Dispatches from Europe #2 (UK)

I have just woken up early for the second day in the row--for those who know me, this is unusual to say the least--after an exhausting, exhilarating day in London, and two nearby cities of Portsmouth and Southampton. Though I am on little sleep, it seems that my mind and heart are so captured with the possibilities, so inspired by what I've seen here so far, that sleep has taken only a secondary priority to processing these experiences. 

First, in order to avoid prejudging the rest of my meetings this week, I am going to postpone any sweeping assessment of the particular lessons of my time here, but I am utterly convinced that the situation and faithfulness of some brothers and sisters here in the UK are of direct relevance to the present condition, circumstances and aspirations of the American church which I love so dearly. 

But I would like to at least try to summarize some of what I have seen and let it stand on its own for now.

 First, a personal aside: I love English breakfasts. Honestly, I may have already made this in Dispatches #1, but if so it bears repeating: any country that deems tomatoes and mushrooms an essential part of one's morning has already won me over. There will be pictures of said breakfast on this blog in the very near future.

Following breakfast, I did an interview on faith in American life and some other issues which I will share with you once it is out. It was a wonderful conversation with a gifted journalist. 

I then went out to the beautiful city of Portsmouth, the historic home of the British Navy, the birthplace of Charles Dickens. There I had the honor of visiting the Cathedral Innovation Centre, which was founded by its CEO Francis Davis, a dear friend and a savvy, thoughtful leader here in the UK who has facilitated many of my meetings this trip. I will have to write more about him a bit later on. 

The Cathedral Innovation Centre is a unique innovation hub that is focused on supporting innovative businesses for the purpose of providing jobs and economic opportunity. The workspace for the hub is provided through the local Cathedral, where the Dean is deeply invested in its operations. The Centre I visited was in Portsmouth, but it is already being replicated in Derby and other areas of England, and the nation of Moldova, the poorest in Europe, has requested the Centre's help as well. It is a powerful example to me of the local church leading in ways so as to meet felt needs in the community it serves, making the gospel tangible in ways that are even more important practically today. It is both the type of model we have seen in the States, but it is also one with its own innovations that we in the States can learn from. 

The Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend David Brindley, showed me his church, which was founded in the 12th century, and has been committed to proclaiming the kingdom of God in the here and now for nearly a millennium. The church founded a grammar school in the 17th century as a radical expression of Imago Dei in a time when it was deemed improper and unnecessary that the poor be aided in learning to read and write. As I talked with the Dean, he immediately and without provocation began to speak of how God has been faithful to his cathedral and to the community, touching on the theological touchstones that have been central to my own faith. 

A section of the Portsmouth Cathedral constructed in the 12th century. A testament to long obedience and faithfulness.

A section of the Portsmouth Cathedral constructed in the 12th century. A testament to long obedience and faithfulness.

The last stop of the day was in Southampton's Above Bar church. A church planted by an American in the 1870s, that is committed to both the proclamation of the gospel and the making of disciples. This holistic vision expresses itself in ways that are dear to me, and familiar to many of you in the States. Through Love Southampton, an ecumenical partnership of like-minded churches in the city, they have joined together to serve their city through unique ministries helping the most vulnerable. Their efforts are not dependent on government involvement, but where their efforts can be strengthened, and where they can provide a service to the broader community, they have built up trust-based relationships with local policymakers that are quite rare in the UK (for reasons I will touch on in a future post). 

I was able to learn about Love Southampton in a meeting with one of those local Councilmembers, Monsignor Vincent Harvey, and leadership of Above Bar. The program they have invested in that is closest to my heart is a city-wide effort to adopt and/or foster children who need families as an act of love and service, and as an expression of God's kingdom. In a way not dissimilar from Wait No More, or the types of bold, faithful action taken by pastors like David Platt, they are shepherding their people with scriptural teaching about adoption and caring for the orphan, and pairing it with practical guidance and support for adoptive families. Their effort has exceeded their expectations so far, and it is a model for the rest of the UK.

I also met with a broader leadership team from Above Bar to learn about their specific ministries, which are effective, grounded in scripture and a beacon to their community that can too often religious people as insulated. I was touched that they prayed for me, and encouraged by their working out of what faithfulness looks like in the here and now, present state of their city.

Finally, I spoke to an unexpectedly packed house at the church at an event that included the participation of Monsignor Harvey, Councillor Satvir Kaur and Councilman Darren Paffey. I was able to speak to the group about the American situation, and the complex, worthwhile intersection of faith and public life, particularly in the context of my experience in government. I will share my remarks on this blog this evening or early tomorrow, following my last public talk. I was particularly encouraged by the conversation and Q&A that followed my talk, full of earnest questions and profound perspectives. I felt at home. I felt a solidarity and fraternity that was unexpected to me before today.

I wrote that I will refrain from making sweeping assessments and takeaways while I still have meetings with faith leaders, non-profits and governmental leaders here in London this week, but I will take the liberty here to state what is clear to me already:

The American church could get by in earlier times with an insulated, parochial view of the big questions of our day by the mere uniqueness of American culture and society. But if anything has been clear over the last few years, even the last few months, it is clear that the ground has shifted and is shifting in the United States when it comes to the role and place of religion in American public life. These changes are not entirely negative, but they are new, and we have seen the costs of falling asleep at the wheel in this moment of such rapid change. 

Our brothers and sisters in the UK have been seeking to answer the questions we have in many ways just started asking: What does it mean to be faithful in a society that does not share Christian assumptions? How do we work out the tension of being in the world and/but not of it? How do we best serve and love our neighbors in this time of religious skepticism?

We can learn from how the church in UK is answering these questions. We can encourage and be encouraged by their faithfulness. This is not a time for parochial squabbles and pride of place, this is a moment for church unity. 

A few years ago, I was struck by this unique sensation (to me) while reading the New Testament, particularly Acts and Paul's letters, that the church's embattled state did not result in competition, but in community. Paul's letters are filled with sharing the testimony of one local church's witness for the purpose of inspiring faithfulness in another. They prayed not just for the success of their own ministries, but for the work God was doing around the world through disciples of Jesus. 

We are in such a time now.

I can't wait to learn more and to share more--to gain encouragement and hopefully to give it--during the rest of my trip here in the UK. 

I wiI will provide another update soon. Thanks for reading.l