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Spirit Story

Old sites, living faith

By Paul Knowles

As we hopscotched across the south of England, touching down at key historic sites, it felt like our tour bus was a time machine.

All over Kent and Cornwall we were hitting the highlights of church history and architecture: Canterbury Cathedral, its presence stretching back to 597 AD; Salisbury Cathedral, built on the whim of a bishop who chose to move an entire town; Bath Abbey, where Christians have worshipped for a thousand years and Romans for a millennium before that; Glastonbury, a beacon to pilgrims caught up in a legend fostered by monks.

History, for certain. But was this “church”?

During our 10-day trip last July, our group of 26, mostly members of Thamesview United in Fullarton, Ont., revelled in the stories behind these great monuments to Christendom: royally sanctioned murder; Arthurian myth; armour and art. Fascinating stuff. But for me, not necessarily the stuff of faith.

I did, however, find occasions for celebrating faith: on the bus, in the dining rooms and in the pubs. That’s where we celebrated community, every day. And we didn’t call it “a celebration of community” — that would have sounded entirely too ecclesiological. We called it travelling together. We called it walking to the seafront. We called it “having a pint.” Mostly, our moments of genuine communion were spontaneous.

At St. Michael’s Mount, a castle and former monastery on an island just off the coast of Cornwall, about a dozen of the group happened to coalesce inside the conical stone dairy. Noticing the resonant acoustics, the thought jumped to my mind to sing a hymn. Something in the air called for a song. I can’t explain why I chose the old chestnut How Great Thou Art, but I just started to sing, and I nodded at my friends to join in. Within two or three notes, they had all raised their voices.

It was a terrific sound, rich and harmonious. Melody soared, smiles broadened, passers-by wondered what they had stumbled upon. The entire event lasted less than a minute, but even as the echoes faded, we looked at one another with faces beaming and amazement in our eyes. Even now, recalling the wonder of the moment, my delight resurfaces.

I have frequently travelled with groups, and there is often camaraderie. But I don’t believe I have ever before known the kind of genuine communion that we shared on our England trip. The things we already had in common as Christians somehow paved the way toward deeper relationships. When I asked my fellow travellers about their favourite experiences, rather than mentioning the sights, most of them talked about these moments of sudden unity. The reality was, all across England, from Kent to Cornwall, we were being church; we were sharing communion.

Just before visiting a Methodist chapel on a Sunday morning, we read words from John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Then we closed the reading with a short prayer: “Today, may the Lord be with you, and with all those you love.”

And the Lord was.

Paul Knowles is an author in New Hamburg, Ont.

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