Once upon a time, a little girl in Bryn Athyn dreamed of visiting England, where three of her grandparents had come from. Time passed. The 6th grade countries project was an easy choice for her – England. More time passed. She returned from a prom one evening to the news that Charlie Cole was going to send her to the British Academy Summer School [BASS]!
While in England, she met a young man whom she thought looked a bit like Paul McCartney (Beatle mania had been at its peak only 2 or 3 years before). More time passed. He came to travel the USA on a Greyhound bus, spending time with her family. More time passed. She decided to visit this young man in his homeland, to get better acquainted. She would ‘earn her keep’ by helping in the New Church school in Colchester [long since closed]. Before a year had passed, they were engaged. They returned to Bryn Athyn to marry (because who wouldn’t want to be married in the Cathedral she’d attended almost every week of her life?). They returned to the UK so he could finish his college course. And she has made England her home since that day nearly 45 years ago, living happily ever after. The end.
Except it’s not the end. I’ve been ‘blooming where I’m planted’ for a long time now. I have evolved from a young woman fully immersed in Bryn Athyn life (the hub of the General Church) to someone living happily as a ‘satellite’ member of the Church in England, with only occasional direct contact with other NC people (apart from one other family – great friends – in our own village). How did that transition happen?
I’ll try to convey what church life has been like for a satellite member of the General Church here (part of the ‘Open Road’, the scattered NC members around the UK).
Nowadays, the internet provides easy access to other NC folk and activities all over the world. It wasn’t always so: long before computers existed, my adjustment moving from the hub to the outer fringes of the Church took time and was sometimes hard. It might be much easier now. (My husband had always been part of the Open Road so church life didn’t change much for him.)
Today, there are two NC societies with ministers (as there were when I first arrived): Colchester in Essex, and Michael Church in London. As well as serving their own societies, the pastors travel to serve members of the Open Road in England, and in the Netherlands. As part of the Open Road I’m not sure what happens elsewhere in the UK, but I know there are groups in at least four other parts of the country who meet regularly for study classes and/or worship.
General Conference, another branch of the New Church, has 14 remaining churches in the UK, most in the north of the country. It owns Purley Chase, where the General Church’s BASS and All-Age Weekends have taken place for many years. A Gathering Leaves women’s retreat met there in 2008. The two branches seem to get along all right, though I don’t think they work closely together very often at the moment.
When I first moved to England, I needed new ways to connect with the Church because both UK societies were many miles from my home. I helped for several years with the postal distribution of religion lessons. I subscribed to various NC publications – anything printed that would bring Church-based thinking through my letterbox. As our family grew, we had worship and sometimes managed to do religion lessons. We travelled to Michael Church in London for special services. We sent our kids to Young People’s Weekends and BASS (and eventually to Bryn Athyn College).
Once another NC couple had moved to our village, a pastor began visiting occasionally and other scattered NC families would join us for ‘church’ – this still happens (our current ‘congregation’ varies between 6 and 14). Sometimes, if a pastor can’t come, members of the group lead worship. As I prepare to host or walk to our friends’ home on those Sunday afternoons, I somehow feel ‘official’ – I’m going to church on a Sunday, like others in the village do.
I’ve learned to appreciate the existence of other churches in the village (Anglican, Methodist, and Catholic congregations) because it’s a reassurance that other people too regard the Lord as their highest authority. Though I sometimes attend services in the Anglican church, I prefer New Church worship.
I write the occasional New Church thought for our village newsletter. For a while I took my NC perspective along to a group discussing Life’s Big Questions – our kids dubbed it my spiritual badminton group. But more than that, and just as important, I’ve gotten involved in my community in both sociable and official ways over the years, ‘to make oneself useful to society in general’, as Swedenborg’s Rules of Life put it. There are plenty of great people to meet!
When our children were teenagers I joined the board of the British Academy, which supports and sponsors the Summer School I’d attended as a naïve American years before. Later, I moved on to the board of the General Church Council, and serve there still as secretary. Both boards hold their meetings in London.
Just last summer, I was part of the committee that organized the 2017 European Assembly, attended by NC people from 11 different countries. Apart from the London and Colchester pastors, the whole committee was from the Open Road, i.e. not living near a New Church society. We were all delighted that it turned out to be a friendly and very successful event. The uniting bond for everyone was a real affection for our Church and its teachings, valued increasingly deeply over time. It gave me a glimpse into how the General Church functions in different parts of the world. Every single person matters: societies can achieve a lot because they have a lot of people, but satellite members too have an important role to play in establishing the Church on the earth. New Church numbers may be small, but they do have a global reach.
What part do YOU play in your part of the world?