Monday, April 10, 2006

Newly published: "Why I am still an Anglican" how you can buy it from Amazon. But my chapter (the last) is here

Happy Easter (for those people on the list who celebrate the western calendar)

Home thoughts from abroad

St Saviour’s Anglican church is built of brick, and it stands on British soil. But it is hundreds of miles from Britain, in the Latvian capital, Riga: the earth below its foundations was brought there by patriotic English merchants in the nineteenth century. St Andrew’s has similar Victorian church architecture -- but it’s in Moscow. In my nearly twenty years as a foreign correspondent in eastern Europe, these and other Anglican churches of the European continent have provided the spiritual landscape for my life, and my education in Anglicanism.

I thought I knew the Church well: I was brought up in an Anglican family, studied religion, and worked as a journalist for the BBC’s religious affairs department. There were, I reckoned, at least seven kinds of Anglican. My crude caricatures went like this:

1) The Evangelical — well-scrubbed, austerely dressed; the self-conscious, even smug heir to the traditions of the Reformation and, before that, the Early Church. He worries that many Anglicans are Christians in name only, but likes the idea of evangelising them. He sees the Church, not as the bride of Christ on earth, but as the ‘best boat to fish from’.

2) The Anglo-Catholic -- scented rather than scrubbed, and elaborately coutured. Would be a Catholic in Italy, or Orthodox in Greece. Liberal-minded on the Bible; nit-pickingly precise on details of liturgy and vestments. Loves the Church; less keen on outsiders. Worries that other Anglicans do not have the right idea about sacraments and neglect saints’ days.

3) The Liberal -- relaxed in dress and manners; open-minded to a fault; sees central tenets of the faith as dearly held but hard-to-believe, valuable in a symbolic, rather than literal context. Finds evangelising distasteful, and worries that other Anglicans make the church look off-putting.

4) The Traditionalist -- British to his bones; sees, often unthinkingly, the Church of England as part of the national identity, the wellspring of the country’s literary and constitutional tradition. Loves the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version. Dislikes modern Britain. Thinks other Anglicans are faddy and over-excitable.

5) The Radical Do-Gooder -- goes to church because he wants to bring down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble and meek; to dump the debt and save the rainforest. Right-on politics usually combined with ultra-liberal theology. Regards other Anglicans as stuck-in-the mud and introverted.

6) The Community-Minded -- a staunch supporter of the playgroup, the choir and the youth club; admires the vicar more for his people-skills than his preaching. Hazy on doctrine; thinks other Anglicans are rather “churchy” and intense.

7) The Loyalist -- faith rests on shaky foundations, but unwilling to ditch the Church altogether (at least while his parents are still alive). Feels that an hour a week of reflection and hymn-singing makes him a better person. Finds other Anglicans too clubby.

These caricatures (admittedly crude) were all features of my life. It didn’t put me off churchgoing altogether, but it did strike me as an odd feature of Anglican Christianity that each strand of the Church attracts vehement criticism from other parts of the church. The evangelicals in particular seemed to regard all other motivations for churchgoing as peripheral: you’re either saved or you’re not. If you want a social club, a political party, or a family get-together, go to one.

Other bits of the Church were equally (un)charitable, regarding the evangelicals as simplistic and narrow-minded. Many outside Anglo-Catholicism regarded that as something of an affectation: a club for people who like prancing about in strange costumes amid clouds of incense, pretending to be holy. Those bits of the Church that believed in the Virgin Birth, the physical Resurrection and the Ascension were uncomfortable with those that didn’t. The radical do-gooders distrusted the traditionalists, and vice versa.

It was tempting to conclude from this that Anglicanism was a ragbag of warring and contradictory beliefs, a historical accident which is now facing a deserved and inglorious demise. In a world which likes clear boundaries -- gay or straight, pro-Bush or anti-, vegan or not -- the ambiguities of Anglicanism seemed quite out of place.

But even before I went abroad in the mid 1980s, I began to see that this argument could be turned on its head. If you agree that it is rash to be too certain about the future of Christianity then a dose of inclusivity and tolerance is wise. Take three examples: first, if women priests and bishops prove to be a temporary enthusiasm, destined to wither away, then the traditionalists will be vindicated and recover their central role. If, on the other hand, there is an overwhelming and permanent shift going on in human understanding of women’s roles, then much of Anglicanism has already grasped it.

Secondly, if there is a general revolt against literal readings of holy texts then Anglicanism offers a ready framework for a Christianity that does not treat the Bible as a history-book-cum-instruction-manual. If instead there is a renewed interest in devotional use of Scripture, Anglicanism has a powerful intellectual tradition to support that, too.

Thirdly, the sacramental tradition may perhaps prove to be a hangover from a pre-modern age, and will die out along with indulgences, relics, exorcisms and prostrations. Or maybe sacraments will prove to be the key to religion in a post-modern age, where people seek symbolic expressions of hidden meanings. Either way, Anglicanism can accommodate the shift in spiritual appetite.

I appreciate this breadth all the more because my own Anglican faith has veered so sharply between all points of the ecclesiological compass. I grew up in a family where churchgoing was an unquestioned part of life. My father, a philosophy don, advised the Church on doctrine; my mother has a theology degree. As a teenager, I was an evangelical; as a student, a right-on modernist, combing ultra-liberal theology and ultra-liberal politics. As a busy young journalist, I found my faith stretched, and resorted to habit and tradition, joining the Prayer Book Society and going to church mainly to sing hymns and make good resolutions.

It was only when I was travelling abroad that I began to feel at ease with the Church. As a student in Cracow in 1986 (with no Anglican church nearer than Berlin), I sought out the tiny Methodist congregation, and tingled to the sound of familiar hymns sung in Polish (Abide with Me was a local favourite). It was an experience that both prompted homesickness and cured it.

Working as a western journalist in eastern Europe before the collapse of Communism was a lonely, sometimes scary experience. The outside world was largely uninterested -- the Berlin Wall seemed a permanent fixture -- and friends and colleagues were thin on the ground. Every contact with a local brought an ethical dilemma. Was the nice girl I met at a lecture in East Berlin truly a secret dissident eager to pass information to a friend from the free world, or a Stasi plant trying to embarrass me (and, worse, the BBC)?

As I wrestled, callowly, with these problems, I found the Anglican congregations in West Berlin and, later, Prague, Riga, Vienna and Moscow, became a central part of my life. There were big contrasts: the Berlin services were in a splendidly fitted-out military chapel; the Prague ones, until the collapse of Communism, were celebrated in the basement recreation room at the British embassy by a visiting priest from Vienna. But for me the effect was always the same -- and ever stronger.

Of course there were plenty of services in local languages, and I attended them when there was no alternative. But I found nothing to match the pull of a familiar liturgy, of fellowship with like-minded believers, and those beloved hymns. The effect on the soul was similar to that of Marmite on the tastebuds. Admittedly, analogies like that make expat congregations easy to caricature. People who would never darken a church’s doors in England start coming, because they are bored and lonely. There is a sometimes ridiculously self-conscious Englishness (not always confined to the English members of the congregation): I remember, after one service in Berlin, hearing an elderly German woman hissing reproachfully to the (also German) intercessor, “You forgot to pray for our Queen”.

But behind the absurdities are huge pluses. An Anglican church abroad can play a role which is muffled at home. In eastern Europe, it represents the triumph of good over evil. St Saviour’s in Riga was closed by the Soviets in 1940 and turned into a youth club. St Andrew’s in Moscow was confiscated by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution, and clumsily converted into a recording studio. Even then, the architecture was a mute witness to happier days, and local Anglophile believers would offer a silent cheer as they passed. But regaining and re-consecrating the buildings after the collapse of Communism was a symbolic triumph: atheistic, xenophobic intolerance was vanquished, and a precious historical and spiritual feature of both cities was restored to its rightful use.

In communist Czechoslovakia, where atheism was the state ideology and the church leadership had to a large extent been bullied and suborned into making shameful compromises with the system, the existence of a “real” Church, however tiny, was of symbolic importance. And, peripheral as the Anglican services were, they made me feel that I was doing something in my spiritual life to stand alongside the underground priests and dissident pastors whom I met in my journalistic life.

In Berlin, the Anglican Church also had symbolic value. One strand, as in Prague, was fighting the good fight of the cold war. Many members of the congregation were officials (actually spies) and soldiers from what was then the huge British official presence in Berlin. They were clever, brave and friendly --and I found the atmosphere in the congregation a refreshing contrast to the ignorant peacenikery of much of the Church back home. Another, contrasting but complementary, element of the congregation was reconciliation between old foes. The congregation also included elderly couples consisting of British servicemen who had been posted to Berlin (in the days when part of the job was to keep a vanquished enemy subdued), and local girls they had met and married.

In the new conditions of freedom, the Church remained a protagonist, but this time in another culture war: between the spiritual values of western civilisation, and the brash, avaricious ways of post-communist capitalism. The end of totalitarianism left a moral vacuum, where greed was elevated to a virtue, and brutality overlooked. Many expatriates found the temptations overwhelming: compared to life in respectable western countries, the money was far better, and the fleshpots far fleshier. One (bachelor) journalistic colleague of mine in Moscow confided that, in his first six months in town, he had never gone to bed alone or sober. For westerners living and working in a city where swindling, promiscuity, drugs and drinking were everyday pursuits, church was a place that refreshed and inspired.

For me, there was an increasingly important extra dimension. My marriage was breaking up. There was a danger that my children would end up living far away, and my contact with them would be sharply limited. As my home life deteriorated (and my children were no longer able to come to church), St Andrew’s in Moscow kept me from disaster. The shabby, desecrated church fabric, like the wounded body of Christ, matched my own feelings of hurt and despair. Weeks would go by when it was only at services -- sometimes the Sunday Eucharist, sometimes the daily said evening prayer -- that I felt (rightly as it turned out) that hope of a happy future was not altogether lost.

The miserable physical state of St Andrew’s highlighted another powerful way in which a church abroad inspires commitment: through its vulnerability. For most congregations in Britain, the parish seems a permanent fixture. Even if it closes, or is merged in a team ministry, life will go on. For an expatriate congregation, existence is much more precarious. St Saviour’s and St Andrew’s are both in advanced states of disrepair—St Andrew’s in particular needs millions of pounds to keep the rain out and the roof on. Everything portable was stolen or destroyed under Communism, and the interiors disfigured by hideous, Soviet-era conversions. Obtaining even the simplest church furniture requires head-scratching and fund-raising.

Solving those problems is made more difficult because of the nature of the congregation. Expats come and go frequently, and it seems a rule of life that the best people are always moving on elsewhere, while the most tiresome seem to stick around indefinitely. But that mixed-bag congregation makes it all the more compelling. There is a sameness to Anglican congregations in Britain. Moscow’s included worshippers from all corners of the Anglosphere (Indians, Americans, Australians and the like). That was to be expected. Less so were the many others: Dutch and Germans, Poles and Finns -- not to mention a bunch of Russians. All these people had made a conscious, thought-out decision to go to a church of a different tradition, in a different language.

That is humbling and thought-provoking for someone brought up to feel that Anglicanism is as unremarkable as bus services or running water. It demonstrated to me Anglicanism’s unique inclusivity. Those from in the Orthodox tradition were able to feel at home, just as much as those from a Protestant background (one regular attender was a full-time worker for the Salvation Army), or from no religious affiliation at all.

It was when I returned to England that I realised how much more at home I felt in the Church than I had when I left, some fourteen years previously. But Living abroad had deepened not only my ties with Anglicanism, but also my knowledge of other Christian denominations. In Russia, I was deeply impressed by the Roman Catholic Church, whose priests’ brainy integrity was in sharp contrast to the obscurantism and often dubious practices of much of the Russian Orthodox church. But I also found much to admire elsewhere in the eastern tradition. By happy coincidence (or maybe more), I came across a former fellow-student, an American of Ukrainian extraction, who runs a Byzantine-rite Catholic seminary in Ukraine. Although our contact was infrequent, it was inspirational. His seminary -- really a university -- was a moral lighthouse to a whole region, teaching students everything from classical languages to moral philosophy. Its rigorous standards and loving pastoral care are in sharp contrast to the often corrupt, exploitative and debased system of state-financed university education.

That helped shape my choice of church when I returned to London. Whereas in the past I had been lucky to have one Anglican church to go to, now I had hundreds. I decided to explore a part of the Anglican tradition that I had scarcely encountered in past years. I wanted transcendence, beauty in sound and sight, mystery, reverence and historical continuity; but also a feeling of being part of the widest possible Christian family. So I began going to St Mary’s, Bourne Street -- probably the most High Church of all Anglican churches, anywhere.

At first it was rather a shock. I had barely said a Hail Mary in my life, let alone sung the Salve Regina. I had never attended Benediction, nor sung plainsong, nor touched a rosary. Some of my friends were surprised. Given that my beloved new wife is Roman Catholic, and that the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church is weak, splintered and demoralised, and the whole Church so riven with dispute, they wondered why I didn’t take one step further, and join (as one friend kindly put it), “a proper Catholic Church, rather than a pretend one”?

My answer was that the Church of England is not perfect, but neither are other denominations. It has problems, but so do others. The current rows about sex may get worse, or better, but one does not escape them by moving elsewhere. Equally, whichever course the Church decides to follow, there will be some damage to its ecumenical relations, but the nature of Christian disunity means that there is no single Church that can claim untroubled relations with all other Christians. Leaving the Church you are brought up in is like severing relations with your own family -- it may sometimes be necessary, but it should be only the last resort. So long as Anglicanism maintains its inclusivity, tradition and ecumenism, with its ambiguity a witness to humility in the face of the unknowable, I can think of no better spiritual home.

So, for the first time in my adult life, I now feel that my faith and my life are firmly in tune. The Church’s job is to provide a framework for modern life, and to fill the gaps. If the secular world is busy, ugly, shallow and selfish, the Church offers peace, rhythm, contemplation, humility, aesthetic riches, history, friendship -- all combined in a narrative that makes sense of our actions, hopes and fears. The strands of belief that have passed through my fingers in the past decades have finally knit together; I have never felt more strongly tied to the Church.

Edward Lucas was born in 1962 and educated at Winchester, the LSE and the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. He has been a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe since 1988 (chiefly in Moscow, Berlin and the Baltic States) and is currently Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist. He is married to Cristina Odone and has three children.

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