I became infected with this most deadly disease when I was ten years old. The 1966 World Book Encyclopedia Yearbook arrived, and working my way through it I came across the obituary of T.S. Eliot. There he was in his “five piece suit” gazing at the camera in that lugubriously quizzical way he had. I learned that he grew up in the United States but went to live in England and became a poet. For some odd reason I decided that I wanted to do that too.
This infection was dormant until, in high school, I was chosen to play Beverley Carlton—a “flamboyant English entertainer” in Kauffman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner. How well I remember putting on the dinner jacket, the patent leather shoes, the accent, and the affected air of Noel Coward. The disease of Anglophilia burgeoned into the full blown affliction in college. I majored in Speech and English at the fundamentalist fortress of Bob Jones University, and plunged myself into the works of all the great writers, but especially C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their friends.
One afternoon, surrounded by the braying of Baptists and the fulminations of fundamentalists, I pondered what sort of religion these English writers followed. What creed did Donne and Herbert, Traherne and Vaughan recite? What church did Jane Austen attend? Where did Wordsworth worship and Blake bow down? I did not have an inkling what religion Lewis, Sayers, Williams, and Eliot followed, but I knew they did not attend Mount Pisgah Four Square on Fire Primitive Baptist Church of God of the Third Degree.
These scribblers were, of course, Anglicans (except for the papist Tolkien who must have made a serious mistake). Soon after this stunning realization, an even more astounding reality came to my attention. There was a little church in Greenville called “The Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church,” and we were allowed to go there. It had been founded by a well-to-do board member of the university who, weary of the Episcopal Church’s flirtation and then adultery with modernism, divorced himself from her and married another. That other was a little schism called the Anglican Orthodox Church established by Bishop James Parker Dees of Statesville, North Carolina.
Bitten by the Anglophile bug, I jumped in and joined the little stone church in the bad part of town. There we learned to light candles, sing good hymns, kneel down, and say beautiful prayers out of a book. It was there that I was baptized and confirmed, and there, on a balmy Southern Spring evening, that I heard clearly the call to be a priest. Some American boys want to be president, or an astronaut, play in the NFL, or make a million bucks. I wanted to be an Anglican country parson like George Herbert, live in a rambling rectory in a lovely village, write poems, and pray in a church older than Methuselah.
For graduation a friend gave me a picture book which is still on my shelves, C.S. Lewis: Images of His World. It was a heady mixture of the mellow quads of Oxford and Cambridge, cozy fires in common rooms and pubs, the golden green countryside of England and the tweedy, bookish friends of Lewis. Quite drunk with the dream, I wrote a letter to J.I. Packer— the only Anglican theologian I had heard of, asking if he might recommend a seminary in England. He wrote a very kindly letter back suggesting two or three and, with typical American chutzpah I applied and was accepted to study theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. Oxford! I was determined to first study, then live in the hallowed haunts of C.S. Lewis. T.S. Eliot and their literary coterie.
After three years I was ordained as an Anglican priest, spent four years in Sussex, two more in Cambridge as a chaplain at Kings’ College and finally became the vicar of Brading on the Isle of Wight. Lovely village? Check. Rambling rectory? Check. Writing poems? Check. Church as old as Methuselah? Check. Check. St Mary’s, Brading and St John the Baptist, Yaverland were both built in the eleventh century by the invading and enterprising Normans.
As providence would have it, I stepped out of the Anglican boat to walk on the waves with Peter. We entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, but leaving Anglicanism was not to leave England. We lived there as Catholics for another ten years before returning to the United States.
And leaving England was not to leave England, for part of England still lives within me. Now in this month of October there is a surging love for the Old Country—a kind of Autumnal homesickness for my adopted home. I miss the little lanes and seasoned countryside. I miss the sense of centuries infused into every stone of every ancient building. I miss the absurd apologies of the English, the pride they take in their failures, the irony of their wit, and their unerring sense of the ridiculous. I miss their little Englander arrogance, their silly snobbery, and their shabby elegance. I miss both their good taste and their vulgarity. I miss the sad foolishness of the Church of England, the pugilistic pomposity of their politics and the noble ordinariness of the Queen.
The universals abide in the particular, and what I miss about England is best expressed in this whole list from that fair and infuriating land:
Walking the South Downs Way with a black labrador. The Long Man of Wilmington. Visiting castles. Fawlty Towers. The North Cornwall Coastal path. Sausages. Mustard. Sticky Toffee Pudding. Custard. Flemish paintings in the National Gallery. Staying in farmhouse Bed and Breakfasts and eating lunch in country pubs. Watt and Co, Little St Mary’s, Cambridge. A pint of English bitter. Dad’s Army. Really good fish and chips. Rievaulx Abbey. St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, Choral Evensong at New College, Oxford. The upper reaches of the River Thames. WH Smith. Westminster Cathedral. Christmas Cake, crackers, pudding and carols. St Ethedreda’s Ely Place. Canals and canalboats. The Church of St Mary and St Alphege, Bath. Roast potatoes. Downside Abbey. those gas water heaters they have over their bathtubs that sound like engines on airplanes. Glastonbury. Tea with old ladies. Brown Sauce. Squash (the game, not the drink) Anglo-Catholic Churches. Medium Dry Sherry. The Isle of Wight. Lawn Tennis. Tintern Abbey. The Bird and Baby, the Perch and the Turf all in Oxford. St Mary Magdalene’s, Oxford. Old Libraries. Pusey House. Mesopotamia. North Oxford. Private Eye. Merton College, Those soldiers with bearskin hats and scarlet tunics. Yaverland. BBC Radio 4. The Belles of St Trinian’s. Denis Thatcher. Christmas pantos. King’s College, Cambridge. Stonehenge. Charity shops. The Daily Telegraph. Gin and Tonic. pre-1985 Anglican vicars, Strawberries and cream. Newman’s Rooms at the Birmingham Oratory. St Aloysius, Oxford. Croquet. Little Gidding. East Coker. Quarr Abbey.
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