My journey to and from my short-term missions trip to the United States was routed through the United Kingdom. I happen to love England. Perhaps it is my love affair with English Literature (Lewis, Stevenson, Rowling, Austen, Keats, Shakespeare, etc.). Perhaps my love is the seemingly ancient nature of London compared to the relatively brief history of the United States. Perhaps it is how everything sounds more intelligent when it comes from the mouth of someone with a British accent.
I don’t know how or when I first fell in love with England, but I did and I am still in love with that country. It’s splendid.
So rather than spend 8 hours basking in the glory that is Heathrow (next time you are in Terminal 5, do yourself a favor and look up. It’s ginormous!) I decided to head into the heart of London for a couple of excursions. I may have taken a circuitous route to get to my favorite neighborhood, but to me, all London roads lead Bloomsbury.
Bloomsbury is the intellectual heart of London. It is the home of the British Museum, a treasure trove for this former archaeologist. It was also the former home of the British Library (which moved not far away). Very famous writers and thinkers used to live in the neighborhood and you can hardly walk a block without reading about where someone famous lived. When I was studying at Oxford a couple of years ago I happened upon a copy of Karl Marx’s “The Capital” in a Bloomsbury bookstore which I was able to read in the coffee shop where he wrote it. The irony that the coffee shop is now a Starbucks (one of the bastions of overwrought free-markets) is not lost on me.
So this last Monday I headed into town with the intention of heading to Bloomsbury. However, on my way, I wanted to stop off at Westminster Abby. This ancient home of kings and saints has seen the coronation of British monarchs for over 500 years. However, I wasn’t there to goggle at the statues, I knew they held mass at midday. And so, at just before 12:30 I walked past the ridiculously long lines of tourists to the “back door” of the main sanctuary. Here I cut my way through the tourists and past the velvet ropes to the center of the sanctuary.
As the congregation (mostly tourists with perhaps a local or two) read the prayers and liturgy together I was struck by the international nature of our group. Every continent seemed represented. It was a communion of saints.
When mass was over, and I was walking out I happened to step on the grave of someone whose name I recognized, David Livingstone. As I was heading back to Africa just hours later, I paused for a moment to remember a man who shares my name who came here over a century before. As I looked around and marveled for the first time during my visit at the grandeur of the building, I believe I came to a new understanding of “the communion of saints.”
Growing up a Protestant and studying in some of our finest institutions over the years, I think I may have missed a significant element of a doctrine we claim to share with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. “I believe in the… communion of saints.” I won’t bother you with musings about whether or not any of the saints who were buried in that holy place were still hanging around in spirit. I will simply sign off by wondering aloud in cyberspace if worshiping in a church graveyard might be one of the most Christian things one could do.