One of the things I learned as a vicar (and something I keep reminding clergy who move from one parish to another) is that you can learn the history, but you can’t share the memory. The problem, however, is that people in any community usually act and react from the unarticulated memory, rather than from the cold fact of history.
This notion has been renewed as I have listened and talked with people here in Virginia during the last few days.
Having flown in on Friday night to Roanoke, we spent Saturday in town visiting the art gallery and watching The Artist at a local cinema. On Sunday I preached at St Peter, Altavista, and in the evening at St John, Roanoke. On Monday we spent the morning at the offices of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia before being collected and driven to meet people in Waynesboro en route to Staunton where we were wonderfully entertained by the rector and his wife. Following a cheese and wine party with the Vestry of Trinity church, I even intruded into their Vestry Meeting (always good to see how other churches run their business).
After a very comfortable night – sleep matters with a schedule of constant new people and places – we visited Stuart Hall School and saw the wonderful Tiffany windows in Trinity church before driving to Lexington for a clergy lunch. This was excellent: generous hospitality and good conversation with good people. After a visit to the R.E. Lee Memorial Church, we went on a tour of the Washington & Lee University before visiting the Virginia Military Institute. Later we drove on back to Roanoke in time for dinner.
Wednesday saw us being driven to Christiansburg where we shared in the midweek Eucharist at St Thomas’s before meeting some young people (with educational and other challenges) on an inspired FutureWorks course in the hall. We then went to Blacksburg and toured Virginia Tech where 32 people were shot dead during a planned rampage by a student on 16 April 2007. We went from there to Radford University to meet students for dinner (and informal Eucharist) before spending the night with a brilliantly hospitable and friendly couple in town.
Tomorrow will see us visiting an art gallery with friends before having lunch with the local clergy and then being driven back to Roanoke to prepare for the annual diocesan Council in a local hotel. This looks to be a busy programme including some speaking, meeting loads of people and doing some stuff with hundreds of very motivated young people. We fly out on Sunday late afternoon.
So, why the ‘history versus memory’ stuff? Well, we have met some inspiring people and seen some beautiful and inspiring places. We have heard so many stories of life and faith from so many people. And we have been learning some history as we go. As I said to some people today, it is easy to feel that we ought to apologise for being British whenever we see or hear about the War of Independence. Here in Virginia, however, it is the Civil War that cuts deep and still shapes people. Yet, driving to our hosts from the university this evening I caught sight of a banner hanging in a house window in Radford that said: ‘Liberty or death. Get out of my way’.
It seems that the American default of holding individual autonomy to be inviolable leads to illusions of independence and power that ultimately tend to dehumanise. The tragedy of Virginia Tech hangs in the air (along with other violent atrocities) and calls into question all sorts of assumptions. Apparently, however, the right to bear arms is not up for consideration.
I am a guest – a visitor. I can’t share the memory that goes deep and has shaped the psyche of people and communities here. But, learning the history raises a raft of hard questions about what makes a society good. And the experience sends me away thinking about the power of a Christian gospel that calls for a radically new way of thinking and living. Today we celebrated the Conversion of St Paul – a conversion that, precipitated by an involuntary encounter with the risen Jesus, shattered his entire world view and broke him down to the extent that he took years of rebuilding his way of seeing, thinking and living.
Conversion is hard. Easily spoken of, but costly to endure. And always easy to propose to someone else.