Andrew Rumsey, English Grounds: A Pastoral Journal. SCM, 2021.
‘My advice for the storm:
Draw close to something rooted.’
So begins the epigraph to Andrew Rumsey’s pastoral journal, which is embedded in the Wiltshire landscape where he now serves as Bishop of Ramsbury, and poetically evokes the places and parishes he visits as part of his ministry or on his walks in the Marlborough Downs. These few words might serve equally well as a motto for Save the Parish, for we too value the power of stability and belonging in a world that works to tear us from what matters and isolate us from all that grounds us in community and place. Roots, we are now told by naturalists, intertwine and act together, caring for the weak and even shifting their trees along. In the same way, the ‘English Grounds’ of Rumsey’s title refers not to our country as some neat discrete parkland but to a ‘small stub of road’ near Southwark Crown Court with mysterious connections. The first short meditation is on the Wiltshire River Kennet, which flows into the Thames and thus becomes one with the half concreted-over River Effra of Gypsy Hill in South London, where he once ministered. Place-making, argues Rumsey, means looking down to the holy and mystic source of life and realising a commonality and interdependence between town and country.
Rumsey’s biographical introduction is particularly powerful and evocative, especially to any reader who pored as did the young Andrew over the wonders of that ‘unsung psalter of British topography,’ the AA Book of the Road, although the wonders for the Rumsey family included compulsory visits to sewage works along the way, a relic of his father’s earlier career in civil engineering. A vicarage childhood led Rumsey to feel both embedded and distinct, upping sticks when his father moved parish. Church felt both ‘like the middle of the village’ yet oddly set apart, a tension that speaks to our Christian identity as both covenanted with place and yet focused heavenward. Small scale and fractal, with short meditations on particular churches, rocks and places, this is in truth an ambitious book, which seeks nothing less than a rethinking of what it is to link parish and country. It reminds me of G. K. Chesterton in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, where nation-building begins in your urban village, through an embrace of our immediate surroundings. Our locality is to be loved, not because we own it or because it is better than anywhere else, but because it is where we find ourselves but like the Kennet, our local belonging flows into greater waters, or the body politic.
‘Parish’ is the word Rumsey chooses to begin this quest for England and he notes how the word is locked into an ‘outdated caricature that could not help but appear monocultural and reactionary’. This is so sad because what are the forces that are renewing parochial life in our cities but those of immigrants? People of African and Afro-Caribbean heritage (whether old-established or recently arrived) are the backbone of London Anglicanism, while Iraquis and Iranians form significant parts of the congregation in many northern cities. England is their inheritance too and the parochial vision has the capacity to embrace the ‘paroika’ or outsider.
One of the curious features of these beautiful essays, as Rumsey’s wife notes, is the concentration on things – buildings, sculptures, landscapes, notices. Rumsey witnesses to the importance of the physical environment as mediator of meaning and holiness and notes how he found himself offering a ‘celebration of the ongoing significance of church buildings and those who heroically sustain them’. One person he does encounter is a churchwarden whose Grade 1 listed church has few worshippers, people resigning from the PCC and ‘£9,000 in annual costs to conjure from the collection plate’. He calls for a more confidently strategic approach to the future of our historic buildings – an aim to which we in Save the Parish have set our faces. As is so often the episcopal language, Rumsey murmurs about not fearing Good Friday, ‘the ending of things’, but we recall that it was Christ’s body that was raised and transformed: nothing was lost. Ours is not the sacrificial theology of a part given up on behalf of the whole, which is the way church reports have often spoken, as if parishes must die so that new forms of church must arise. The Common Good is one in which my good and your good are not in competition but are established mutually. And yet having made this dutiful bow to episcopal cabinet responsibility, Rumsey ends the meditation like a true bishop: ‘yet as it advances, the more pastoral the task becomes; and the more these stones start looking like sheep’. This analogy refers back to an earlier essay, ‘the grey wethers,’ about sheeplike stones glimpsed on Overton Hill and it suggests that the pastoral embraces the natural world, the hewn stones, the sheep and the people all together. The ‘cure of souls’ cannot separate people and places. As Rumsey writes, ‘we can no more evacuate divine meaning from the material world as live in the clouds. That is why we shall continue to replace the church roof and thermometer our appeals to heaven.’
Our country desperately needs a new sense of what it is to be English to guide our future development, one which will embrace all who live here and not the slogan of racists. True patriotism comes, as Rumsey notes, from realising we do not own the land but that it belongs to God. Renewal will come from an ‘imagined community’ that memory creates. Rumsey sees the importance of the church as enabler of this remembering for the future: ‘How to view the country’s past is a tale that could usefully be told by an old institution, especially when we go to seed.’ We need to renew our memories, our attachments to realise that we belong together, that the communal is more foundational than the individual, and indeed grounds and enables our personhood. In ‘Groans of the Britons’ Rumsey muses on the role of Bede, Gildas and Christian culture in enabling an England in the Anglo-Saxon period. This book can give those of us in Save the Parish new hope and inspiration as well as challenge. It might seem that we like Anglo-Saxon England are in a period of crisis, with a lack of people and money and threats of church closures, but the parish system began at that same time and paradoxically, those same stones in landscape and church could be the very source of renewal, calling us back to be real – ‘draw close to something rooted’ – for roots stretch far and wide, and can even move.