Columnists > Voices

Lion on a leash

Comforting traditions make the Church of England seem safe while its leaders drift into apostasy

Issue: "Spain waves white flag," March 27, 2004

THE VERY IDEA OF ATTENDING CHURCH AT A tourist attraction is a little hard for American minds to wrap around. At least to this American, it comes as a bit of a surprise that all the landmark churches of London are open for regular services. St. Paul's, St. Martin's, St. Bride's, et al. anchor the religious life of the city with national pride. The bones of traitors and saints lie under the tiled floor of St. Peter's chapel in the Tower; at Westminster Abbey the worshipper shares space with 900 years' worth of departed kings, queens, and other British notables.

Such a weighty atmosphere would seem to breed stuffiness-surely the preacher wouldn't stand at the door and shake hands with departing visitors, like they do in the states. But after Eucharist at St. Paul's, guess what? The wavy-haired, silver-tongued rector stood at the door and shook everyone's hand. After a century of trauma, the English are still rather jolly: Stay for services, we'd love to have you. Here's a hymn book-just remember to return it, thanks so much. Don't forget, tea and biscuits in the vestibule afterward. Choirboys in their high ruffled collars still scratch their noses and trip over their shoelaces and fall behind in procession when coming or going.

The tradition seems more form than substance, for over the last 50 years or so the Anglican Church has enthusiastically joined the stampede to liberalism. Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury seems more comfortable speaking of the significance of Jesus than the gospel of Christ. On the third Sunday of Epiphany, St. Martin's was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the ordination of women, and the morning sermon at St. Paul's had more political than theological content. That benign affliction, "spirituality," dampens the mission statement of the modern church.

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But there's quite a lot to love about Westminster, which after all these years of upheaval and strife maintains a sweet, pious spirit. The Abbey is described as "not a museum," but "a living church that enshrines the history of the British nation." Every hour, visitors are asked to pause for silent reflection while a prayer is read-usually it's a Christ-honoring prayer. Priests and chaplains are available for personal counseling. Late visitors are invited to stay for Evensong, and escorted to the ancient wooden stalls of the quire, where, if they had been born of another time and social status, they might have witnessed the coronation of Elizabeth II-or Elizabeth I.

The choir (men and boys) begins the service with an introit sung out in the Nave, their voices rising still and bright as candle flames in the vaulted stonework. Then they march in and take their places in the center section, flanked on both sides by tourists and seekers and the few Brits who make Evensong a regular part of their day. The service consists of Psalms, Scripture readings, creedal statements, and prescribed prayers, all sound and wise. The words ring as true on tile pavement and stone walls as they have in country churches and bomb shelters-wherever those have gathered who worship in spirit and truth.

Yet there's a sense of worship under glass. This church has produced heroes of the faith, and will continue to do so, God willing, but it's like a lion on a leash-controlled not by the queen (its titular head), but by those very traditions that seem to keep it safe while its leaders stroll down the garden path of apostasy.

A visit to the U.K. reminds us Americans of how much we have in common with our British cousins. But 200 years ago we took a dramatically different turn at the sanctuary door, deciding that the church would be free of (not necessarily separate from) the state. Westminster Abbey, witness to the English church-state dialogue from the beginning, is an appropriate place for reflection on how that experiment turned out.

In America, where Protestant sects proliferate wildly on every corner, the church seems far too contemptuous of tradition, yet our experiment in disestablishment has preserved the most "religious" people of all the developed nations. It's not that freeing the churches has freed God Himself-God is absolutely free to work anywhere He chooses-but the lightning of revival has struck here more often, perhaps, than anywhere in the world. We pray it will strike again. May God bless the Anglican Church and restore its holy fire-but may He do no less for us-and make us both, as we were before, cousins in faith as much as in history.


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