In his brief and brilliant poem T S Eliot traces the path of the Magi, through “the very dead of winter” facing hazards, challenges and portents on the road to their destination as witnesses of the newborn Christ. But as so often with Eliot, it’s the twist in the final few lines that takes the reader off into a new and hitherto unexplored dimension. For, whereas Matthew simply tells us that they made their way home by a different route, Eliot makes us listen to the elderly traveller reflect on life after Epiphany:
…this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot’s insight is that, no matter how hard or arduous the journey to a religious experience may be, the greater challenge lies in living in the light of that experience afterwards, among people who haven’t shared it and cannot understand it. It’s a thesis borne out by statistical surveys which invariably show a majority of respondents are able to identify something that has happened to them that they would classify as a religious experience, and yet in most cases they haven’t found a way of integrating it into the rest of their lives.
I like to think that what is in the poem isn’t just Eliot’s Christian insight but something of his quintessentially Anglican identity. Here was a man who spent many years in the office of churchwarden, a position less associated with theophanies than with the challenge of ensuring good order and that the practicalities of church life are given due attention. In my years as a parish priest I found that a high proportion of those who came to join us were not new-born Christians, fresh from some profound conversion experience, but men and women who had come to faith elsewhere, often in more evangelical or Pentecostal gatherings, and had, after a short while, found little there that enabled them to live in the world as it is; nothing that could sustain them once Epiphany was over.
To be Anglican is not to disregard or downplay religious experiences. I know in my own life how important are both the occasions when I receive an intense experience of God and the daily sense of his quiet presence beside me and within me as I encounter him in contemplative prayer. But being Anglican is so much more; it’s about being resourced, equipped and encouraged to live a Christian life that is fully incarnated into a world which operates according to significantly different values. The work I do, nationally and locally, to promote high standards in equality and diversity practice, and my involvements with the Housing Association movement are as much what it is to be Anglican as my attendance at public worship and, as a bishop, my role as Eucharistic President.
And so I delight that the Church of England calendar now has the post Epiphany season running all the way through to Candlemas on February 2nd. But I do slightly wonder why so many of the Sunday lections for the next few weeks are about the miraculous, when, as Eliot has told us, that’s the easy bit, it’s after the journey is over that the real challenges arise.
David Walker is Bishop of Dudley in the Diocese of Worcester