Howard Langmead - social commentator, comedian & cleric
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by Howard Langmead
Published in The Melbourne Anglican November 2006

I've been to Europe. It's a rite of passage for Australians that most of my friends did years ago. I'll never again see the surprise and incredulity in the faces of those who say, “Oh, you've never been to Europe?!”

Penny, my wife and tour guide, backpacked around Europe in her single days and had places she wanted to introduce me to. There were a few classic sights that I wanted to see such as the Eiffel Tower, the pizza shops of Rome and Heathrow airport. We spent many hours at all of these places.

The timing of our trip was set by a Humour Studies Conference in Copenhagen. Wonderful Copenhagen where eating Danish pastries for breakfast is an act of cultural solidarity, and where the publishing of the Mohammed cartoons put religious humour on the front page of newspapers. This context of conflict meant that the conference attracted a large media scrum and the Danish equivalent of the CIA, who are not humorous people.

The world of humour studies is a funny place. I listened, learnt and networked. I heard a presentation on Puritan objections to humour in the sixteenth century. I learnt that there's a cemetery in Rumania where the crosses on the graves have humorous poems on them. I met a Greek Orthodox theologian who writes on the psychology of religion and humour, and a philosopher from Israel who has written on the ethics of humour in Kierkegaard.

Then I became a tourist. One of millions in the European summer. Travelling around Europe is a misnomer. We waited around Europe. Waited at airports, stations, laundromats and in queues to enter art galleries and toilets. We even queued outside churches. I dream of people queuing to get into my church.

I was surprised that my New Testament Greek was not understood in Athens and wondered if St. Paul had faced the same problem. I don't speak Italian, French or German but I'm fluent in pointing and grunting which mostly sufficed. I had my hair cut in Paris and before entering the salon I practised saying, Une coupe de cheveux, implement rafraichir, s'il vous plait. I believe means “I want a hair cut, just a trim please”. I don't think the hairdresser's French was very good because he cut it very short. I looked French.

Venice was magic. The greatest danger was drowning when you crossed the street. I realised I was looking at our future. When the polar caps melt every city near a coast will have water flowing down its streets.

In Europe I discovered I had a ministry of couple photography. If you think that's something rude, repent now. Whenever I saw couples photographing each other I offered to take their photo together. At the Eiffel Tower I had couples queued up for this service. One Japanese couple was not satisfied with the first photo I took of them. They were finally content to accept my fifth attempt.

I have a confession. I was uncomfortable in the cathedrals of Europe. As a holidaying priest it took me some time to admit this even to myself. Don't get me wrong, I was impressed and awed by the grand architecture. I admire ancient frescos, gold leaf, and priceless art works as much as the next tourist, the one pushing me aside so she can get a better photo despite the ‘No Photographs' sign. But I was wanting a sense of connection with my faith and spirituality. I watched the crowds flocking into Notre Dame in Paris and felt a strong urge to jump up on a pew and shout out, “What have you come here to see?” I resisted the urge and may have missed my prophetic calling.

Then there's the matter of personal taste. Given the choice, I wouldn't want St John's West Brunswick decorated with frescos, gold leaf and dubious relics. My spirituality is best expressed by muted pink walls, natural lighting and worshipping people.

We found the worshipping people at the Taize community. There were 5,000 people at the community when we were there, mostly under the age of 30. And it ran like clockwork. We were put on a working team that served lunch each day. We made some good friends including a pastor from Chernobyl who uses Hillsong music at his church. Apparently Hillsong music is one of Australia's more significant exports. The highlight of Taize is the worship - chants, scripture, prayer and silence three times a day with nearly 5000 people sitting on the floor. Some of us older people sat on wooden benches around the walls. We were sorry to leave Taize, but next time I'm taking a cushion.

The sacred places for me were caves. We spent five days on Patmos where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. Patmos has the most churches per square kilometre of anywhere on earth, but my choice for a place to sit and meditate was the cave where John received his revelation. I'm surprised that in all his writing John never mentioned the great view from his prayer cave or the fresh fish and sunshine which abound on Patmos.

Another holy cave is in a forest near Wappensvil in Switzerland. It was used for illegal worship by Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. When caught, Anabaptists were drowned in the river, which was gruesomely considered an appropriate punishment. They fled to America and now groups of American Mennonites make pilgrimages to this former sanctuary. A waterfall cascades across the mouth of the cave which was probably useful for Baptists. Penny and I sat, prayed and shared a communion of Swiss chocolate and bottled water.

There were sacred sites in England too. Like the house where Shakespeare was born and the Turf Tavern in Oxford where Bob Hawke drank his way into the Guinness Book of Records and where Bill Clinton didn't inhale.

Yes, I've been to Europe. What's that? No, I haven't been to the Holy Land. Don't look so incredulous.