American Adventure

Well, eventually we got there. Our original flights were cancelled and, after many hours re-negotiation, we eventually set off for the States sacrificing about 24 hours of our trip. We flew into Detroit, a small airport by American standards but pretty big by ours, and escaped the long and harrowing Customs procedures by being kindly directed to the, nearly empty, home arrivals desk by a matronly woman in what looked like a Californian Highway Patrol uniform to me-but what do I know, my only experience of America up to now being Bazooka bubble gum and the Streets of San Francisco on TV. What followed was a whirlwind few days of cramming in as much as we could to see as many places as we might. So here, in breathtaking recitation, is how it went: the Mall, tour around Battle Creek-home of Kelloggs;Chicago and the biggest pizza pie I have ever seen let alone eaten (one sufficed for three of us), a trip up the Sears tour to a height that seemed to suck all the  air out of your lungs and drain the blood from your face and a lake tour of the architectural giants of the city (truly breathtaking); a visit to the local Zoo, which for some inexplicable reason tried to convince you that you were in Africa; Grand Rapids to take part in a Confirmation with Bishop Bob Gepert, the Bishop of West Michigan, followed by the best and biggest burger and chips I have ever had; Sunday at church in Battle Creek, where I preached and celebrated twice, then on to the beauties of Lake Michigan; the final day was soul food in a bar and cafe in a downtrodden part of Detroit followed by a long visit to the Henry Ford museum, which is massive and , for me, the highlights were the bus in which Rosa Parkes refused to leave her ‘whites only’ designated seat and the presidential car in  Kennedy met his untimely death ( I’ve seen it so many times in news reels and on film throughout my life, it was hard to take in the reality of it being there a couple of feet away from me).

So that was America for me: big, brash, warmly friendly and positive. Just familiar enough not to be terribly threatening or challenging but ‘foreign’ enough to make us feel adventurous and a little risky. What was the point where you felt most that you were experiencing a foreign country? Our host has spent nearly ten years in England and had grown used, maybe even fond of, the ‘pub’ culture of England. Specifically, he enjoyed the real ale pubs of Sheffield. So he took us to ‘Arcadia’ in Battle Creek, a brewery and bar purporting to be something akin to an English one? Wrong, the beer was far too cold and chilled and also far too strong (typically 7% and 8%). The Americans sat and enjoyed perhaps one or two pints all night. Although it all looked and sounded very familiar it was actually as culturally different as a wine-sipping Frenchman is from the glug-fest of a returning victorious Viking.  When I pointed this out to the people sat with me, they simply could not understand that we might prefer weaker and warmer ale and, indeed, that this was actually the real way to drink it. We agreed to differ but not really understanding at all the other’s position-we were right and they were wrong.

A similar situation exists in the Anglican Communion. Archbishop Rowan has excluded the American Church from any further real involvement in those instruments of the Communion which speak to other denominations. In ordaining Bishop Glasspool, an openly gay and partnered woman, as a bishop, the American Church has ignored-perhaps even turned its back on- the agreed moratorium on such actions agreed by the Communion. If the Americans don’t conform to internationally agreed principles, the argument goes, they have no right to speak on behalf of the whole Communion. Back comes Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of America, with her assertion that the Anglican Communion is actually a federation of independent and autonomous dioceses perfecftly entitled, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to make any such decision and that, in fact, this is what Anglicanism has historically been built upon. And all the while, the Churches of Africa and elsewhere plead that the adventuring into new and risky territory by certain Churches of the Communion puts them in mortal danger-would you want to be known as the ‘gay’ church in a hostile and repressive Islamic regime? For some, whether you like your beer cold or warm is a matter of taste, for others a matter of life and death.

As I look back on an experience of America which opened my eyes to how far away even English culture is from the highly liberal and open culture of the States I realise that, as with Lazarus and the rich man, ‘between them and us a great chasm has been fixed’. Oddly, I believe that the Church of England and its leaders are well placed to bridge this divide. Between the embattled and traditional Churches of Africa and the Churches of the New World boldly marching into a new cultural and moral future there needs to be some negotiation, representation and advocacy. I sense that this is what Archbishop Rowan seeks for us to do, but he will not be liked, for the time being, by those who like warm beer and are given cold and by those who prefer a highly chilled brew to a tepid one.

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~ by Tim Ellis on June 15, 2010.

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