I’ve spent nearly a hundred hours in the air since Aug 14 — so I am now feeling personally responsible for climate change! It’s too much in so short a time, although the trips themselves were worth it.
Elizabeth and I arrived in England in the early morning of the 17th. We spent four days in central London, in a small hotel just north of Hyde park. So we explored the familiar places, as well as visiting a couple of local churches. We walked a lot, something Londoners seem to do. We noticed that there were far fewer large individuals in London than in Canadian or American cities. Maybe its the way they rush around on the underground in a hurry to make the train!
We did tours of Kensington and Buckingham, including the State Rooms at Buckingham — rooms which are not always open to the public. Tea in the orangery. And of course we did the Tower of London! Three hours there – so much history and in mid September it really was not crowded.
On the third day we did a tour of Westminster Abbey. I confess I had not known what to expect, but I did not expect floors and halls and nooks chock full of tombs and memorials! The Abbey struck me very much as a place of memory – a museum and monuments. Incredible beauty — and very massive in size. No pictures were allowed in the main halls but we took a goodly number of shots in the cloisters and around the outside. A strange feeling to be walking over the bones of Dickens and Browning.
On the fifth day in London the students and faculty of George Fox Seminary arrived. So the next four days were spent mostly in doors, or interacting over meals. The DMin students presented summaries of their research, and I had a number of conversations on leadership and change and adaptive challenges.
Around the seventh day, a Sunday, we made our way back to Westminster. We took in the Matins service, and were placed in the Quire. This meant that we were surrounded by boys in robes, singing through an entire liturgy where even the Scripture is sung. It was a moving experience hearing the songs end while the echoes and notes continued to echo from the vaulted arches high above our heads. With the tourists gone and the body of Christ gathered in worship, memory came to life and the halls that seemed to be a museum were transformed into sacred space.
ON day 9 we took the train from London to Oxford, where we were set to reside at Christ Church for five nights. We arrived after a rather harried journey — a race to the train station when no cabs were quickly available (but the total distance was less than 1 km). Then a hurried embarkation. A one hour ride to Oxford, then a strenuous bout of dragging large suitcases while carrying bags to get across all the tracks to the taxi stand. A short ride to Christ-Church, and then a mixup with our room assignment. After crossing back to Christ Church from Pembrook we were led to our room, off on the southeast corner of the palatial complex of ancient hewn stones. We then took our paper maps of the gated complex and tramped around to see what lay in store.
One of the parts of the experience that is hard to anticipate relates to age and history. Not the age and history of glass and stone, but the history of the people and events that adorn these ancient places. In the small chapel where the shrine of St. Frideswide houses her bones, Katherine of Aragon knelt to pray for a male heir around 1521. It was not to be. Charles the 1st resisted the Republicans during the English civil war in 1645-46.’ It didn’t end well. And around 1727, Charles Wesley was ordained here.
After a day of lectures and a meeting with the new Dean of Christ-Church, we attended Evensong in the cathedral. I had moved beyond the dichotomy of memory and identity. I became aware of my North American prejudice that old is bad and new is good. And perhaps the visual stimulation, so absent in most evangelical churches, was also having an impact. The richness of the experience of worship with complex harmonies singing ancient liturgies in a space designed for acoustic glory, all the while the light is streaming through stained glass, contrasts with the austere experience of most evangelical settings. The Church of England understands the soul’s hunger for beauty.
Taking our meals in the Great Hall, surrounded by paintings of bishops and deans and kings (as far back at 1525), and residing within the Christ-Church complex, we felt that we were living in another time, perhaps in a kind of liminality. CS Lewis speaks of the value of living in other times in a sermon delivered in the war years titled, “Learning in War.” He writes,
One who has lived in many placed is not likely to be deceived — by the local errors of his native village:
the scholar has lived in many times — and is therefore in some degree immune – from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the megaphone of his own age.
One gains perspective by experiences of difference. Often jarring at first, but offering perspective by virtue of contrast and reflection.
Of course we also did some of the more touristy things. We walked to the Bodleian library, along the route frequented by Lewis and Tolkien. We shared a pint at the Eagle and Child, the haunt of the group of Inklings who gathered to share their writings and literary musings. We didn’t make it to the Oxford museum, though it was only a block away. There was simply too much to do within the walls of Christ-Church itself.
Over the last few years I have wondered if my path might take me within the church of England at some date. I still wonder. Lewis’ words hold something more for me yet, and the novelty and strain of always pushing for something “new,” and the stilting spontaneous prayers are telling over the years. The mildness and steadiness of an old movement that still has life is appealing. While the liturgy still feels strange, its beauty is appealing.
It’s another step that may be toward something new, or simply deepening in something that is already present. Maybe I’ll find the wisdom in TS Eliots words of coming back to a place and knowing it for the first time.