Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to go to London at least once a month. I loved it. I have never worked in London regularly, but once a month or so, I became part of its energy, became part of its rushing, seething humanity. It was both energising and exhausting, but it helped me to feel connected.
Yesterday I went to London for the first time in a few months. Over the last couple of years I have become more confident walking around the city, more aware that places which look miles apart on the tube map are only a few minutes’ walk apart – so although I did some of my travel by tube, I walked too. Plenty of walking, wearing my clerical collar. Just like being at home. Except of course, it wasn’t like being at home at all. Because at home, I walk, I smile and say hello to everyone I meet as I walk. It’s part of who I am and what I do, as well as being within the scope of the role of the Rector here. In London, I have to remember not to make eye contact, not to smile, not to speak. Of course, some of that is made easy because there are so many people. But I have to remember that in cities, people preserve their personal space in different ways, they don’t look you in the eye, they don’t acknowledge other humans, they assume their conversations are private even if they are loud and public. It is a different way of being.
The divide is profound – between places where people acknowledge each other because there is space, and where they don’t because there isn’t. The pace is different, the interactions are different. Wearing my collar (and shocking pink clerical shirt) made me stand out from all the sober suited people dressed for city office life. My casual conversations yesterday happened in shops, in cafes, not in the street. I am encouraged that they happened at all. But this difference might help explain some of the divide between how I see church portrayed in the media, and how I perceive it is perceived on the ground. Most people writing for national media are based in cities, and so are used to operating in that fast, self-preserving bubble. Whereas the conversations I was having yesterday afternoon about rural ministry were all about the relationships we form with our communities. For me, some of those relationships are street based. Maybe I should wear fluorescent yellow jacket and redefine myself as a street pastor when I walk? It’s one of the older Fresh Expressions.
The dominant discourse in the UK is very south-east centric. It takes less than 90 minutes for me to get to central London by train. But my normal world is years away from that frantic city life, and the dominant discourse does not reflect much of life here. Remember the relationships, remember that people still greet strangers in the street. It’s what makes us human. And if you see me in London, do say hello!