The Greening of (a few) Americans
In September of 1973 three American ordinands (Episcopal), and one pregnant ordinand spouse, headed to Nottingham, England for two years of study at the relatively new and unabashedly non-traditional, St. John’s Theological College. A second spouse would soon join us, and a year later two more Americans, single women, neither an ordinand nor spouse…but who would eventually marry British ordinands. One could boil this adventure down to a simple statement: We went to St. John’s to intersect the world of Michael Green.
This blog post will hardly be exhaustive…I will try to catalogue the basics, with a little color…such as the bizarre, other-worldly, colors festooning the steam pipe laundry drying room in the ground floor of the single student dorm where the over and under garments of our fellow students gave us pause and reminded us that we were not in Kansas.
E.M.B.G., aka, Michael Green. His was the name at the foot of the letters confirming our admittance to the college. Two of us, Jay and I, had come from Williams College, the third, Paul, from Harvard College (and Divinity School). My wife Mary and Paul’s soon to be wife Mary would join us in perhaps the only English seminary where wives were welcomed, nay—encouraged, to be a part of their husband’s training. Michael was the one tutor whose name was known to us. He held a double first degree from Oxford, was a gifted athlete, evangelist to the world, apologetic writer extraordinaire, avid sportsman, and was ever so much more than a presence wherever he went. His wife Rosemary hardly played second fiddle. Her strong gentleness, warmth and intellect truly complemented Michael’s larger than life presence. We all, I think, had Peter Moore in common, as this picture from The Brown’s Hotel in London, circa 1974, attests. He had trained at Oxford before embarking on a career of ministry to prep school students, from which background we had variously come.
As a cultural bookmark let it be noted here that on our first Sunday at St. John’s we toodled over to the Refectory for High Tea, dressed as best our Trans-Atlantic experience could afford, in bib and tucker, etc., expecting the Queen, maybe, and fancy finger foods surely. Bangers and Mash. Orange Squash. That was our fare, and our introduction to the culture of the Midlands. So it began.
We Americans were not the only foreigners at St. John’s. There were ordinands and non-ordinands, and ordained clergy from all around the world: Canada, South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, India, Australia, France (?), Rhodesia, Ireland and New Zealand. And every Tuesday night the whole community would look around at the world through speakers, prayer groups, and focus groups, all under the heading of Vigiles.
Hamburgers were not something anyone but we Yanks knew about. Imagine trying to grill a balled up mush of what “they” called “mince” on an oven grate over an open coal fire in our living room. And then to serve brownies for dessert? What are they??!!
It was assumed that since we were from America that we spoke like cowboys are were on intimate terms with all the folk at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston (where a major revival was going on).
AND…Watergate, our national shame, was playing out daily on the telly, to the confused delight and horror of our former — well, what does one call the folk who were subjects of King George III when we Yanks dumped “their” precious tea in Boston Harbor — fellow English speakers on the Eastern edge of The Pond.
I think we all gave up on trying to talk British after a few hopeless weeks at it. Our counterparts NEVER stopped speaking to us with cowboy accents (an exaggeration to make a point!)
It is true and fair to say that all of us at St. John’s then, culture, accent, clothing, and socio-economic background aside, shared a common view of the church, the gospel and the world. Of course there were debates and disagreements, but never, that I recall, on matters of core doctrinal substance. We were, I believe, in the heart of the emerging Evangelical movement in the Church of England that would place one of our tutors, George Carey, in the Archbishop’s throne in Cantebury. The way had been paved by John Stott, Michael Green and others, who through the fifties and sixties taught, spoke and wrote to the nation and to the world a lively Christianity that, in a sense, picked up where C.S. Lewis and others left off.
It is worth noting here that there were a few bishops in the U.S. who were willing, and sometimes eager, to see their ordinands trained in these quite exceptional U.K. colleges. I had a Williams classmate who went to Ridley Hall in Cambridge (he and his wife travelled over to England together with us on the QE2), two others to Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, and friends who went to Trinity Bristol and St. John’s Durham. A vanguard of sorts. My oldest and best friends today are all of this number (not neglecting to mention my newest best friend who is, in fact, from Kansas, and never, indeed, attended theological college). May Bishop Alex Stewart, who saw this all unfolding, and with grace embraced the unfolding, be blessed in memory.
Michael Green was not the only shining star at St. John’s. Julian Charley, Colin Buchanan, George Carey, Steve Travis, Anne Long, John Goldingay, David Gillett, David Cook, and others. Most of the men had wives who shone just as brightly and were dynamic mentors in our St. John’s experience. Anne Long shone as brightly as any of them. My most important field training for ministry in education was led by Pat Travis.
Then there was Frank Lake, the tutor for our second year Diploma in Pastoral Studies course. I will let Jay and/or Paul talk about him. Suffice it to say that my pastoral ministry AND my personal emotional journey were profoundly affected by this giant.
With so much given to us, we felt we had an obligation to give back. Which we did on two or three evenings when Talent was called for, rehearsed, and put on stage. The Three Americans dug deep and delighted their audience with such classics as Get a Job, Fun, Fun, Fun, and Monster Mash. A recording of one such show still exists. You can find it HERE.
During our first year, speaking of entertainment, there was a group of Final Year students who had formed an informal drama troupe called The Clowns. They were comprised of and ex-convict, an East End tough whose heart was melted by a deep faith, a Cornish vicar’s son, and a chap with a double last name and the pedigree to prove it. One never knew when they might appear with their very moveable stage. When they did word would quickly spread and we would drop our copies of Eusebius and head for the latest “stage”.
I’ve about shot my wad at this point. Need I add that the cultural differences were so unsettling at a certain level that I distinctly remembering shaking the dust off my feet as we departed our cottage on Common Lane for the final time. Hard to imagine. We loved it, were loved by everyone, and yet were in so many ways fish out of water. Deep and lasting friendships, yes. Indelibly imprinted spiritual lessons and experiences. Yes. Memories of trips throughout much of that Island Home. No question. It was just…?
We have enjoyed forty five years of ongoing and warm connections with a handful of our friends from St. John’s. We have seen them in England, Ireland, Canada, and here in the States. These friendships have provided a deep continuity with that experience of our youth that in so many ways was discontinuous. We have been back to Nottingham maybe twice, and the physical connection there feels more distant with each visit. The college is no longer a residential seminary. There are one or two familiar names in the mailings we receive. An elaborate and necessary security system encountered at our last visit meant that we had to speak with strangers to establish our bona fides as visitors, and be admitted through many locked doors in our efforts to “look around”.
We were in Bramcote during the heyday of St. John’s. That day is now past. Friendships last longer than institutions, and for that we give deep thanks. This brief expedition into the past has called up many delightful and rich memories, along with visions of dear faces and voices.
And there was Michael in the midst of it all, at least for our first year. He departed in the Spring of 1974 to become the Rector of St. Aldate’s in Oxford, but his spirit lived on. Julian Charley took over as Interim Principal, I believe. Michael’s energy remained on campus. I saw Michael next some seven years later when he came to speak at Yale Divinity and I was the Rector of a small Western Massachusetts parish. I was immediately recruited to lead the gathered faithful in rousing choruses, such as Michael assumed I would have in my back pocket. Thanks to him, I did.
(In going through old photos and videos I uncovered predictable memory lapses. One such is the omission of another American couple who were in Nottingham with us, and who continued with Jay and me on to VTS (Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria) post St. John’s. We were close then, but soon drifted apart. They divorced. We lost touch—with only occasional sightings since in church channels.)
Paul Zahl chimes in
Mary and I had been married exactly four days when we flew to England from Washington, D.C. to begin our time together at St. John's, Nottingham. It was in the middle of a national crisis in Britain caused by the coalminers' strike in Yorkshire, and there was only coal enough for the houses there to be heated the equivalent of three days a week. (Even the BOAC jet on which we flew over was frigid. And my Mary's a Florida girl!)
Well, the culture shock was just as big as Peter has described it. Mary and I both came with visions of Cotswold cottages and elegant country estates. But no, far from it! We found ourselves immersed from head to toe in blue collar (and just above it) English mores, attitudes, and FOOD! The food we were given at 'College', as they would say, was the adjustment almost to beat all. Spuds and bangers and mash and "pudding" and basically, Oliver Twist. "Please, sir, may I have some more."
Moreover, our newlyweds' "flat" was freezing, the oven was broken (and unfixable), and we had no refrigerator. So there we were, in Bramcote, Nottingham, with no car, no working kitchen, no money, no furniture or anything that we really owned, and no previous contacts or friends. Quickly, natch', we got to know Peter and Mary Pierson, and Jay Haug, all three of whom were lifesavers.
Yet for all the unexpected disadvantages, it was magic. Pure Magic! Why? Well, first, I had spent most of my education among Episcopalians who were all about good works, social action, and "human relations training", but seldom about God! Really!! I had just been converted to a New Birth, Biblically speaking, at a FOCUS summer camp, while studying at an excruciatingly godless institution, Harvard Divinity School; and lo and behold! these people in Nottingham loved the Lord! Really loved the Lord! One was entirely no longer on the defensive.
The day I arrived — a few months before Mary and I were married — I got off a 'Robin Hood' bus in front of St. John's College, dragging two suitcases, and walked straight into a somewhat grungily dressed man who asked me who I was. I said my name, and then said, "You must be Canon Green." To which the man replied, seemingly incredulous, "Canon Green? Canon Green? I'm Michael. We're Christians here!" Funny thing is, he really meant it.
From that moment on, I knew I had come home. And then in January, when Mary and I came to St. John's together -- in the midst of that nationally arduous coal strike — we both knew it.
I could go on all day about the unexpected deprivations, the English attitudes concerning social class, Americans (as they knew of them from television), and their eternally 'penny-wise/pound foolish' preoccupation with money. Mary and I could talk about all that a lot. But it would be missing the heart and soul of the thing.
The heart and soul of it was the sincere, welcoming, informed, utterly consecrated Christian faith, and sense of divine calling, that we had all around us. It would become a part of us.
Because I was assigned to Michael Green's "tutorial group" — which meant that EMBG met with us every morning early to read the Bible and pray together — I was invited — really required, thank God — to be part of a mission team for an evangelistic mission at Holy Trinity Parish, Hounslow, in West London near Heathrow Airport. Michael led the mission, and Mary and I attended innumerable "coffee mornings" and evening meetings. BUT hundreds of everyday people got converted! Hundreds. The Hounslow Mission was an historic success, and had a lifelong, almost overwhelming effect on Mary and me both.
Also, because St. John's, Nottingham was not only evangelical in theology and churchmanship but also charismatic (tho' not self-righteously or excludingly) in music, prayer, and spirituality, we were exposed to a unity of faith and practice on that front that served us very well during the next... 50 years of ministry.
I would add just two more elements:
We were given a brilliant placement during our second year, as seminarian interns at St. Nicholas Church in downtown Nottingham, under the saintly David Huggett and his wife Joyce. David's humility and acute, touching prayerfulness made a lifelong impression on me.
Finally, and here's the down side of sorts:
When Mary and I returned to the Episcopal Church after two years at St. John's, Nottingham, and I was ordained in the Diocese of Washington (D.C.), the spiritual atmosphere was day and night. The people under whom we worked in Washington, once they "smelled" that we were different from what they were used to and coming from a quite different place theologically and pastorally, well, once they suspected that, we became personae non gratae in almost the twinkling of an eye. And their frosty welcome — un-welcome — followed us pretty much the entire course of our ministry in the Episcopal Church. There were exceptions, of course, but not many. In other words, the heaven that was St. John's, Nottingham was often regarded as "hell" by the people in power over the churches we served.
But are we glad we took the risk and moved to Nottingham in 1973. You bet! It was one of the two or three high points of our entire lives.
A further theme of our time at St. John's was the way it fortified our ministry as couples. Almost all the married couples at St. John's were in it together! Yes, the man would be ordained formally, but the woman was behind him in every way, opening their house to Bible studies and small-group meetings, praying with him each morning for conversions in the parish and for sufferers needing help, and simply being a team.
From our opening day together in Nottingham, Mary and I were touched by the example of faithful, even saintly seminarian and clergy couples everywhere around us. We were fortified by these couples, and several of them became our friends for life — right up to this day.
Problem was, the Episcopal Church to which we returned in 1975 had almost no room for such an idea. TEC was on the verge of ordaining woman to the priesthood and the concept of a clergy spouse giving her all but not being "up front" in the same manner as the man, well, that was out-of-date, at best; "chauvinist", at worst. So Mary Zahl, with so much love and hard work to give for the exact aim she shared with her husband, seemed to the Episcopal parish to which we were assigned upon returning home, "a square peg in a round hole". This was wounding and unfair; and prevented a tender fountain of good will and honorable zeal from watering its rightful garden. For Mary, returning to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington after two years of inspired togetherness in England, came with a thud. Me, too.