In praise of nostalgia
I am very happy as Rector of St Clement’s, Philadelphia. I love living in City Center; I love my creaky and vast Victorian Rectory; I love my ministry, both within the congregation and with the wide variety of people I meet both in Philly and wider afield in New York and Washington, D.C. And one day, I will look back on my years here with great nostalgia, no matter how pleasant my new surroundings, for I have found that I enjoy nostalgia.
I am nostalgic for Milan and my years of traveling the length and breadth of Italy as Archdeacon. I remember the sometimes weekly boat trips along the length of Lake Como, to Bellagio, Cadenabbia, to the grandeur of the Villa D’Este and the wonderful little ten-table restaurants by the Lake. I can smell the hot dusty odor of the herbs on Sicilian hillsides in midsummer, and the wide views over the Tuscan countryside in spring from a churchwarden’s balcony.
I am nostalgic for London, for my office at the back of Church House, Westminster, my house in Islington, and the church I ran in my spare time, St Michael’s, Cornhill, one of the few City Churches which is still a parish church (as opposed to a Guild Church). I miss St Mary’s, Bourne St and my tiny flat in the Presbytery, Peter Jones’ just around the corner and the Kings Road a short walk away.
I am nostalgic for Stockholm, where I was Chaplain of the English Church for three years, the little ferries which carried one round hundreds of islands in the Archipelago, and the huge ferries which sailed across to Finland overnight. I remember being so glad that the central heating was supplied centrally by the City, when it was minus 40 outside (my 13 room palace of an apartment would have taken all my stipend to heat, otherwise!). I loved the Old Town with its narrow streets, and I loved visiting my little outlying congregations in Gavle and Vasterross, and saying Mass in Swedish churches which looked as if the Reformation had never happened.
Moving backwards in time, I am nostalgic for Turkey, where I was chaplain to the British Embassy church in Ankara. I loved my office in the grounds of the embassy, perched in a little bit of woodland up a winding path from the swimming pool. I did most of my parish visiting round that pool at lunch times when most of my parishioners would appear for a snack and a swim. I remember my monthly visits to Istanbul, where I would stay for a week (the Anglican priest had died, and I was filling in), the trips up the Bosphorus, with Europe to the left of the ship and Asia to the right.
Even further back, I am nostalgic for Inverness and the Highlands of Scotland, for the wild mountainous country and the scattered Isles of the Inner and Outer Hebrides. I loved to hear Gaelic spoken as the first language of the people of Stornoway or South Uist. I used to marvel at the miles and miles of glorious beaches of fine white sand on the Isle of Harris, with not a soul on them because the water was freezing, even in summer, and the wind sharp.
And I am nostalgic for Edinburgh, my native city, where I went to University, where I was ordained, where I had my first church and stayed twelve happy years, knowing I had chosen the right profession for me. This is so far back that many of my memories are inevitably of people now dead, but still very much alive in my heart.
I have other nostalgias, for the Cathedral Close in Salisbury; my Theological College in the village of Cuddesdon, near Oxford; Keble College and Pusey House, Oxford.
Strangely enough, I find I have no nostalgia for my adolescence or childhood, though they were both, on the whole, remarkably happy. No doubt a psychiatrist could explain why!
So I suppose that one day (if we’re spared – as my Scottish Grandmother would say) Philadelphia and St Clement’s will rank high in my nostalgic musings. And so they should. An amusing epigram is “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” – but for me it gets better and better.