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Andrew Rumsey: To paradise, by way of sewage works

25 August 2017

DOWN the A2 from London to Canterbury in the spare, suspended days of August.

Straight as a processional cross, this unwinding stretch of the ancient Watling Street is congested with journeys, past and present. Only time manages the traffic, splitting seconds and centuries to prevent an almighty pile-up of chariots and charabancs.

Today, though, the carriageway is clear: harvest clouds from a CLAAS combine harvester billow on to the tarmac, and a Eurostar flees the Continent, flashing beside us like a line of mercury.

It is fair to say that I am never so fond of places as when travelling between them: leaving one, heading towards another, on the way. Touring the nation by road, in particular, has always seemed to me a mystical business, an impression that even the greyest and most grinding tailback cannot quite shake off.

This has something to do with the memory of summer holidays, I feel sure — a faint sense of promise imprinted over long, impatient hours on the A303, legs stuck fast to our Austin Maxi’s vinyl seats. We were heading, after all, for the heavenly Salcombe, in whose light all stages en route were transfigured.

Including, I might mention, sewage farms. My father, a parish priest with an earlier career in civil engineering, would generously enliven each journey to Devon with (non-negotiable) tours of sewage-treatment works that he had designed during the 1950s. While such detours delayed the seaside parousia somewhat, in a Pavlovian kind of way they nevertheless succeeded in imbuing even their decomposing fug with top notes of salty expectation.

In her wonderful book For Space, the late Doreen Massey criticised the flatness with which most ordinary routes are depicted (not least in the soullessness of satnav space). “On the road map, you won’t drive off the edge of your known world,” she wrote. “In space as I want to imagine it, you just might.”

Perhaps the radical openness she espoused to new routes, new insights, depends on where you consider yourself to be heading. After all, a journey is shaped by its Alpha and Omega, both of which ride along with us, conditioning our perception.

The experience of being in transit is basic to how members of the Church, as followers of the Way, understand place. The clear signs that “here we have no lasting city” should mean that there is more, not less, for the progressive pilgrim to experience. Heaven may be an unknown world, but in Christ it lamps every place with eternal possibility.

As Chesterton observed, “there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”

The Revd Dr Andrew Rumsey is Team Rector in the Oxted Team Ministry, in Southwark diocese. His new book Parish: An An­­glican theology of place is published by SCM Press. Canon Tilby is on holiday.


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