We arose to snow: a great creaking carpet laid over yesterday’s green and grey streetscape. So, unknown neighbours are out, working to the bark and spark of spade on driveway, rallying like a curling team to assist the antic, skimming motorists. A man I have never met before (or since) grins over the gate: ‘hilarious isn’t it? The snow gives us that sense of belonging together’, ‘…which we crave’, he adds, before trudging up the hill. It’s the ‘which we crave’ that stays with me – he probably knows I’m the vicar, but it was quite far to go, for a momentary exchange. Extreme conditions build neighbourhood, little doubt about that. We behave differently when deluged: familiar territory is transfigured, new routes are taken: the myth of independence thawing instantly. Different place: different rules.
According to American sociologist Erving Goffman, prevailing norms of local behaviour tend to be suspended at times of ‘crisis’ and ‘festival’. Parish priests, it strikes me, spend a fair proportion of their time inhabiting these contrasting states – explaining, perhaps, the curious permission we retain to act in public as if it was always snowing. That, in one sense, is the vocation of the local church: to live as if, in Christ, normal service has been permanently suspended. The old has gone: the new has come.
It being Advent, this symbolic blizzard – unifying crisis and festival – will be in the air whether or not the real stuff melts by morning. December deals in belonging, after all: shovels it on in deep, muffling drifts. We become attuned to our displacement with every keening carol, each cultural sign directing us homeward. Snow on snow. And though a cold coming for so many, the path to Christmas is the right one for rearranging our ideas of society. Here along the Surrey Hills – ‘the place where London ends and England can begin’ in G.K.Chesterton’s somewhat miscarried phrase – we have, for several years, engaged in a kind of festive psychogeography called the Oxted Adventure. Every night in Advent, for an hour in the evening, one small space (a garage, perhaps, or porch) opens its doors like a calendar to a gathering of locals. On some nights there is live music, or a seasonal story; on most, the familiar, indigestive blend of warm wine and mincemeat. The Adventure aims to be a journey home by another route, a parish map in the making. This year the North Downs are appealingly portrayed in Tolkienesque style: Middle England as Middle Earth.
It’s the opening night, but I’m delayed in another small space: a recess in the wall of the boiler house behind Morrison’s supermarket. Here abides Simon – a man become, in the psalmist’s words, a monster unto many. A kind of local portent or parable, Simon made and lost a fortune developing the sizeable homes that decorate the A25, just yards away. Beside an acrid barbecue, attended by Magi firefighters, he now raves in the car park, para oikos.
‘You do not believe, because you do not belong to my flock’, Jesus chides the Pharisees, inverting the usual criteria for religious community. Believing in belonging is an attractive idea, perpetually frustrated by our desire that the world should belong to us (for ‘belongings’), rather than to the Lord, thereby finding our place as the people of his pasture. However, if creation is defined, not by an almighty accumulation, but a kind of divine allowance, stepping back to make space for another, then let it snow, let it snow.