From A Resident Alien [letter 3]

Letter 3

Greetings from a land where 90°F is a cool day and English gentlemen like me are forced to wear shorts.  Every day.  Highly inappropriate, but these are the trials I face.

NEWS: I have a job!  A small one, but a job.

St Michael's Church have asked me to contribute to/take over responsibility for the music in their contemporary service.  So I wanted to tell you about St Michael's.

The above picture is from 1865, of a downtown Charleston that had been gutted by Civil War artillary and by fire.  By that time, St Michael's had already been there for over a century, and has provided an unchanging constant ever since.

Any tourist or historic guide to the city will mention St Michael's in the first five pages; it's a fixed point in a changing world.  Today, it serves an incredibly wealthy parish, but has managed to keep itself from being either a museum or just a nice place for nice people to be seen.  If you're into your ecclesiastics, you'd probably class it as a liturgical charismatic evangelical church, with four functioning congregations (I went to them all on Sunday).

Now, America is not overly in love with old stuff – things are not generally built to last here.  You can tell this when looking for somewhere to live (as we are), since the fact that when a house was built over 20 years ago it is automatically a risky prospect.  Buildings are knocked down and redeveloped here as a matter of course, and 'old' is generally a negative adjective.

But downtown Charleston is an exception to that, with its meticulously preserved 18th Century housing, its mule-and-buggy carriages, and its old-time interbellum feel.  And St Michael's.  Maybe it is primarily for tourism purposes, but the contrast to the knock-it-down-and-start-again ethic of so many American cities means that it offers something different.  Old is valuable here.

As part of preparing to move to the States, I listened to a bunch of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon monologues: stories of traditional life in a traditional backwater small-town; reminiscences of a bygone age, a bit like reading Tom Sawyer.  And then, on Saturday, I turned on the radio and there it was again: the news from Lake Wobegon.  Still going, still 'traditional', 'backward', 'out-of-date', but very lovely, very American, and definitely happening NOW.

And that is something I feel this country is dealing with at the moment: the tension between being a forward-looking, energetic young country of immigrants, and the fact that it is built on the bedrock of 18th Century social philosophy, conservative faith, and pre-industrial liberalism.  It's a wrestle between the old and the new, and St Michael's is almost an image of that wrestle to me.

And that's what I've been thinking about this week 🙂


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