Thursday, June 28, 2012

Finding Life in Dying Churches

There's a term used here in England called a "living church."  It refers to the amount of use that a church receives, that is, how much it is actually used as a place of worship.  Westminster Abbey is, for example, a living church.  Although it is mostly a tourist stop, it has Anglican services every day, and functions just as any other Anglican church would (except for with a lot more pomp and circumstance, and a couple thousand more Asian tourists). 

However, there are many churches in London which are, for lack of a better term, not-so-living churches.  These are churches which are only used occasionally for worship, or have been repurposed as an even center or the like.  If not for their historic import to the London community, and their beautiful architecture, these churches would probably be razed to make room for office buildings and high-end flats.  This is especially true in the City of London (the original city, surrounded by Roman walls), in which modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers mix quite oddly with ancient churches, church gardens, and bell towers.  This quirky combination is starkly obvious at St. Helen's Bishopsgate, an ancient medieval church--and one of the most successful Anglican parishes in London--which is right across the street from the Gherkin, a definitive skyscraper in the London skyline.  When wandering around this section of London, I get the feeling that more than one real estate agent or architect has cursed these tiny churches for standing in the way of their dreams of business development.

I'm not sure what the ratio is of living churches to not-so-living churches, but from my American, LDS standpoint, it seems like most of the church are simply dead.  On an average visit to a church in order to find epitaphs, I typically happen upon one of two circumstances: I enter upon a completely empty church, collect my research, and leave without being able to locate a single living soul, or, I am charged an entrance fee at the door and give a tourist pamphlet (which includes a summary of the church's history, a claim that this church is the oldest in London, and a heartfelt plea for monetary donations).  Unfortunately, because of the shrinking which is occurring throughout most Anglican parishes, the only way for these magnificent structures to make any income for their maintenance is through asking for donations and charging entry fees for tourists.  As the younger generations fall out of touch with the Anglican church, congregations have become much smaller and parishes have forced to consolidate.  For instance, instead of being large enough to support its own parish, as it did in earlier centuries, St. Helen's Bishopgate is currently a member of "the parish of St. Helen Bishopsgate with St. Andrew Undershaft and St. Ethelburga Bishopsgate and St. Martin Outwich and St. Mary Axe."

In general, it seems as if these wonderful structures are dying.  Though Anglicanism is the official religion of England, it's definitely not the most popular sect in London.  Compared to thriving Muslim, Hindu, Roman Catholic, and Jewish places of worship, most Anglican churches have rather empty services (except for St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey, but even then, about 80-95% of the audience are probably tourists).

When I visit these old Anglican churches (almost all of the very old churches in London are Anglican), I can't help but think of death and dying.  Not only do some of these churches have small cemeteries in their gardens, most of them have tombstones, epitaphs, and crypts all over their walls and even strewn across their floors.  I've walked into many an empty church, gazing at the tombs above and below me, simultaneously romanced and a little terrified that I'm the only breathing body in this city of the dead.  It's enchanting on one hand, the idea of complete stillness and solitude, with medieval, renaissance, Georgian, and Victorian corpses as my only company.  But it's also tragic: why is no one else here to enjoy this beautiful building?  Why do so many Londoners fail to support or even appreciate the faith of their fathers?

Of course, it's perfect for my research.  I can go into the stillness of a church, gather my data, and then leave, without disturbing anyone.  I don't have to worry about interrupting worship services, or about zealous members or clerics trying to convert me.  I can have silence and focus on the tombs, the epitaphs, research, and translation.

I was doing just that at St. Bartholomew-the-Less some time ago.  St. Bart's the Less is near Barbican, and is the parish church for St. Bartholomew's Hospital, which is only yards away. I was completely alone in this tiny church, halfway through recording a lengthy epitaph, when a woman walked in.  She looked tired and gaunt, and shuffled into one of the middle pews as the ancient wood floor creaked.  Lifting a prayer cushion from its hook, she sunk to her knees and bowed her head. 

It was touching to see this woman finding comfort in the church.  She had come from the hospital, no doubt, and was probably praying for the health of a loved one whom she had visited there.  She was almost bent in half as she prayed, and seemed rather desperate.  As I realized I was intruding on this extremely private moment, I felt awful.  Who was I to gallivant into places of worship, take a few notes, and then leave?  What right did I have to disturb the holiness of these churches, to interrupt conversations between man and God?  How did this undergraduate research project fit into the lives of the few who came to these churches for comfort and solace?

I couldn't answer these questions at the time.  I still can't.  I know that there's nothing wrong with my desire to learn more about Latin epitaphs in London churches, but at the same time, it made me feel so fake to be translating hic jacet and writing notes while this woman poured out her heart.  I haven't come to any conclusion about this experience, or my other experiences in London churches.  It just seems too complicated and delicate to make a final decision about whether or not my academic presence is welcome on these holy grounds. 

More to follow.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Finding Things

As I've been wandering in and around the finest and most delightsome city on Earth, I've noticed that I have three things constantly on my mind:

1) How fast I'm walking, how fast everyone else is walking, whether or not to pass on the left or the right, if it's safe to jaywalk, where to jaywalk, how to dart past the slowly moving people in front of me, what way to look to dodge cars, how fast I need to run to catch the next train, etc.

2) Where the next rubbish bin is, and what the heck the cultural norms are when it comes to dispensing of waste. (Because I'm pretty sure there's some sort of secret combination they have to dictate when and where to dispose rubbish.  And I'm pretty sure the Londoners themselves don't even know it.)

3) How England compares to the States.  And this is probably the most important thing I think about all day, which is why it is the topic of my blog post.

I realized I compare England to the States all of the time.  In fact, I doubt that there is ever a time that I'm not comparing the two countries, either consciously or subconsciously.  I make a mental note every time I hear my English friends talk about taking a bath rather than a shower, when I hear someone say "diary" rather than planner, or when I see a shop advertising meat pies for sale.  Walking down a bustling London street, the vast amount of differences almost overloads my mind--"to let" instead of "for sale," driving on the left instead of the right, women wearing classy hats, gutters in the middle of the sidewalk (sorry, i mean "footpath"), lampposts older than my home state, policemen with silly hats and no guns--the differences are massive.  Even walking in a public park close to my house (and you'd something as simple as a public park would be pretty similar throughout the western world) reveals immense differences.

Yet in the midst of all this foreignness, there is an odd similarity to it.  There is something that feels slightly familiar in the way the English see a bath as a relaxing treat rather than an activity for babies and children (I had a very long conversation about this a few days ago, and begrudgingly realized that it maybe could be a soothing experience for an adult).  Although there are many times I look at the English way of life and think, "I don't think I could ever live permanently in England" (and I usually think this when I am offered black pudding or a Cornish pasty or some other dastardly fried meat-n-carb combo), there are just as many times that I think, "Wow, they've got it right.  This makes more sense than my culture."

I think part of this is because I don't just want to see myself in England, I want to see England in myself.  I think seeing England in myself is a major reason why I went on a field study last year, why I came back again this year.  Although I have a German surname, my heritage is probably about 80% British (mostly English with a little Welsh mixed in).  So when I look at people drinking tea--which I think is the one of the most useless beverages I've ever sipped--I can't help but think that somewhere along the line, my great-great-great-great-whatever drank tea every afternoon and absolutely adored it.  When I see people living in great rows of houses squished together and it makes me claustrophobic, I know that one of my dear ancestors probably thought that was how mankind was meant to coexist with their neighbors.

When I glance at English culture, it looks very similar to American culture.  When I look closer, it's vastly different.  And yet when I truly examine it, it seems very much the same again.  I suppose in the midst of this culture that shifts from familiar to strange, I am trying to find myself.  I am trying to discover how much of my "Americanness" is real, and how much is just a result of my lack of world travel.  Is my dislike for tea and baths really a major part of my character?  Or deep down inside, is there an ancient soul, maybe part of my genetics, secretly yearning for a good soak and a cuppa Twinings?

Part of me thinks that if I live here long enough, I'll finally return back to my English roots.  After all, America is a new country, which means that my genealogical roots have been American for four hundred years, at the most.  Four hundred may seem like a long time (to you Americans), but from a genealogical standpoint, it's nothing.  It's like spending a week in China and then applying for citizenship and enrolling in a kung fu class.  Ironically, it's also like going on a field study to England for only three months and deciding that deep down, you're English.

So what am I?  Am I as American as the Fourth of July, a holiday which would not have existed if not for England?  Am I as English as Winston Churchill, whose mother was from New York City?  Will I ask a third question, just for the sake of rhetorical balance?  I think in some ways, the answer is a hesitant "yes" to all of them.  I think there are so many connections and divergences all mixed in together in the two cultures, it's simply too complex to take a side confidently.

But back to my original idea.  When I come to London, what I hope to see is myself.  What I really see, I suppose, is a sort of long-lost identical twin, a culture than is completely different from myself, yet is myself in so many ways.  After four hundred years of separation, we're still very similar, even I can't live with tea and they can't live without it.  But at the end of the day, whether you take a bath because you need to relax or because you're an infant and you lack the fine motors skills necessary for showering, there is something intriguing, even comforting, about living in a culture that feels like a wild adventure and a journey home all rolled into one.