Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Inquisitor Teddy Bears, Walking with C. S. Lewis and an English German Church Service

For Sunday I was planning on spending the day in London. I ended up changing those plans when I was invited to help out at a Teddy Bear carnival. This project is the brainchild of a local shop owner named Erica, who runs the Bead Games store.

The idea is that people donate old Teddy Bears, ranging from pocket-size to gigantic, and she hosts an outdoor tea-party where she sells the bears and the proceeds go to charity.

It was great fun stringing the bears up and tying them up to the pyramids. I thought of it as sentencing them to be hung and burned alive at an auto-da-fe. For the horrible crimes you have committed against law and order, you bear are to hang by the neck until death. May God have mercy on your soul. And you bear are charged with heresy on three counts - heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed, and heresy by action (oh four counts).

In the afternoon I toured Magdalene College, where C. S. Lewis taught. Behind the campus, there is a beautiful path called Addison’s walk, which Lewis frequented. (Anyone who has read Lewis understands the important role of nature walks in his thinking.) There is a plaque in memory of Lewis along the way. It is hard to see the writing from more than a few feet away so I actually had quite a difficult time finding it.

On the plaque is a poem of Lewis’:

What the Bird Said Early in the Year

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:

This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees

This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.

Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back

To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell

We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart

Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.

After spending some time with Lewis, I went over to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, a magnificent Cathedral right next door to the Bodleian library. Seeing that a service was in progress in one of the side chapels, I went in and sat down, hoping to experience a traditional English church service. There was an old lady sitting next to me and she kindly showed me where they were up to in her hymnal. I looked down at the page and then perked my ears to the singing; they were singing a German hymn. As it turns out this was not an exercise in multiculturalism. This was a German Lutheran congregation and the entire service, with the exception of a few points where they stopped to translate, was in German. At Magdalene, I had just walked past the commemoration wall where they had the names of students who died during World War I and World War II. Lewis himself fought in France during World War I and did a famous series of broadcasts, which became the basis for his Mere Christianity, during World War II. I am sure some of my Haredi relatives are reading this and are hoping that I pick up on a Nazi connection here take this as a message from above that I should not be in a church anymore than I should be at a Nazi rally. I was strongly reminded of the book Aryan Jesus, which dealt with Christianity in Germany under the Nazis. There is a part of the book that deals with efforts to change church hymns to better fit Nazi ideology.

I went over to the pastor, a blonde haired woman in formal clerical garb, afterwards and asked her about this congregation; I figured there had to be a good story behind this. It turns out that this congregation was founded right before the start of World War II by German refugees. So I guess this German church service in middle of England does work well with World War II. The congregation today is mostly made up of Germans, living in Oxford. I pointed out to her that if we go even further back we see Martin Bucer, a member of Martin Luther’s circle, coming over to England to help with the English Reformation.

Despite the fact that this is a German congregation, they gathered afterwards for tea. I guess certain aspects of English culture are inescapable. Interestingly enough, when I told this whole story over to one of the people staying along with me at Yarnton, who is German, he told me that in Berlin there is an Anglican congregation that holds services in English. I wonder about these Anglicans. After services, do they gather around for beer and knockwurst?

The view on top of St. Mary’s is just breathtaking.

To reach the top one has to go up this really narrow winding staircase. Climbing up took enough effort to have me contemplating what a useful answer this tower would serve for that most foundational question in democracy: "where would you place a machine gun?" As an American, the version I traditionally use ends with "in case King George III comes marching down the street." I guess that would not work in England. Since this is an Anglican church, maybe it can be "in case the Pope comes down the street."

On the way down I noticed that they had a sign up for John Henry Newman’s office. (At this point I should point out how grateful I am to Rabbi Shalom Carmy for introducing me to the writings of this nineteenth century Christian thinker.) I wonder whether the sign is for the pre-Catholic Anglican Newman or for after he converted to Catholicism and became Cardinal John Henry Newman. I find his reasoning for converting quite relevant to contemporary religious thought. He argued that in a growingly secular environment the Church would increasingly find itself under pressure to make compromises to make itself presentable to modern society. The only thing that could stand in the way of this was a strong church structure and hierarchy. As Newman saw it, the Catholic Church was the only Church that could do that. I assume the sign is for the Anglican Newman, who used to preach here. I greatly admire those who kept the sign. If these were Haredim there would be a full denial that someone like Newman, who converted out of the faith, ever was associated with this place.

If a movie is ever made of Asael, this church would be great for staging a fight scene. I am thinking something for the later books, once you get characters that are immune to standard weapons running at each other with sharp pointed objects that are not of this world. (Paleface, from the prologue, being one of these people) They can go up the stairway, to the ledge and crash over the ledge to rooftops of the lower buildings.


Miss S. said...

If a move is ever made of Asael,...


Izgad said...

Got it. Thank you.