Learning from London: Day 7
Today is Sunday and I’m writing this on a high-speed train between London and Edinburgh.
Our class finished up yesterday. Since I last wrote, Brad and I saw the Book of Mormon (hilarious!), and in class we visited Poplar, had a time to debrief some of what we had seen and synthesized from the class, had a festive dinner, and concluded it all at a brunch with some of the clergy we’d met during the week. Our class said goodbye to each other yesterday at noon, promising to keep in touch and share how we’ve applied our learnings.
There is so much that I could discuss in what I’ve seen this week. It’s been a festival of sights, and conversations, and experiences. I’ve seen super-high church and church without a church. I’ve seen churches serving a 50% Muslim community (Poplar), and churches serving a community with no residents (Picadilly). I’ve seen very old buildings (St. Mary’s Highstow) and brand new (Hale Village).
What’s been most interesting to me is the way that my classmates reflected on the experiences, and the things they saw that I either didn’t see or didn’t appreciate. So let’s spend a moment on my colleagues. We had 10 students and our professor. The students came from Toronto; Niagara Falls; LA; the Bay Area; Tucson; Milwaukee; Cleveland; Chicago; Hannibal, Missouri; and Honeoye Falls. Nine of us, including the professor, are priests. One of the priests is a Roman Catholic theologian returning to parish ministry. Another priest has stood for multiple bishop elections. One priest just completed hiking the El Camino. One lay student is a candidate for ordination, and another is considering ordained ministry. A few students are doing doctorates, and others are doing continuing education. We are a mix of approaches, experiences, and ministerial contexts.
As a result, when we would walk into a particular style of church, some would find it very familiar and others would find it jarring. For instance, one evening we went to a worship service at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). This parish is famous throughout England as the home base for Alpha, a course for people who are not Christian, or who have left the church. Alpha is very modern, very evangelical, and very successful. It has spread throughout the world and now operates in over 60 countries. It makes terrific use of media and modern music. Attending a service at HTB means the focus is on the music and the response of the congregation. Attendees spend the bulk of the service on their feet, singing along to a highly produced and very talented rock band while the words are projected on the big screen. Fully a third of the service is music. Another third is the sermon, which always involves testimonial and often has a video component. When we went back on a second night, the video was a testimonial from Francis Collins, the researcher behind the Human Genome Project. Everything is carefully produced and very modern.
Now, speaking just for myself, I didn't fully engage with it as worship. Don't get me wrong: I could see why someone outside of the church might see HTB’s approach as an easy toehold into Christian faith. A video from Francis Collins and great music are appealing. The sermon was engaging. The prayers made sense. They spoke about urban life, and economic disparity, and social justice, and personal anxiety. They spoke the language of modern Londoners. But for me, it was not.....the liturgy.
I have to admit that I found myself watching some of my classmates whom I assumed to be older and more conservative. What would they think? As it turns out, one in particular loved it. He loved how well it was done. He could speak to the theology of it, and why it made sense. He asked questions about how it could be scaled to his setting.
…And that caused me to think: was I too quick to judge? Was I making assumptions about the doorways that are best for someone to come to Christ? Was I dismissing something that “spoke” simply because it did not “speak” to me?
Our Lord comes to each of us in different ways. Some of them are familiar and comforting, and some of them are jarring and completely new. How often do we dismiss something because it makes us uncomfortable or because we assume that others won’t like it either? How often do we do the opposite: insist on something as being the “right way,” and assume that all other right-thinking people will see it the way we do?
There is a lesson here: when we find ourselves having a strong reaction, that is a moment to ask ourselves why. What is it that we find difficult, and what assumptions or beliefs are being challenged? Maybe this is the moment when we can refine what we believe, or why. Maybe this is the light that God uses to shine into those corners that need a bit of an update.
I know I’ve had an update. I see the strength of evangelical witness. Where I used to see it as a sort of blind allegiance and too much of a focus on personal salvation, I now see it as an opportunity for us to share the unconditional love that Christ has for everyone. We may need that "proof" that it's worked in another life before we can believe it could work in our own. We must know first that we are loved before we can take on the additional work of loving others. We must acknowledge how very deeply we are confused, broken, longing works in progress in order to empathize with the broken longing of others.
Yesterday at breakfast, we asked our English friends how they take care of themselves with so much going on around them. One woman, who had surgery just a week ago, said, “Sometimes God forces us to slow down. Since having my surgery, I had to take a week off and do mothering, which meant other people needed to do what I normally do. And you know what? That’s when God said, ‘Guess what, it’s not about you, it’s about ME!” She then laughed about all the ways others had come forward to help, to fill in for her, to take on things she could not do, and to share in God’s ministry.
I’m so grateful for my colleagues, who gave me the opportunity to see new things, see differently, and keep my eyes open (even when I didn’t always want to do so.). As God has already said, "It's not about you, it's about ME!" It’s been a great week.
Now, for those of you who are wondering about Poplar. It’s kind of a fascinating place. It’s got the third highest childhood poverty rate in all of England. We walked all through the parish, which has approximately 30,000 people living there. There are two churches. All Souls dates to 1861 and has a huge church yard surrounded by high metal fencing. St. Nicholas was built in the 1950’s and is more of a neighborhood church. All Souls appeals to the older guard, whereas St. Nicholas is where the younger families go. They have a “Buggy Mass” on Fridays for toddlers and mums. They do various programs for younger people.
Poplar’s poverty has led to a very different environment than the rest of London. First, there is a huge immigrant community. People come from Bangladesh, the Middle East, and China. About 50% of the population is Muslim. As a result, there aren’t as many pubs (no alcohol consumption), which means there also aren’t as many community gathering places. In other parts of London, the pubs are where everyone goes to hang out, and where community is centered. Not so in Poplar.
Second, there is a great deal of drug use. Mainly people are doing cocaine and huffing nitrous oxide. There are discarded nitrous containers discarded by the dozen on the side walk, which is in sharp contrast to cleanliness of the streets in the rest of London.
Poplar was so heavily damaged by the bombing of the War that most of it has been rebuilt and you will see ultra-modern, next to mid-century, next to Georgian. The priory that was the basis of the wildly popular BBC series "Call the Midwife" sits in the middle of an older neighborhood. It’s now government housing for ex-offenders. The midwives were active until the 70’s. All Soul’s has a parishioner whose last child was delivered by one of the midwives. Now healthcare is provided through local clinics.
The church is determining its role in this struggling community. As a result, the clergy spend a great deal of time just walking around, getting to know people in the community, and being a safe, consistent, and trusted resource for the people. I asked about the police presence, and one of the priests responded, “there isn’t any.” Gun violence does not exist there, but most every young man carries a knife. The priests, who are required to live within their parish, are both part of the community, and a source of safety. They are the ones people trust to care for them. The priests are a mix of clerical collars and tattoos. As one said while laughing; “I’m always taking my dog for a walk…we both are wearing collars, though I wear the leash!” They fit in, but their collars are a constant reminder (to themselves and the community) that God is also with them in this place.
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