By the Rev. Cliff Cutler
Ed. Note: On the last day of July nine parishioners from Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, returned from accompanying their choir to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Here is a report from their Rector, Cliff Cutler.
“We went as pilgrims. We were grounded in the music of our singers. John Donne, who was Dean of St. Paul’s for 10 years beginning in 1621, looked upon life as a pilgrimage being fashioned into the harmonies of the divine. He said, “I shall be made thy Music.” In a great respect this was true for us.
Some of us gathered at the site where Chaucer began his pilgrimage described in his Canterbury Tales. Then we went to the Chelsea Physic Garden that was founded in 1673 in order to grow the herbs and plants necessary for healing. 50 years earlier Lancelot Andrewes, one of the main translators of the King James Version of the Bible, wrote: “When we are sick, medicine from the earth preserves us.”
On the way back, we passed camera crews setting up outside the High Court in London where parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates, after a long, public effort to save their child (even Pope Francis tried to intervene), would come out to say sadly that there was no more that could be done. Their infant, Charlie Gard, was born with mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. In 344 years of medicine that have taken us from a “Physic Garden” to a world-class hospital (Great Ormond Street Hospital), there are still limits to what can be done and probably always will be. We are not omnipotent. As pilgrims we learned the gift of humility.
Reconciliation was the pilgrimage theme for Thursday. We went to Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. After a tour, we met with Simon Lewis, Dean of the Community of St. Anselm, a year-long communal experience for adults from 20 to 35 years of age. We were interested in what drew young people to such a spiritual community. While we were speaking, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby joined us for about 15 minutes.
A keen priority for the Archbishop is reconciliation. “Reconciliation means learning to live together with deeply-held differences,” he said. “Christians are called to be reconciled among themselves — and peacemakers wherever they are.” He would leave the next day to inaugurate Sudan as the latest province of the Anglican Communion.
For years the Muslim government of Sudan has persecuted its Christian minority. Sudan has been named the fifth worst persecutor of Christians in the world. Earlier in the day we had been to Westminster Abbey, where Queens Elizabeth and Mary are buried together. Though divided in life they are reconciled in death. The day before, President Trump tweeted a ban on transgendered individuals in the U.S. military. Two days later Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church U.S.A., wrote that equal rights and the protection from discrimination apply equally to all Americans. Reconciliation is as necessary today as ever.
People still leave flowers at the site where Scottish patriot William Wallace was executed in 1305. The Elms, Smithfield, was once a place of summer fairs, jousting and public execution. The story of William Wallace was portrayed in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film, “Braveheart.” A small plaque honors Wallace on the wall of St. Bartholomew Hospital in the Smithfield section of London. He is quoted there: “I tell you the truth, son, freedom is the best condition; never live like a slave.”
250 years later John Bradford was put to death by Queen Mary at the same location. He wrote of the sacrament of communion, “Christ art so coupled unto us, and we so engrafted in thee, that we are ‘one body’ with thee; and whatsoever thou hast we may call it our own.” There were flowers left at Bradford’s memorial as well.
Finally we arrived at our destination at Canterbury Cathedral — sore muscles, swollen feet, cathartic tears. Together we celebrated that same communion that John Bradford wrote about. We climbed a narrow winding staircase to All Saints’ Chapel on the second floor of the Cathedral. Its windows looked down on the Cathedral’s nave. We gave thanks and experienced oneness with Christ and each other in sacrament and Spirit.
Later in the day we learned that the 25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, also of Chestnut Hill, had celebrated communion for the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) in the St. Anselm Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrimage was over. The week was full of memories and joys, but most of all Jesus’ companionship the presence of which is sweet. Indeed (in the words of John Donne), “We had been made thy Music.”
The Rev. Cliff Cutler can be reached at email@example.com