Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August–September 1999): 11.
A week in London at the end of May, and a number of things are not quite as expected.
Beginning with the weather. Five of the eight days are sunny and pleasantly warm, and only on the last day is there rain and heavy fog. My daughter, who has been living in the city since last fall and who acts as tour guide for my wife and me, assures us of our good fortune. "I haven’t seen three sunny days in a row since I got here," she tells us.
Then there is the food, which, with the exception of the "full English breakfast" at our small hotel—including eggs fried hard as hockey pucks, sausage of dubious provenance, a sodden stewed tomato, and pallid baked beans—is excellent. Perhaps because of the English breakfast, we eat our evening meals in French, Italian, Spanish, and German restaurants. But lunch is mainly pub food—fish and chips, sausage and mash, sandwiches served on excellent bread—and it is both reasonably priced and flavorful. The taste is doubtless augmented by the wonderful Guinness stout to which I become devoted. (And the Brits are right about warm beer, some warm beer at least: Guinness served too cold, I discover, loses half its taste.)
There’s also sports. Many Englishmen who come to America affect an air of bemused superiority over our presumably excessive emotional investment in sports events. But within a few days at the end of May Manchester United won the World Cup in soccer and the English national team lost out in an early round in the World Cup in cricket—and never have I seen such vicarious participation in the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Especially the latter. The Times, from which one would expect more restraint than the tabloids, could scarcely contain its bitter disappointment over the humiliation in cricket. "The English batsmen," one writer lamented, "mentally weak and technically incompetent, once again failed when the chips were down." Another, noting that a TV commentator had insisted that the British players compensated for their lack of talent by their hard work and tenacity, commented sardonically: "That will look good on their CVs come next season as they seek other employment." All in all, the Times’ sportswriters seemed easily the equal of their New York counterparts in random nastiness.
Comparisons with New York spring to mind with great regularity in London. The cities are alike in their pace, density, and manic energy. (The English countryside may be tranquil, but London most assuredly is not. One senses the same excitement and ambition one does in Manhattan.) The streets are equally dirty—London has surprisingly few trash baskets—and the traffic equally impossible. London exceeds New York in panhandlers and street people; it is now where Manhattan was before Rudy Giuliani demonstrated that we need not put up with everything that urban liberalism imposes on us.
In both cities, tourists are everywhere, and London treats theirs rather better than New York does. Clerks and waiters are far more civil, people in general more polite. It’s easy to change money. Tourist buses are immediately and ubiquitously available. Pedestrians are no less—perhaps even more—at risk of their lives, but at least in London most crosswalks have helpful signs telling people to look right or look left, a necessary instruction for those unused to English traffic patterns.
A day trip to Cambridge mingles splendor and unease. The colleges are wonderful, though we’ve hit the examination period and most of the courtyards are off- limits. The atmosphere of the city is enchanting—so much so, one has the sense of wandering in a particularly beguiling theme park. We watch the students punting on the Cam in idyllic languor under a golden late afternoon sun, and it is as though we had stumbled onto the set of a Merchant and Ivory film.
At the end of the day we go—everyone has said we must—to King’s College Chapel for evensong. The chapel is as magnificent as advertised, and so is the choir. But the experience is disappointing. There is little in the way of congregational participation; we are observing a performance. Worse than that, the three hundred or so in attendance are not a congregation at all. They are tourists, and this is just another stop recommended in the guidebooks. Before the service, people fidget, whisper, and giggle. Many ostentatiously refuse to join in the prayers and responses.
After the service, large numbers, with few signs of reverence, hurry to the altar to take in—the guidebooks have emphasized this as part of the King’s College Chapel experience—the Rubens Adoration of the Magi that serves as backdrop. It is a stunning painting, but not really an altar piece, and its presence further suggests that at the chapel, even at evensong, one is museum- going, not worshiping.
It is of course a cliché to identify the great cathedrals of England as museums of the Christian faith—or at least of the Anglican communion. Still, jostled by throngs touring Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the one hand, and recalling the dismal statistics related to church attendance, on the other, it is difficult not to do so. I find minor encouragement in returning to the Abbey for Sunday Eucharist. There are no tours on Sunday, and the ushers actively discourage anyone from attending the service in lieu of a tour. They emphasize that it will be a very long service (actually it’s only a little over an hour) and that those who participate will be expected to stay to the end.
This seems to work. The members of the congregation—and this time, tourists or no, we are a congregation—take an active part in the service. The great majority attend communion, at which those presiding indicate deep reverence. Unlike at King’s College, the aesthetic splendor of the choir is a contribution to worship, not a substitute for it. As the dean ascends the pulpit for the sermon, I brace myself—the result, no doubt, of listening to too many satires of Anglican sermons. But again we are in luck. It is Trinity Sunday, which makes it very difficult to avoid the subject of God altogether. It’s not a great sermon—the dean suggests with an air of condescension that we not worry our heads overmuch with the particularities of Trinitarian theology—but he avoids heresy and only skirts triviality. To say I leave the Abbey enthralled would be too much, but at least I do not walk away dispirited.
On matters religious in England, the cliché about Anglican torpidity is balanced by that of evangelical enthusiasm. And I experience that, too, after a fashion. I awake from a nap on late Sunday afternoon to the sound of a hymn–sing from Glasgow on BBC 2. The hymns are familiar, though many I have not heard since childhood, and as the camera scans the large crowd I find myself moved by the evident faith on the singers’ faces. I mention this to my wife, who has been watching the program from the beginning, and she suggests that I might have been less edified had I heard the hair–curling fundamentalist preaching that preceded the hymnfest.
The next morning, I wander over to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, just a few minutes from our hotel. Instead of the radical political harangue I anticipate, I encounter more evangelical enthusiasm. The Corner has been taken over by a group called Christian Answer, and a tag–team of preachers proclaims the unvarnished gospel to an audience—mainly tourists again—that appears friendly enough, but not much in the mood for conversion. The preachers try hard, and the gospel comes through more clearly than in anything I’ve heard all week, but even with visual aids (it’s a long time since I’ve seen a flannelgraph) the response is tepid. There are Christian Answer people scattered through the crowd, and they attempt, with little success, to engage people in personal witness. As one approaches me—"So what do you think?"—I nod uneasily and turn back toward the hotel.
Anecdotes are not evidence, and I draw no clear conclusions from my week’s experiences of religion in England—except my wonderment, yet again, at the bewildering and quite incommensurable varieties of piety God has seen fit to make room for in his Church. We will need eternity to get it all sorted out.