With whom do you go to church?
October 13, 2017
Apologies for the delay since my last blog entry… it’s been a pretty packed schedule over the last week-and-a-half, between trying to get in a good bit of sight-seeing before Adam had to return to the US and the schedule of commitments involving the choir with which I’m singing at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Adam flew back to Connecticut yesterday, and now with a fairly open schedule today, I thought I’d work on a bit of catch up.
I have a few things on my mind to write about, not the least of which being the choir experience and life in Cambridge more generally. So you’ll probably see multiple blog entries coming forth from me over the next few days. But for this morning, I’ve been thinking about one of the particular sites/sights Adam and I saw when we travelled down to London last weekend.
Westminster Abbey is probably one of the most famous church buildings in the world, being the place in which coronations for the British monarch happen, as well as some other royal family events like funerals (Princess Diana’s in 1997) and weddings (William and Kate in 2011). Some of the royal events happen at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—the seat of the Anglican bishop of London—but Westminster Abbey is probably the one we think of more often for such things.
Situated right across the street from the Houses of Parliament, which themselves occupy the site of a longtime royal palace, Westminster Abbey is a huge and grand Gothic styled building—the sort of building we often imagine when someone speaks of a European cathedral, even though it is not actually a “cathedral” as such (it is not the ‘seat’ of the bishop and head church of the diocese—in fact, as a “royal peculiar” it is not officially even part of the diocese in which it sits). It is not actually an “abbey” anymore, either, since an abbey is the church or set of buildings used by members of a religious order headed by an abbot or abbess (i.e. a monastic community). Indeed, that is Wesminster Abbey’s origins, but it has not been an actual abbey since 1559.
Anyway, I suspect most of us have a mental image of the place, or have seen pictures and videos from it. Our mental image is probably something like this one:
(Please note that unlike in previous posts, all of the pictures I’m showing herein are not my own. Westminster Abbey does not allow photography by tourists, so I had to select some pictures available on the internet.)
And that’s all fine and well and good… a beautiful space, uplifting and inspiring to many (albeit overly-ostentatious to others). But what you don’t see in this image, nor typically get to view very well in video of events held at Westminster Abbey, are sights like these:
That’s right… Westminster Abbey is chock-full of graves. In all fairness, the reality is that many, if not most, of the old churches in Europe have lots of graves in them—in the floors, in the walls, in crypts below ground—and not only the famous churches, but little parish churches, too. There are some like this in North America, too, but not nearly to the extent that you see it in Europe. Westminster Abbey, though, feels like it’s in a class by itself in this regard. The sheer number of graves and the monuments or plaques marking them is astounding, practically standing on top of each other in certain sections. To go on the tour is rather like touring a mausoleum that happens to have a church inside it, rather than the other way around.
The visit to Westminster Abbey had me thinking about a couple of things: first, just who is it that we go to church with? On any given Sunday, we look around the room and notice the people sitting in the pew in front of us or across the aisle on the other side. Perhaps we may think of someone who’s absent that day, or maybe even someone special-to-us that has recently passed and whose face we miss seeing. The well-known scripture verse from Hebrews, though, reminds us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). How often do we think of that cloud of witnesses extending past simply loved-ones we miss to the nearly 2,000-years-old chain of broken-yet-striving people who have tried to live lives of faithfulness before us? And how often do we think of those people as truly “present” with us, in some way, whenever we gather for worship? When you sit inside a place like Westminister Abbey, it’s pretty darn hard to forget!
The other thing that struck me about the burials in Westminster Abbey was the juxtapositions of people. Queen Elizabeth the First is buried in the same room as her half-sister Queen Mary the First, archrivals and competitors in the Catholic-vs.-Protestant controversies of the time, and they are buried just opposite Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth the First’s Catholic cousin whom she ordered executed. A whole section of floor in the nave contains the graves of numerous former Prime Ministers, and Conservatives/Tories lay side by side with their Liberal and Labour rivals. And so on…
One of the scripture sentences that opens “The order for the Burial of the Dead” in the Church of England’s historic Book of Common Prayer quotes from 1st Timothy, saying: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Indeed—not even our rivalries and divisions!