Mystery Worship Six

Mystery Worship Six June 11, 2012

Note:  this is part of an ongoing series.  Mystery Worship One is here;  Mystery Worship Two is here; Mystery Worship Three is here. Four is here. Five is here.

Reasons for Choice of Church

From the time I made the decision to spend part of the Sabbatical in the London area, I’ve wanted to visit Holy Trinity Brompton church.  This is the Anglican church that birthed the ALPHA course, a really wonderful way to explore the Christian faith in an atmosphere that is safe for questions and uncertainty.

I checked their website, http://www.htb.org.uk/, and saw that they now worship at three different locations (all quite close to one another) and one of those locations offered a Thursday 12:30 pm Communion service with a light lunch afterward.

So, Thursday May 31, I made a hasty decision to go ahead and catch a train to London and worship there.  I also knew I was probably going to have trouble finding the place.

Here are the directions from the website:

By Bus

The following bus routes go past HTB Brompton Road, HTB Onlsow Square and HTB Queen’s Gate: 14, 49, 74, 211, 345, 414, C1.

The stop name and numbers are:

HTB Brompton Road – Victoria and Albert Museum, Westbound (N), Eastbound(M)

HTB Onslow Square – Brompton Street / Fulham Road, Westbound (HP), Eastbound (HM)

HTB Queen’s Gate – South Kensington Station, Westbound (S or T), Eastbound (E). Take Harrington Road, then left onto Queen’s Gate.

By Tube

HTB Brompton Road is equidistant between South Kensington and Knightsbridge underground stations.

The nearest tube to HTB Onslow Square, HTB Queen’s Gate and 5-7 Cromwell Road is South Kensington.

They give no street numbers, no post code (each place has a distinct post code number that is used by GPS).  Just this vague, “HTB Queens Gate” followed by what is to me mumbo jumbo.

After some searching on Google, I finally found a street address:  117 Queens Gate.

And the more I searched for directions, the more confused I became.

So I just got on a train to London and hoped for the best.

Initial Impressions

Photo by Christy Thomas

After much confusion, multiple requests for help, a desperation use of my IPhone (international data is very expensive), a cup of tea at a corner tea shop where I realized too late that milk had been added (I am seriously lactose intolerant), I finally arrived at the church.

All this to say:  not an auspicious start to the day.

I walked in about 15 minutes early.  A group of women and children were sitting on beat up couches and talking near the back of the very large worship space.  One immediately detached herself and greeted me, asking if I had come to worship.  She mentioned that they were getting set up and would start soon.  I inquired about the toilets and she directed me, apologizing for the construction and saying, “They are rather basic, I’m afraid.”  Well, if “basic” means unisex, ancient and tiny, she was right, but I was nonetheless grateful.

I came back to the worship center, and asked the same young woman where I should sit, and she suggested that I sit near the front for this service.  I complied, sitting on the third row, near the outside edge. The room was set up for about 250, but could easily hold 600 if maxed out.

Still early, I began to look around.  The chairs were basic, wooden, uncushioned, uncomfortable chairs.  Scarred wooden floor.  No kneeling cushions.  The church, I found out later, had been built in the mid 1800’s and designed by well-known architect William Butterfield, a gothic revival architect, and it had all the elements of a gothic church, very high ceiling, ornate tiled walls, two small chapels on either side of the huge, huge main altar area, extremely ornate reredos (altarpiece).  And worn out looking. Just worn down–and seemed dirty, unpolished, uncared for.

photo (c) Pete Reed

Left is a photo of the church taken by Pete Reed before the pews were removed and replaced by chairs so the room could serve multiple purposes.

At a couple of minutes before the service was to begin, only about 12 of us were there.

I learned later that there is an organ, but couldn’t see it from where I sat. A pianist sat down at the piano near my seat and began playing.

I looked at the order of service which offered a modern liturgy with two songs, words given in a separate sheet, no hymnals, no screens.

The Curate, a woman in her 40’s with bright red stripes in her hair, welcomed us and suggested people move closer as there was no amplification at the moment.

I was not feeling good about this.

The Kingdom of Heaven Opens

And then she led the way into the kingdom of heaven.  By then, there were about 50 in attendance.  Wonderful acoustic, and the 50 voices singing sounded like many, many more as we acknowledged the faithfulness of God in “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

The Curate offered a simple but eloquent message about a breakfast she had been to that morning with Brother Yun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brother_Yun) a former prisoner in China where he had been arrested for being a Christian and leading many to Christ.  He has a miraculous story of escape that has captivated many.  She also told several other stories of people to whom Jesus had appeared and made Himself known.

As I listened, I found my soul both quieted and comforted with the knowledge that God will indeed bring about the work of redeeming the world.  I have a place in that process, but I am not the redeemer, just the steward of the gifts God has given me to serve in the kingdom of heaven.

After the message, we engaged in the communion liturgy and heard the invitation to come forward along with instructions for receiving the Sacrament.  After we had all received, the Curate announced that although the service was over, some might want to stay for prayer. There was no hurry.  We were to take as long as we needed.

The pianist began to play, and I sat there, both unable and unwilling to move.  A few went to the kneeling rails at the altar.  One woman went to the other side of the table and began to dance and to practice the art of adoration.

Many of us, including me, began to weep quietly, as we received peace, the peace that passes all understanding, pouring out on us.  I have no idea how long I sat there, nor did I care.  Something was happening there and I had no wish to leave.

Conversations

Eventually, I made my way to the back where people were getting tea and coffee, sandwiches, biscuits and fruit.  I was offered a cup of tea, and picked up a clementine, and sat on a couch watching others in quiet and relaxed conversation.  I was alone, but felt no loneliness.

When I went to put the paper cup and napkin in the trash, I noticed another woman about my age also alone, and approached her for conversation.  She’s been coming to this service for about four weeks and found it meaningful.  She said that she understood the original congregation was down to about 15 people two years ago when the offer came to merge what was then St. Augustine’s Anglican Church with Holy Trinity Brompton.  All she knew was that new life had come back in.

We talked a while about gardening and she gave me instructions for getting to Hyde Park where I hoped to walk for a while later and also told me which bus number to look for to get back to Victoria Station later.  I was immensely grateful for her help with those instructions!

Shortly after that, the Curate finished her many other conversations and approached me and we began to talk.  She’d been working with Holy Trinity Brompton for many years, but leaped at the chance to begin the ministry here when the opportunity arose.  Her own background is high church Anglo-Catholic worship, which is what the church had been doing for 160 years.  She gave me more details:  the congregation was down to eight (not fifteen), and the building in terrible disrepair. Now, the Anglo-Catholic morning service sees about 200 each Sunday and the afternoon more contemporary Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) style sees about 250 on Sunday afternoons.  They are not two churches:  they are two congregations and have committed themselves to working together despite huge, huge differences in theology and in worship styles.  They believe the peace of God must rule and that unity (not uniformity or unanimity) must remain the goal.

She said they are dealing with a sadly neglected structure (that was pretty obvious) and they had just discovered a few weeks ago a giant mouse infestation, along with a leaky roof.  I asked how the repairs are funded and she said “The generosity of the congregation.  We do NOT teach tithing–that would be too small an amount for many.  We just present the needs and ask people to give as they feel God would have them do so.”

I noticed a bunch of scarred wooden tables pushed up against the walls and she said that they had set up for a luncheon for 300 yesterday, which is fairly common.  They also feed the homeless a hot meal each evening and bed them down for the night in this same space.  The meal is cooked at another location as the mouse-ridden kitchen of the current location is not usable for this ministry.

I said, “Something is unusual about this space.”  Her response, “Yes, the Holy Spirit is upon us.”

Yes, it was and is.

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