By Daniel Schantz
On the sixth day of our London tour, my wife threw me a curve.
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” Sharon said, “so I would like to attend services at Westminster Abbey.”
My face fell. Oh, no, not that place. That’s “high church,” Anglican. I don’t want to be sitting around in a dark, musty cathedral watching priests perform mysterious rituals and listening to Latin mumbo jumbo and mournful choirs.
“OK,” I said, cheerfully, “Westminster Abbey it is. It could be interesting.”
We were celebrating our 50th anniversary with a trip to London—Sharon’s lifelong dream—and I was determined not to spoil it with my moods.
Glowing and Quiet
At three o’clock the next afternoon we joined a large crowd of church members and tourists, shuffling into the world-famous Westminster Abbey. A “minster” is a monk’s church, and an “abbey” is where monks go to meet “Abba, Father.”
The first thing I noticed was the cathedral was not dark and musty, like I thought it would be. It was well-lit, with massive chandeliers and windows as big as tennis courts, plus little red lamps in front of the choir. Even the corner shadows glowed with candle shine.
There was a magical quietness in that place. The rustlings of a thousand worshippers were entirely muffled by the 102-foot ceilings and blocklong expanse of the hall. “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves,” said Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who battled ulcers all his life. Only in quiet places could he find relief for his torment.
In this quiet place, I felt at peace.
Sharon pointed to a statue nearby and whispered, “You can actually feel the history of England in this church. The British have a much better sense of history than we do.”
I glanced around the sanctuary and noticed the margins were littered with statues and memorials to great men and women of the past. Church people—like Charles and John Wesley, David Livingston, and William Wilberforce. There was a plaque honoring Phillips Brooks, the Massachusetts minister who wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Authors abound, like William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and the Brontes (Charlotte, Emily Jane, and Anne), and many of them are buried there. Scientists like Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton are immortalized there, as are inventors, such as Henry Royce, of car fame, and even actors and musicians like Laurence Olivier and Frank Sinatra.
“Just think,” Sharon exclaimed, “some 17 monarchs were crowned in this very room, and royal weddings conducted, right where we are sitting!”
I wondered if anyone in our churches remembers our history? Do they know about Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone? Do they appreciate what these men gave us?
The British seem to understand you don’t have to abandon everything old in order to embrace the new. There is room for both. This cathedral is a thousand years old, but it’s fully wired, including flat-screen TVs on the stone columns. The homes, hotels, and businesses in Britain are as modern as any in the world, but they are nearly all made of brick and stone—proven materials that will last hundreds of years. “The art of progress,” said British philosopher Alfred Whitehead, “is to preserve order amid change.” The British know how to do this.
Beautiful and Biblical
Services were about to begin. I heard Big Ben ring out the hour. I looked at the printed program—all eight pages of it. I got nervous. This could be a long, long service. I motioned to an usher, and she came to my side.
In a low voice I asked, “Can you tell me where the restrooms are?”
She smiled and pointed to a hallway behind us.
Then I was not as nervous. Even royal cathedrals are subject to the edicts of nature.
I was stunned by the beauty of the place. Beauty is to the eyes what music is to the ears: it lifts, it inspires. The soft patina of stone columns was livened by the sprays of bright coral roses wrapped around them. We sat in plain wooden chairs, while churchmen paraded by in crimson robes, bearing multicolored banners. Gold and bronze were everywhere, and the windows glowed with every color of the rainbow.
I grew up in “low” church, small churches that resembled one-room schoolhouses, utterly devoid of anything fine or lovely. Many of our modern churches are metal buildings that look more like warehouses or gymnasiums than churches, and some are just converted shopping centers. All very affordable and practical, but not even close to beautiful. Have we missed a chance to reach people through their eyes?
Services began with a rushing, gentle wind blowing through the pipes of a great organ. It’s the ultimate instrument, a kind of “orchestra in a box.” I can’t believe we in America waste this highly refined instrument on ballparks and hockey rinks.
To my surprise there was very little Latin in the service. I understood almost every word. I actually knew some of the songs in the program, and I sang them out with joy. “Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth. . . .”
Here our participation was desired. This service involved no charismatic leaders. It was a group project. We stood for choral prayers and responsive readings, and I was reminded how as a boy I was too shy to sing a solo in church, but I could read well, and during responsive readings I could shine. I wish our churches still did responsive readings.
It struck me that almost everything on the worship menu was about Scripture. Many of the songs were taken from the Psalms. Interspersed were “lessons,” which were just more Scripture readings. There were even Scriptures carved into the floors and walls.
When it was time for the sermon, I braced myself for a liberal lecture on “tolerance,” but to my amazement the sermon was mostly Scripture, simply explained and illustrated—a message on courage during suffering.
I nudged my wife. “I thought we in the Christian churches were supposed to be the people of the Book? This church uses more Bible than we do.”
She just slowly shook her head.
Suddenly I smelled fire. Not the sweet scent of candles but a strong, noxious electrical fire.
Oh, great, just my luck, I thought. The one time in the 1,000-year history of this church that I chose to attend and the place catches on fire. Alarms will go off and we will stampede the front door. But then, on the TV screen, I saw a priest, just around the corner, swinging a smoking censer of incense over the altar, and I was reminded that much of Anglican worship is based on the Old Testament.
The service was coming to a close, and I was surprised. It seemed so short, and I thought it was because we all had a part to play; we were not just observers of the professionals up front.
We stood and floated toward the front door on a river of organ music.
Outside, I took a deep breath and looked up at the blue sky. I felt exhilarated, almost high, a feeling I seldom have after worship services. That was my first, and probably last, experience in a cathedral, and it had turned out to be the highlight of our vacation. Here in this “minster” on the west side of London, I had met my “Abba, Father.”
I have been humbled by the realization that a person can worship God anywhere.
Even in a cathedral.
Dan Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.