Sometimes reading a book can help you see yourself.
This summer I read a book I had seen reviewed, agonisingly of course, in The Guardian. The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart [London: Hurst and Company, 2017]. This is not an agonised book review. I think there is good stuff in the book but I got a bit tired of statistics derived from attitude surveys.
Goodhart is trying to understand Brexit. (You can see why The Guardian got all agonised about it and yes I am a Guardian reader…) He suggests that modern Britain is composed of two sorts of people. “Somewheres”, who have a strong sense of belonging to a particular place, community, family, contrasted with “Anywheres”, who sit much lighter to a local or even a regional identity. This makes some sense in our patch where we have multi-everything postgraduates living alongside families who have three and four generations living within half a mile. Goodhart goes on to identify the former with more conservative social attitudes – people who perceive their world to be substantially one of loss; of community, identity, cohesion, value, virtue and money – whereas the latter are positive about the benefits of liberalisation and globalisation, the freedom to choose one’s own identity and who prize autonomy above all.
Goodhart calculates that half of the population are “Somewheres”. “Anywheres” are 20-25%. But – and this is the point of this blog! – he cites statistical evidence that 60% of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were aged 14.[i]
The question that formed in my head and heart was about the identity of the parish priest. I am an “Anywhere”. After effectively leaving home aged 18 to go to university, I have lived in many places. I don’t buy the whole rhetoric of autonomy but the truth is I tick more of that list than the list of belonging. I don’t quite belong to any particular place.
But I did when I was a vicar.
When I started as vicar, I introduced myself (pompously) as Vicar of St Giles’ Durham and Priest-in-Charge of Sherburn and Shadforth. By the time I left, I simply introduced myself as the Vicar of Gilesgate or the Vicar of Sherburn or Shadforth. Slowly I had come to belong. The gracious local folk made me welcome and helped me to belong. I was now a “Somewhere” of sorts.
And that has set me thinking.
I marvel at some of my predecessors who gave the best years of their lives to being vicar of these small, and often unglamorous communities. And they gave many years, thirty or more in some cases. Now we know the problems with that pattern of ministry – especially if you lived in a community that got stuck with a “duff vicar”! – and that there are good reasons for doing things differently now.
And yet…I do marvel at their incarnational life.
Now again we must not romanticise this. They “incarnated” in imposing Victorian vicarages. This was not living “with” the poor. It was more “living close to but above the poor!” But they were there.
And perhaps that is the point. Christians don’t value things by chronological time. Jesus was only “active” for perhaps three years. But it is clear he was there. We don’t have the resource to keep stipendiary priests in one place for thirty years. And it really may not be a good idea any more but how do we come to belong in the time that we do have?
Relationship. Listening. Looking. Being “out there”. Visibility. Getting behind the front doors. Sitting on the sofa with a cuppa. Having a pint in the working men’s club. Hearing what the community is concerned about and showing that we “get it”. Working with our active Christian communities so that they are also known as people who are “out there” and who “get it”.
So that we are trusted. Trusted to handle and hold the deep things of individuals, families and communities.
And how do we find the energy to do this? To become a “Somewhere”?
By feeling the compassion of Christ for our communities. Christ loves these people and these places. Not abstract People but this Person and these People and this Place.
I have moved on to a diocesan post now. I am back to being a bit of an “Anywhere”. That is the cost of the calling to deployable ordained ministry. But a bit of me will always belong to Gilesgate and Sherburn and Shadforth. Thank you Christ for this privilege.
And I wonder if so many English people really are “Somewheres”, how that might impact on how the Church wins their trust and shares Christ’s incarnated and resurrecting compassion with them?
[i] D.Goodhart The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London: C Hurst & Co., 2017) pp.25 and 4. Conversely in London in 1851 over half of the over-20 year olds had not been born in London. O.Chadwick The Victorian Church Part 1 (London: A & C Black, 1971, 3rd ed.) p.325.