The overnight snow has cleared, and I am sitting in the study, looking out on the rather scruffy greenery of the garden. As with many clergy houses, the surrounding garden is unusually large for the locality. It’s much admired by visitors, especially congregation members, not because it is in any sense a model of horticultural achievement but just because it is a green space. And a green space is defined as good, to be enjoyed, a source of spiritual solace.
Talking recently with someone who has moved from working in the inner city to a parish in the depths of rural Essex, we fell to wondering about the default position which gives a spiritual value to the ‘natural’ world, but not to that which is evidently made by human hands, or indeed, by machines designed by human brains. Go into a religious bookshop, and look at the shelves of popular devotional material: most will have covers which show flowers, sky, mountains, woods, sea, even deserts. Any human beings shown will be almost certainly be in rural settings, whether the domesticity of the English countryside or something wilder and apparently more challenging. A very few might be consciously grittier in their approach: urban spirituality, talking of God in the city, is rough, tough stuff, edgy, about stories of poverty and survival.
Intentionally or not, the visual code being used implies that the natural world is of God, and good, offering us an unmediated access to the divine, and that what is the product of human activity is and does none of these things. This of course ignores the fact that so much of the landscape in which we operate is shaped by human intervention: very little certainly of the English countryside is ‘natural’, a wilderness unspoiled by people’s demands upon it. More importantly for my purposes, working in an urban environment, is the implicit message that houses, roads, factories, shops, bridges, railways are always to be seen as second-rate in the spirituality stakes. And, by extension, the people of the city need to get into the green world of big skies and empty spaces, because there they can pray, reflect, contemplate, in ways which are otherwise closed to them.
Perhaps this is part of a peculiarly English cultural obsession with the countryside: just as, if you make sufficient money (or so it was in the past, when people did make money), you move to the country, whether to a stately home or a comfortable bungalow, so if you are spiritually successful, you seek out the fields, the forests, the mountains. But the Christian story famously begins in a garden and ends in a city, and yet we constantly hark back to Eden rather than look forward to Jerusalem. Why are we so unwilling to explore a sense of God amongst the cars, the bricks, the concrete, the bus stops, and the busyness? Why do we not honour as God-given the human creativity which gives us the North London Outfall Sewer, the exuberant decoration of late 19th century terraced housing, the entertainment of one of our local covered markets? And why, when we do try to do it, is the attempt so often disastrous? I recall with pain, many years ago, singing ‘God of concrete, God of steel…’
I can’t answer the questions, but I’m off to look for signs of the Kingdom on the London Underground.