't possible but that there is a tendency to shy away from it and play safe. I guess I have never been too good at shying!

But another thing that makes me an anomaly is far more personal, and that is that even when I am trying to be extra careful I find when speaking with others that I am often slightly out of tune. A very funny joke flops, a throwaway remark is interpreted in the wrong way, or in some way or another I find myself talking past someone -- even when being scrupulous in my choice of subject or words. While my accent might sound almost English when I speak, beneath the words that come out is a mindset and worldview that is thoroughly transatlantic and at odds with Old World attitudes.

We really are two great peoples divided by a common language, but when that becomes personified in one individual who isn't quite sure which of those languages or thought worlds he inhabits, then the confusion is complete. This then carries across into everything else from the way in which we "do church" to the manner in which we make decisions, explore interesting ideas, or seek to find our way through difficult sets of circumstances.

It is interesting that the things about which Americans get passionate are somewhat different than those which light up the sky for Brits. It does seem to me that the British are much more inclined to accept uncomplainingly what is dished out from those in power and authority, and yet there is a certain kind of assertiveness and posturing among leaders in the States that would never go down in this country. Then, while most of the "loud mouths" on the American scene come from the Right, often the very far Right, in Britain they tend to be more measured, less bombastic, but are also distinctively leftward leaning.

Whereas secularism has eaten away at the heart of each nation in its own way, I would have to say that because there is still a healthy civil religion in the States, there is still something of a soul in public life most parts of the country. Here, such a thing is very hard to find, and it is de rigor in the media to ignore, denounce, or find fault with all things religious and religious people (always very carefully and respectfully if they are Islamic, but with utter disdain if they have anything to do with the Church of England!).

But then there are wonderful things about England that I am treasuring. This afternoon, for instance, I took my bike and headed out across the fields and along the Fenland ditches for miles, listening to the birds in the air and watching the little clouds go scudding across a gentle blue April sky. In the distance on the horizon were the towers of Cathedral in Ely, whose diocese is this year celebrating the 900th anniversary of its founding.

And then there is Cambridge itself. It is crammed to overflowing with some of the brightest people I have ever come across. World-class discoveries are coming out of Cambridge laboratories and hi-tech facilities with monotonous regularity, and at a social gathering you might find yourself talking one minute to a learned barrister and the next to an inventor who is bubbling over with ideas. On top of that, I wouldn't have missed Maundy Thursday at Kings College...


Peter Carrell said...

So what happened on Maundy Thursday at Kings College?

Richard Kew said...


I think one of the most disappointing things I have encountered since being back in England is, with some glorious exceptions, a lowest common denominator approach to worship and liturgy within the context of the church's year. Evangelical Anglicans have in many respects abandoned the richness of the Anglican liturgical tradition, and most of them either ignore or don't understand the rhythm of the seasons of the church's year. Holy Week, I would have to say, is generally disappointing.

But the Maundy Thursday celebration in Kings Chapel was magnificent. The sermon might have been a bit ho-hum, but the liturgy and the music were rich, especially when it came to the stripping of the altar, the clearing of the chancel, and finally the closing of the great Rubens painting of the Adoration of the Magi that is the altarpiece.

Here classic Anglican liturgy met the drama of the Passion in a manner that still warms my heart several weeks later.

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