Virginia muses on Day 2 in London
Here’s a quiz for you: Which of the photos below is a church? Well, on some level, the answer lies in how we define church. Is church a building? Is it a perfectly orchestrated service of ancient music with perfectly vested clergy and choir in a place of deep religious and political meaning? Is it tending to those who are hungry, or who may never have heard the word of God? Is church the place where people are encouraged to lay down their fear and make new connections with God, and with each other? Today I saw four ways of worshipping. Which one of the following would you say is church?
This is St. Luke’s High Street, Walthamstow. I’ll write more about them tomorrow. For now, know that they have no church building (just the awning at a farmer’s market), no real budget, no priest, no Sunday Eucharist, but WOW do they have a sense of God’s activity in their lives. I sat and did bible study for over 40 minutes with a government official, a woman who wasn’t sure about theology of ascension, and a 12-year old boy. They were there because they wanted to be, because they like sharing with the community and each other. They also know more about the homeless in their neighborhood than anyone else does. Is it church if there is no church? Is it worship if there is no liturgy per se?
This is St. Mary’s Walthamstow. The original building (the area within the brown columns) dates to the early 1100’s, through the niece of William the Conquerer. Both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I appointed vicars here. They’ve had innumerable additions and memorials, not to mention bombings during WWII. Their church yard has more than 26,000 burials spanning 300 years. Despite their history, they have a projection screen in their chancel, and a coffee bar in the back of the nave, and no railing separating the people from the altar. Their average Sunday attendance is around 250—children, disabled, all races and languages. They’re in the midst of a reorganization of their space (the last one occurring in the 1990s). What do they need to keep in order for it to still be church, and where is God calling them to make it easier for people to enter?
This is the quire (pronounced “choir”) of Westminster Abbey, just before they told me to put my camera away, and right before the 3 pm Evensong. Talk about liturgical perfection. Nothing was out of step: not one of the 50+ men and boys in the choir, nor the 6 clergy, nor the 3 vergers, nor the myriad ushers in morning coats and cravats. As the celebrant said after the service: “If we can’t do it right by now, who can?” Indeed. And yet: the ushers had us all out of there within 10 minutes of the service ending. Was this a place of worship, or was it a performance?
Interestingly, today was the 67th anniversary of the Queen’s 1952 coronation (in that same Abbey), and we often heard the drone of helicopters overhead preparing for President Trump’s visit to Parliament and the Abbey tomorrow. The Church was at work, right in the middle of it, but no mention was made of what was happening outside. What does that say about the Church’s role in community?
This last is from Holy Trinity Brompton (aka “HTB”). This was a 7 pm Sunday night service, with at least 200 in attendance, a full-on praise band, intercessions, sermon and invitations for people to come up front for prayer. HTB is one of the freshest new expressions of church in England. They are planting churches faster than they can count, and their summer camping weekend has regular attendance of over 7,000! I have to admit I was prepared not to like it. Walking in, I asked my colleague: are we going to a club, or to church? There were no vestments, no sacraments, and no Books of Common Prayer. But then I found myself singing along. (Everyone sang along. Many danced.) Listening to the sermon, I realized that the preacher (an Anglican priest in jeans and sneakers) was as theologically sound and compelling in his reading of Acts as any priest I know. My question turned from “What are they DOING?” to “What ARE they doing?” In many ways this felt carefully orchestrated to appear organic. Yet clearly it wasn’t. The production quality was better than most concerts I’ve attended. Just because it’s carefully planned and executed does not make it wrong. Westminster orchestrated everything to the last detail.
What made this different was how people responded; they responded strongly. They came forward. They asked for prayer. They sang, and swayed, and nodded. They loved it. Even the people who looked tentative or put off were engaged by the end. They heard the message from Archie the Vicar about connecting, praying and being passionate about our life’s purpose. Pointing to Acts, Archie said: “Jesus tells us, don’t do anything alone. Always go with someone. He also said, don’t do anything until I give you the Holy Spirit……so, what is the most important thing you are meant to be doing that requires both another person AND the Holy Spirit to do? Go do that!” There you have it! Four churches. 900 years of church life. 3 neighborhoods. 12 hours. What is church? Is it any of these? No. It’s all of them.
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