One week later, I was on a plane for London.
Many of you will remember Donn Ehrlich, for many years the tenor section leader/soloist of Canterbury Choir. He now lives in Lewisham, on the outskirts of London. He was gracious enough to welcome me into his newly-purchased flat, and I was gracious enough to sleep on an air mattress on the cold, musty cement floor of this fixer-upper. It was great to spend time with Donn and to see the sights of London.
My primary educational purpose in London was to visit Holy Trinity Church, Brompton.
This is the church in which the “Alpha” course began. “Alpha” started out as a course for new members, and developed in the mid-1980’s into an evangelical tool, focused on reaching the “unchurched.”
This church sponsors about 40 Alpha conferences each year, and they have begun new churches throughout the world. It is an Anglican Church, but rather hard to recognize as such, except for the architecture. You can learn a lot about a church by visiting its bookstore. Holy Trinity, Brompton features books on marriage and families by James Dobson and books on worship by Jack Hayford. Lord, have mercy.
I attended three of the four services on Sunday. I was particularly interested in the 5 p.m. service, which attracts many people in their 20’s and 30’s. (A duplicate of this service is held at 7:30 p.m.) I may as well have been at Willow Creek Church in Chicago. The music is the same style, and they even have a screen with the song lyrics that swings out from the chancel wall. And yes, praise choruses do sound different in London … they’re sung with a British accent.
Next door to Holy Trinity is the Brompton Oratory, a Roman Catholic Church. I attended the afternoon Vespers at 3:30. The building is a magnificent domed edifice with wonderful acoustics, and the Vespers were beautifully sung. If I had to make the choice between being an Anglican and worshipping at Holy Trinity, Brompton or being a Catholic and worshipping at the Brompton Oratory, I would convert. That statement is painful to utter, but absolutely true.
As was true in so many places, my one-on-one interview with the Music Director at Holy Trinity at least partially redeemed the overall experience. Charlie is a guitarist, about 30 years old, married with two children. Again, here is a very busy church musician, balancing the administrative demands with being a musician. He shared, in very personal ways, the struggles, failures, and successes of his life and work. More spark.
Before we parted company, he asked if he could pray for me. It was a great moment of connection with someone who I don’t have a heck of a lot in common with, at least on the surface.
Of course, while in London, I attended Evensong at Westminster Abbey and twice at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, lit a candle and said prayers in the 12th-century crypt chapel. This being one month after the infamous Lambeth Conference, I prayed especially for the Anglican Communion and its bishops — that they might have courage and vision. Later in the day I attended Evensong. Beauty … food for the soul.
The next adventure could be called “James Goes Alone To France” — a psycho-drama/slap-stick-comedy. Just the experiences in my rented Fiat, grinding the gears and getting lost countless times … it is truly a miracle that I’m standing here today.
My primary destination was Taizé, the religious community from which that meditative style of worship and music has sprung. I attended three services on this visit, and this is another case of my coming into a situation with a lousy attitude. Other than the handful of songs from Taizé which we sing here at All Saints, my only exposure has been Taizé-style services at a couple churches in Southern California, which I have honestly found to be quite tedious.
The liturgical experiences in Taizé were wonderful. I suppose part of it is the breath-taking beauty of the countryside, and the worship space is striking, dimly-lit with a blaze of candles all across the front.
The pacing of music, scripture, prayer, and silent meditation is excellent, and the obvious preparation the worship leaders bring to the services is clear. The use of many languages in the songs and prayers is inspiring. The sense of community, with 1000 people, mostly age 17 to 25, squeezed into that place, singing in four-part harmony, is simply incredible. I was profoundly moved. Beauty.
And I can picture us, at some point in the future, offering that kind of experience, done with energy and excellence, at All Saints. And I certainly now have first-hand experience of how that music works and what it takes to make it engaging.
Now, the only reason I went to Paris on this trip was to meet-up with my two All Saints buddies, Marty Coleman and Barbara Beckham, to head-off to South Africa. But the way the timing worked out, I had two days alone in Paris, before they arrived.
I found myself quite isolated, especially coming off the three days in Taizé, and only able to speak a few phrases in French. I very consciously avoided being an obnoxious American, but it seemed like I may as well have had those words tattooed on my forehead. I realize, now, that I was really on silent retreat. At the time, it just seemed like isolation.
My third day in Paris I spent an hour in Notre Dame Cathedral, soaking in the vast grandeur of that expansive space. To escape the noisy tourists, I went into the apse, where a chapel is reserved for private prayer. This was a really helpful time of centering for me.
Then, I made my way to the church of St. Etienne, right next to the Pantheon. This is the place where Maurice Duruflé spent his life as a musician. His music is very important in my life, and I wanted to spend some time at the place where he worked. That church is the lightest, most beautiful place I can think of. It has a magnificent stone rood screen, brilliantly colored stained glass, and transparent clerestory windows.
Also, the building is not straight. From the rood screen to the east end, the building angles slightly to left. I love that. Amazingly, a young organist was up in the rear gallery, practicing the Duruflé Requiem.
I spent two full hours luxuriating in the incredible beauty of that place. I just let that light and that beauty wash over me as I meditated and prayed and wrote in my journal. I had the most amazing epiphany: that I am in this world to create beauty.
I wrote: “Any beauty that I can bring into this world is surely a blessing and is what brings happiness to my own life. The people who built this place (planners, architects, artists and masons) probably had no idea that someone would find such fulfillment and joy in the beauty of their handiwork — four centuries later. And Duruflé really had no way of knowing how much his music continues to be a source of the deepest spiritual inspiration. When we create beauty from the most genuine parts of ourselves, it must live on. It has a life of its own, uniting human spirits — unknown to each other.” Perspective.
When I returned to my room, Marty and Barbara had arrived in Paris. What a trio we became.