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Western promise

10 November 2017

Eric Lobsinger, an American priest who began his training in Japan, now works in the UK. He describes his experience

Parish life: Fr Eric Lobsinger reads the Gospel during the parish mass at St Mary’s, South Ruislip

Parish life: Fr Eric Lobsinger reads the Gospel during the parish mass at St Mary’s, South Ruislip

ONE of the notable features of the Church of England — if not the notable feature — is the parish system. In this system, the parish priest is a public figure, which means interacting with other public figures. As an American, I didn’t know what I had done (or what St Mary’s, South Ruislip, had done) to warrant the Deputy Mayoress’s presence and speech at my induction as Vicar earlier this year.

This sort of thing would never happen in the United States as a matter of course. The English parochial system, however, helpfully encourages interaction between church and civic life for the benefit of both. Since my induction, I have also found that parishioners who never usually darken the church doors nevertheless feel an affinity to St Mary’s as their church during times of personal crisis.

On an ecumenical front, in South Ruislip it seems as if most churchgoing Christians tend to be Roman Catholic, but those active in the local RC church still treat their C of E parish church with special deference.

This past summer, for instance, homegrown vegetables were dropped off regularly at the vicarage from neighbours. Initially, I thought that these were perhaps from lapsed Anglicans who were hoping to win favour with the new Vicar. Instead, they were Roman Catholics who were simply doing what they always did: handing over their garden surplus to their Anglican parish church — which I received gratefully.

These experiences are in sharp contrast with the Anglican system in Japan, where I engaged in formation and discernment, and the US. There is no parish structure in the Anglican Church in Japan (Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Holy Catholic Church of Japan): Christians are too small a minority in the general population. Instead, individual “parish” churches are really spiritual outposts for all the Christian faithful who happen to be in commuting distance. Although US Episcopalians use the term “parish”, and — particularly in Washington, DC — like to imagine the Episcopal Church as being the national Church, in reality the Episcopal Church is just one of many denominations across a diverse Christian landscape.

Parish life in England is also incredibly diverse, in contrast with the far narrower demographic reach of the Episcopal Church (largely white, educated, and upper-middle-class). I served my curacy in three adjacent north London parishes. Before that, I had never sampled curried goat, but that culinary deficiency has been well corrected. I also gained familiarity with reggae, rum, and bingo.

I treasure the chance I had to live and minister within the culture of Afro-Caribbean Anglo-Catholicism. The overflowing funerals with horse-drawn hearses, men shovelling in the backfill at the gravesite, and raucous wakes fuelled with delicious curried goat and rum punch provided an intimate sharing of Christian joy and sorrow that only a true parish system can allow to flourish.

Now that I am in the suburbs of west London, I am learning all sorts of new life-skills that are part of the parish landscape. I have had to develop green fingers, as gardening seems to be the way into people’s lives here. For parish fêtes, it is now beer rather than rum; and even the rules of bingo are different.

In any case, I feel privileged to share in the life of local people who chat with me. The parish system does not permit our church to become a club only for people who look and act like us, which is what the market-driven, denominational structure of the US tends to do for American churches. In some ways, the Anglican Church of Japan is closer to the C of E in this respect: there are so few churches in Japan that a single church will attract all sorts of people and nationalities.

Food also plays a big part in church life in Japan. Preparing a respectable plate of yakisoba (fried noodles, vegetables, and meat, served with a thick, sweetish sauce), and serving up a balanced cup of sencha (a type of Japanese green tea) were some of the more delightful experiences of formation in Nippon Sei Ko Kai. And although excellent meals of saba teishoku (a mackerel set meal), tonkotsu ramen (pork soup), and sushi certainly have left me a lasting impression of the potential of parish fêtes, my theological education in Japan ventured beyond the culinary.

Needless to say, my Japanese language skills had to expand beyond delicious food options on restaurant menus to include biblical names, sacramental concepts, and references to philosophy. It was hard work, but immensely rewarding. Interestingly enough, as an American now in the UK, my American language skills are perfectly attuned to addressing specialised theological matters, but I still seem ill-equipped to discuss many food-related questions (important for parish life everywhere). I still, for example, struggle to understand what is meant by “pudding” or “pie”, or any of the possible words for a sandwich.

I find that, having had to improve my Japanese linguistic ability to tackle words that tend to be used primarily in an ecclesiastical context, I am now trained to be more adept at navigating through all the possible linguistic pitfalls of naming what is what at an English parish dinner (or is that “supper”, or it is “tea”?). In any case, I understand the frustrations of being misunderstood because of differences in language.

The differences between English and Japanese are clear enough. This has helped to prepare me for what is arguably a bigger language barrier: the subtle differences between American and British English. They are similar enough to fool you into thinking that all is going well, until you realise that you have just unintentionally insulted a parisoner by using the adverb “quite”.

Beyond general life-skills, several features of my experience of ministry in Japan continue to stand out for me today in ministry in the UK. The first concerns the courage of Japanese individuals who decide to become Christian.

In Japan, Christianity was prohibited from the early 17th century until the mid-19th century. Indeed, the Imperial Government suppressed churches within living memory, during the Second World War. Christians of all denominations together make up less than one per cent of the total Japanese population; and, in a society in which social conformity is prized, the decision to become a Christian can have significant social repercussions.

Christianity is viewed as a “foreign” religion, which can make conversion a trial for anyone who wishes to maintain warm ties with family, friends, and colleagues. I was always impressed and humbled by those who, none the less, found faith in Christ, and decided to proclaim it through baptism and confirmation.

Their witness continues to move me, and inspires me to be strong, in the midst of the adversity that Christians are starting to experience in a rapidly secularising Britain.

Second, Japanese Christians understand that they work better together than apart. In the Japanese landscape, Christians of various denominations work together regularly. Doctrinal differences between denominations do matter, but when Christians make up such a small section of the population, one quickly recognises that what they have in common is far more important than what separates them.

Churches in the West have had the “luxury” of separating from one another, because Christianity has been part of the mainstream culture. This is no longer true. I have made it a priority in my parish to reach out to other churches, to see where we can serve as a common witness. I am grateful that my parish and the local Roman Catholic one have been meeting weekly over the past month to discuss and pray about the Christ-led ministry of all the baptised. There is nothing like perspectives from parts of the world where Christianity is marginal to underscore how this kind of ecumenical collaboration should be the norm.

In Japan, churches are very hospitable, making visitors feel as if they are being welcomed into their new home. Part of this, of course, stems from a distinctly Japanese sense of hospitality: polite, thoughtful, and generous.

The Japanese Church adds to this, though, by including a distinctively Christian dimension of brotherhood and sisterhood to hospitality. As a small community, the Church is keen to know everyone as an individual. Of course, this takes time. Sundays at my church placement were all-day events. After the Sunday-morning mass, there would be refreshments in the church hall, which often included freshly homemade mochi (Japanese rice cakes) and sencha. This was then followed by lunch out with everyone for some kind of teishoku (set menu). It would be far into the afternoon before everyone went their separate ways, satisfied over good fellowship, conversation, and food.

Since my formation in Japan, I have tried always to show gratitude when I meet a brother or sister Christian. That shift in outlook can make a big difference to how one expresses a warm welcome. I have taken my cues on practical hospitality as well from hosts in Japan. For example, I now always have guest slippers at the front entrance of the vicarage for any guests who would rather remove their shoes. Although this is an uncommon custom in the UK, a surprising number of visitors do seem grateful to exchange their shoes (especially rain-soaked ones) for comfortable slippers.

I moved from the US to the UK four years ago, soon after I married my wife, who is British. But, for all the diversity of experiences — not only goat curry, but cricket and Marmite, too, among others — I find that, fundamentally, people are very similar.

My training and formation in Japan definitely helped to underscore this: no matter how different things appear externally, what is important to ministry is building good relationships, communicating hospitality, finding common ground, and pinning our real identity on Jesus Christ.

One other thing I have learned: being able to prepare a beautiful cup of sencha is an essential skill for those times when there is no milk for a cup of English breakfast tea.


The Revd Dr Eric Lobsinger is Vicar of St Mary’s, South Ruislip, in west London.


My training for ministry

Privilege: Fr Lobsinger officiates at a christening in St Mary’s, South Ruislip, earlier this year

I SPENT a couple of years training in the Anglican Church in Japan. It was not in the Far East, though, that I started formal discernment for ordained ministry. This was in the Episcopal Church in the US. Initially, I followed a call to the distinctive diaconate. I had planned to serve in a non-stipendiary capacity, while maintaining a “day job” as a lawyer. Opportunities in law opened up in Fukuoka, Japan; so I left St Louis, Missouri, for Fukuoka, with permission from the Bishop of Missouri to seek out training in the Anglican Church of Japan.

Owing to my obligations with law, I could not enter full-time seminary formation in Japan. I did, however, go on a non-residential two-year training course offered by the diocese of Kyushu for diaconal and priestly candidates. There were four of us on the course. I was one of two non-Japanese ordinands. As part of the course, I was assigned to a church. This had two congregations: one of Western expats, for whom English was the working language, and one of local Japanese. I served in both congregations, and had to preach to both.

The formation and training I experienced in Japan have shaped my ministry. As well as the standard academic work and rather stern tutorials, I saw first-hand what it is like to be Christian in a country where there are very few Christians. Although I did not know it, that experience helped to lay the groundwork for exercising ministry in the post-Christian West.

After completing my formation in Japan, I returned to the US. I was ordained to the diaconate in Washington, DC, where I served a parish church whose congregation reflected its location: St Paul’s, K Street.

In Washingtonian circles, “K Street” is shorthand for the world of lobbyists and political lawyers. True to form, St Paul’s had a sizeable representation of these and related professions. This was not extraordinary: it was a simple fact of being an Episcopal parish church in north-west DC. What was extraordinary, however, was how non-partisan the parish community was, despite the number of individuals who worked for competing political parties and causes.

This unusual togetherness revealed how the sacraments and Christian fellowship really do transcend the worldly divisions that separate people — a point that has not been lost on me as I serve diverse communities in the UK.

I served as a distinctive deacon for three years in Washington, and it was during the last year that I was called to discern priestly ministry. For family reasons, I moved to the UK. I spent a year as Junior Dean at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, while also serving as Assistant Chaplain at Merton College, Oxford, before being ordained to the priesthood.

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