The notion of studying church life in far-away London might seem to be something of a lark. London is one of the major metropolitan cities of the world, a place a bit unlike any other. It also has a number of famous, fairy-tale type churches such as Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and St Martin-in-the-Fields, well known for culture and showing up chock-full of people for televised royal events. After all, England has an “established church” with a wee bit of a colorful history [think: Henry VIII and his marital troubles]. What on earth could there be for an American [living in Fort Wayne, nonetheless!] to learn about church life in London? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
London is a highly secularized place, in the midst of a country becoming rapidly more secular. In other words, people simply are not going to church and think it has little or no meaning in their lives. It is estimated than roughly only 2% of the people in London attend a house of worship. London is, if you will, de-Christianizing itself. While many of us hear stories about the collapse of Christianity and organized religion throughout Europe, it is quite something else to see ancient churches with only a few souls in attendance on any given Sunday. While Americans talk about the decline of interest in church in particular and things related to a life of faith in general, you can actually walk around in London and see and hear what that actually looks like. For an American religious person, it’s a bit like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol, seeing a glimpse of what the future might look like for American churches.
Yet, in this story there is a group of rather remarkable churches doing some amazing work in a world that is generally ambivalent, and occasionally antagonistic, about their presence. All of London is not rich or famous or royal. As you might imagine, the city is full-up of ordinary people; rich, poor and everything in-between, all living and working and raising families in communities scattered throughout the city. In a number of these neighborhoods you can find churches that have made commitments to embody the presence of Jesus in that particular neighborhood, these parish communities have not surrendered to the inevitability of as secular world. And they have generously offered to show a bunch of Americans what they have learned in the process.
London forms a unique laboratory in which to study and think about church life in a contemporary age. While no one would mistake cosmopolitan London for Fort Wayne, Indiana, there are a few similarities that make it a worthwhile candidate. Not the least of these is common language [accounting for a few British idioms] and a similar sense of place on the world’s stage. To talk to a pastor or church member in London demands much fewer cultural translations than you might find in many other situations. [In fact, it is probably easier for a Lutheran to understand the systems and context of member of a Church of England church than it will be for the same Lutheran to understand an American Pentecostal.] Going to London provides a unique, setting hard to find anywhere else. Most of the churches in London are part of the Church of England [the traditional, established church]. While there is a great variety of styles and ideas present in the Church of England [just as there is among American Lutherans], they all have a similar general theology, or way of being. Once you wrap your head around this, you can begin to see and experience differences in style and neighborhood expression without needing to ask, “is this a Catholic thing? A Methodist thing? A Lutheran thing?” To get the same experience in, say, Chicago, you would have to visit a Catholic church, a Lutheran church, a Presbyterian church a Baptist church and probably a Pentecostal church as well, with all of their inherent differences.
The churches visited in the Learning from London course are not, by and large, the great, famous churches of the city. While the group participates in one Sunday Evening Prayer in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral, the rest of the time is spent in very ordinary congregations in a wide variety of neighborhoods. From one of the poorest and most ethnically mixed neighborhoods in Europe [Tottenham] to one of the richest neighborhoods in the world [Sloane Square], from a parish operating in one of the swank retail areas to one operating in a simple farmer’s market, we get to see a variety of church expressions and communities, from a traditional paid English choir to praise bands to singing along with YouTube videos we see more diversity and styles under one general tent than you would ever imagine.
It is important to note that participation in the Learning from London course requires quite a bit of up-front preparation; reading, writing and reflection are required of everyone taking the course [for academic credit or not] as well as a week filled with conversation, reflection and review. It is NOT a travel-tourism course. Kierstin Kellermeyer, who is participating in this trip, will be posting about all the preparation in the next post on this blog.
I had the opportunity to go to London in January 2016 as part of the second Learning from London class sponsored by Bexley-Seabury Seminary. A friend had put me on to the class. A grant from the Lutheran Foundation allowed me to participate in that first trip. While I was in London that first time, I thought about the things I was seeing and hearing, but I was also thinking about the general rule of thumb in regard to many continuing education events like this: at best, 30% of the things you learn actually take hold in the place you work. It’s easy to see and learn things in a new place. It’s much harder to get any of it to stick in a different place. While I was in London that first time, I started to talk with Jason Fout, the director of the program, about what it would be like to bring a whole group from a local congregation to learn from London. Our question to ourselves was; is it possible for an American congregation to absorb the openness and outward community focus of some of the best congregations in London and then translate that in a very American way? Is it possible to Learn from London, then create a scenario where others would be able to learn from someplace in the United States? We thought it was possible and we thought that a good place to try this would be Fort Wayne.
One of the reasons we thought Fort Wayne is a good place to translate learnings from London is because it isn’t London; or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Philadelphia or Washington or anyplace like that. Fort Wayne is, and this is meant in the very best way, a rather ordinary place. Those of us who live here really like it a lot. We think it’s a great place. It has a lot to offer, but not in the same way some other, very large cities might. We’re much closer in, much more ordinary. No one will say, “Well, that’s fine for you in Fort Wayne, but that will never work over here.” We are, if you will, much more the “everyperson” in the church world. Our outstanding characteristic is who we are, not where we live.
So, what have we brought home from London? The first is a certain sense of ourselves. One of the things discovered by those London churches is that you have to be concerned about the neighborhood around you, the neighborhood right outside your door. This is the place God has planted you. This is the place you begin. To paraphrase Jesus, “if you don’t like the people near you, who will ever believe you like the people far away?” We have sought to do that in a number of ways here at Trinity English. These include, to name a few:
As well as some things more internally focused including:
What we have found is that, in addition to these particular programs and events, Trinity English has begun to take on the ethos within the city of Fort Wayne as being a partner in the city. We are seen as a church that is actively engaged in the welfare of the city. Consequently, we are invited as partners in more and more things in the life of the city. People in the city invite us to join them as partners in their work because of how they now perceive us and our care and concern for our city. We hear from many people, “I never knew a church cared about that…”
There was a moment when Tom Hardin said, “We are London!” In many ways, he’s correct. And all of those people who have helped make everything we do possible have become something like Fort Waynian Londoners. We have begun to absorb the ethos of those churches in London who are concerned about living out the Gospel story in a way that becomes transformational for the lives of the people in the church and the people around the church. Much more than 30% of the learnings from London have stuck to us. And many people could learn from what we have been able to do together in this place. After this trip, ten additional people have participated in the program, including three staff members.
A note of thanks must go to the Trinity English Foundation whose funding of this project has made it all possible. Apart from that first grant from the Lutheran Foundation that made the first trip to London possible, the Trinity English Foundation has funded this project in the hope that we would engage in new, transformational projects for the life of Trinity English and the city of Fort Wayne. The upcoming trip this June will complete this project. An additional note of thanks goes to a family in our parish who made a gift to make it possible for Luanne to go on this final trip. They thought it was important that she get to experience this opportunity once with me and gave a gift specifically to make this possible. I look forward to sharing our experiences “on the ground” while we are in London on this blog, and also once we return.