The Rolling English Road

Serena and I have just returned from a two week break in Northumberland.  I came to see it as very much a “non retreat” retreat.  “Non retreat” in that it wasn’t intended to be a retreat and wasn’t at a retreat centre.  But, a retreat in the sense that it provided some very much needed R&R after a very difficult 12 months at our church, and an extremely busy couple of months at work.  We were both running on empty, and the time away doing very little has helped to put us back on more of an even keel.

But that’s not the aspect of Northumberland I wanted to post about.  Northumberland is full of what G K Chesterton would have called the “Rolling English Road”.  This is the title of one of Chesterton’s best-known and best-loved poems, which begins:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire…

It continues in similar vein.  Chesterton’s thought process is that the drunkard on his way home from the hostelry at dead of night does not necessarily take a direct route, but weaves about a bit, perhaps doubling back here or taking a detour there.  And the English road which results is one of my favourite things: full of tight, twisty corners; following the contours of the landscape; taking in views of the surrounding countryside; crossing streams over little bridges; and great fun to drive in a nippy car like a Ford Focus!  Despite their frequent twists and turns, rolling English roads do get you there in the end, and the journey is as enjoyable as the destination.  Our ordinance survey maps for that part of the world are scribbled on to show the “good driving routes”.  Good meaning picturesque rather than direct or quick.

The A1 (and at times the A1(M)) formed the large part of our route home from Northumberland to London.  This isn’t a rolling English road any more.  Thanks to bypasses, this road no longer passes through the centres of the towns along the route.  Thanks to cuttings and embankments, the road now cuts through the landscape, rather than rolling with it.  The result, of course, is that the journey is pretty quick, but the views of the countryside around are almost non-existent and the journey is just that: a purely functional journey from A to B.

So what?  I like driving on little roads and not motorways (Although not the 350 miles from SE London to N’land)!  Well, thinking about this got me thinking about the often-quoted saying of Jesus about the broad and narrow ways:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  Matthew 7:13-14
This is often interpreted as meaning that it is very easy to disobey God and to sin, but very difficult to turn from sin and follow Christ.  I wonder, though.  Would the person who said “my yoke is easy, and my burthen light” really have meant that?  I’m not too sure.

A lot of Christ’s teachings spoke directly to the local people in words they would understand as a people suffering Roman occupation.  Who built wide gateways and easy roads?  The Romans…  So, one possible interpretation of this passage I would draw out is that Christ is saying that the Roman’s ways (of violent oppression in order to enforce the pax Romana) lead to destruction, whereas His ways (of peace leading to the pax Christi) lead to life.

I think there’s also a lesson to be learnt in how we view our Christian discipleship and journey of faith.  My own path of faith has been a lot like the rolling English road (at times staggering drunkenly) and not very much like the straight Roman road.  It might be a little slower, but it rolls with the cultural landscape of the past and the scientific reason of the present, and does not ride roughshod through them.

There are those, though, who are happy to drive a straight Roman road through the path of reason and tradition (normally using the Bible as both weapon and justification), and to call that straight path “faith”, or “the only way to God”, or “the only escape from hell”.  Well, as far as I am concerned they are welcome to their wide gate and broad road!  What might they miss cutting through the landscapes of the past, present and future?  What enjoyment of the journey will they miss if the end goal is all that matters?

That Roman road’s certainly not for me.  So, based on my past experience, I shall keep on the windy, twisty, rolling English road that I have trod so far.  As Chesterton puts it at the end of his poem:

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