Brenda and I had a “potato” day yesterday. I’m surprised at how bushed I felt after last week. I was “proper knackered”. I spent a good portion of the day in the Brendan garden room alternating between sleeping, reading and listening to the rain. Mostly just enjoying the heat. I haven’t been fully warm more than twice since arriving in the U.K. Most of the house team were gone and the house was closed, a distinct contrast to the activity of the past week.
We went out for Indian food in Alnwick with teammate Sandra, then a brief walk on the beach at Alnmouth in the still, descending dusk.
This morning, we got up an attended the 0800 Communion service at St. Michael and All Angels Parish Church in the village of Felton. There has been perpetual worship on this site for nearly a thousand years. Pete Askew, one of the Elders of the Northumbria Community and husband to Overseer, Catherine, was the Vicar there for a number of years. (Pete is now Chaplain to the Bishop of NewCastle…think “executive pastor” or “chief of staff”)
We have visited St. Michael’s before, but never attended a service. To understand the setting, imagine driving to Granite Falls. Now, take a one lane side street out of town, passing a few ramshackled mobile homes and sway backed horses languishing in a pasture, then at the dead end you find a church. A thousand year old church with a graveyard to match…just sitting there…like it has sat there a for millenia.
I’ll just give you my observations/experiences in sequence.
- There were maybe 5 cars pulled off into the gravel and mud along the road. There is no parking lot. No room for more than 20 cars at a time.
- Walking through the graveyeard and approaching the old wooden doors in the silence made me wonder if there really was a church service. No one was stirring. I felt some anxiety as I had to work to push open the squeaky doors.
- We were greeted by the surprised smiles of two older women standing at the end of the Nave. Moria, a Warden (I think) in the church and Gabby, the Vicar, looking resplendent in her white surplice and simultaneously whimsical with a stole decorated in vines and butterflies. They were equal parts happy and surprised to have visitors. To their credit, they handled us perfectly: giving honest expression to their happiness at our coming but not smothering us. It turned out that Moira and her husband live just down the lane from Nether Springs at Acton Farm.
- We were standing in the west end of this cruciform church (sometimes called a narthex in larger buildings) which was walled off from the rest of the building by an ultra-modern glass wall with chrome fittings and double doors. Imagine the front entrance to a high end department store. This feature was added recently to create a space for children’s ministry to take place during the services. It creates a pleasant contrast: the ancient-modern.
- Gabby opened the door for us, Moira gave us a SUPER helpful annotated booklet which laid out the order of service, and we were directed to go all the way forward to the choir or “chancel” to sit, as there would be only a few of us for the service. The boiler had broken down and the place was a refrigerator…so they had brought in and ignited two of those propane fired blast heaters we used in milking parlors back in the day, pointing away from the end of the nave toward the altar in an effort to prevent hypothermia. Sounded like a scene from Top Gun.
- There were about 6 other people already there, quietly sitting in their places. They greeted us with whispered “good mornings” and something like the surprised smiles we had already seen. No one was below retirement age, and all presently went back to reverent quiet and contemplation as we settled onto the hard wooden pews.
- I took in the surroundings for the next few minutes, as another half dozen elderly people made their way in. So beautiful. The altar was set with the bread and wine. Fresh branches with tiny green buds and daffodils sat elegantly in vases to the sides of the altar. Above, the dark wooden beams stood out in contrast to the tan colored stones. We were all together. We were all still. We were all there for the same reason.
- Upon some unknown cue, the heaters were shut-off and Gabby made her way down the center aisle and took up her place at a simple, wooden pulpit opposite the altar. She led us through the first half of the Communion liturgy with such an amazing blend of familiarity, informality and yet reverence. The congregation (all 18 of us) responded where called upon to do so in remarkable unity, Brenda and my American accents standing out just a little bit.
- I noticed almost directly across from me, a man who must have been in his early 80’s who silently mouthed every word of the liturgy spoken by the priest, then fully engaged his somewhat creaky voice with the rest of us, only occasionally referring to the booklet. He wore neat, olive drab trousers and coat, a Northumbrian tartan vest and subdued tie. I was occasionally distracted from my own worship by observing his: he was rapped. I could see his knuckles turn white as he clasped his hands tightly in prayer. When afforded the option to kneel, he did so every time.
- Gabby gave a beautiful and brief little talk (based again on the topic from the liturgical calendar) about the Road to Emmaus. She brought it home like a good Evangelical with a challenge to us about being willing to recognize Jesus wherever he might appear…and that’s anywhere! This was such a different setting than I’m used to… but the Christ-centric, the Christ-EXCLUSIVE nature of the experience was familiar, moving and undeniable. I dare anyone to sit through a Communion service with Gabby and my older friend across the choir from me, and tell me this is not legitimate Christian worship.
- There was no music. No one to play the historic organ in the Class I listed historic building. No one to play guitar or even lead a song. We just skipped over those parts in the booklet. Can I confess: I didn’t miss it. I might miss it next week…but I didn’t this week. Music would have been in-authentic…maybe even a little gaudy. A show. A manipulation. Gabby simply hobbled up to the dias when it was time (she has had to move to a bungalow recently because she “can’t do stairs anymore”) and settled into her place behind the altar with such confidence, such humble surety, that it appeared as if THIS is where she belonged all the time.
- I have long felt that we “non-denominational, American evangelicals” do not give communion it’s proper place. At some point in the not-too-distant past, in our noble and well-intentioned effort to establish an egalitarian and Bible-based worship environment, we removed the altar rail (though we kept the raised dias) and we made the altar portable, lower than the dias or we eliminated it altogether, and placed the man or woman and their pulpit in its place. My feelings were confirmed once again when we reached the climax of our time together…the reason we were all there: Gabby gently, dutifully, hopefully touched and spoke and lifted and blessed the elements. She invoked very old words that all Christians know, but she invoked them with awe, and we felt that awe.
- We each came to kneel at the altar rail. I watched my friend from across the choir make his way up…a man who, in any setting, would elicit a certain respect and deference…drop to his knees and hold out his hands like a beggar, head bowed, hands trembling to receive a gift he did not deserve. He devoured it like his life depended on it. I did too.
- I love how the service ended: We all say “Amen” and stand as Gabby steps down, walks past us down the center aisle. We all just sit down in silence, alone in our thoughts, free to pray, weep, laugh and then just wander off chatting when ready.
- The punctuation mark on all this was a brief conversation with Gabby back at the west entrance as we left. We were expressing something of our gratitude at being part of a service like this, how the liturgy and the reverence of communion meets a deep need, when Gabby sort of blurts out how she’s been praying that God would release her from the Church of England, because she has grown weary of the hierarchy (only ordained priests may serve communion) the intransigence surrounding the liturgy and, in a phrase, all the stuff I love about it! Don’t misunderstand: Gabby made no indication that she devalues the communion itself, the gathering of believers “itself”…its just the forms that have gotten under her cassock. Kind of like me.
- Lord, have mercy.