Sunday, 20 January 2013

I Am A Parish

I'm a town in Carolina, I'm a detour on a ride 
For a phone call and a soda, I'm a blur from the driver's side
I'm the last gas for an hour if you're going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave behind

I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I'm the language of the natives, I'm a cadence and a drawl
I'm the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade, 
where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.

My porches sag and lean with old black men and children
Their sleep is filled with dreams, I never can fulfill them
I am a town.

I am a church beside the highway where the ditches never drain
I'm a Baptist like my daddy, and Jesus knows my name
I am memory and stillness, I am lonely in old age; 
I am not your destination
I am clinging to my ways
I am a town.

I'm a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the fields 
I'm an old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my wheels
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American, and "Southern Serves the South"
I am tucked behind the Jaycees sign, on the rural route
I am a town

Transpose, if imagination will allow, from the southern American to the British suburban context the insignificance of the town which country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter describes in this lovely song I Am A Town, and you have a feel of the parish in which I am pleased to serve as assistant priest.  

You might pass through our parish on your way in or out of London on the A10 - one of the dual-carriageway trunk roads built in the 1930s and quickly lined with light industrial plants, predominantly manufacturing electrical appliances.  These have been replaced by car showrooms, furniture warehouses with permanent sales, and supermarkets of various stripes - the whole a nice microcosm of the shift from making things to simply selling them.  Recently, a cheap hotel has - apparently pointlessly - sprung up on the site of one of the old factories. You might have passed through, but you probably won't have stopped.  You will have pressed on into London or towards Hertford or Cambridge. I'm a blur from the driver's side.

We are a small and undistinguished triangle of outer suburbia, carved out of the much larger, ancient neighbouring parish at the turn of the last century; and consisting almost entirely of housing speculatively built around a station on a new railway line north from central London into leafy Middlesex.  Almost overnight, it became possible to work in the Big Smoke and live in the countryside, and this London suburb - like others at every compass-point - was born.  Bylaw terraces and railway cottages for the teeming workers; some larger houses for the management.  A parade of shops, a few pubs, a school, and of course - this being the 1890s - a church.  In fact, since you could not expect everyone to submit to the Anglo-Catholicism supposedly favoured by the urban working-class, two churches. Ours - bells, smells, solemn high masses, and Father Surname-Only in full vestments.  A neat example of what writer A N Wilson has called the Church of England's  "bricky slum shrines", its head in a cloud of incense and its hands and feet in the mire of poverty, midway between Canterbury and Rome.  And, a matter of yards away yet within a stone's throw of Geneva, the Congregationalists: unbending in their devotion to the unmediated Word of God, a life of plain obedience to the same, and a simplicity of worship (Sundays only).

120 years on, most of the shops have gone and all but one of the pubs.  The school - a stern but kind, imposing but rambling, confection in Edwardian terracotta - now educates mainly Muslim children.  The old families, generation after generation living in the same house, have gone: parents and grandparents buried with due ceremony (High or Low, according to conviction), children moved to Hertfordshire dormitory towns.  The railway station still does its job - a 25-minute commute to the City (and, by London standards, relatively affordable property) makes this fertile first-home territory.  But few stay for long.  I am not your destination.

Yet the church is still here.  It still does what it did, except differently.  The people for whom, and to whom, it does it are different.  Compared to 50 years ago, they are of highly diverse ethnic origin, religious background, and personal lifestyle.  For the most part, they will not live in their present homes for the rest of their lives; their children will certainly live elsewhere. They are passing through.  They are less disposed than their forebears to do what Father says without question; and, for the most part, Father is not disposed to lead so unassailably from the front.

Importantly, these people do not come because it is the proper (or only) thing to do on Sunday morning.  They come because something draws them.  They come with hugely various spiritual and moral baggage; and with, perhaps, some heterodox doctrinal understanding.  My very favourite thing about the Church of England is that we do not say: "Will you sign up to this set of theological propositions?"  We say rather, "Can you worship with us in this way?"  Given the combination of factors which seem to compromise the Church's calling - it warms the heart to see how many still can.

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