We returned to St. Stephen’s Gloucester Rd. for Solemn Mass on Sunday. The day, like the week here in London, was cold and gray, threatening rain, with biting winds. The city, all week, has been in the throes of an election, and the low clouds seemed to reflect the civic distress at the outcome, a hung Parliament.
We bundled up and headed to church to say our prayers for this historic city in this historic time, but then, perhaps all places in all times are historic.
As I stepped into the narthex of St. Stephen’s, I looked up the nave to the High Altar, this time alight for the service. It appeared ablaze with fire, the gold of the altar merging into the gold of the six-paneled reredos, as well as the gilded tabernacle and six tall golden candlesticks. Set against a red drapery and at the head of the rows of dark wooden pews, the High Alter shown like the sun.
We found places in the fourth pew, Epistle side, and as I glanced at the Victorian pulpit rising amidst the pews like a ship in the ocean, I wondered if Father Bushau would use this pulpit, for in most historic churches these, like the high altars, are abandoned. There have been few occasions where I have seen them used.
But for now, I placed the kneeling cushion on the floor and knelt. I prayed my thanksgivings, again stunned to be worshiping where T. S. Eliot worshiped, and I prayed for his soul, and for his widow. I prayed that God’s will be done in my life, that the “words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable.” I did not know why I was led here, why I found this church, but I did not need to know. I knew the Anglo-Catholics in England were struggling for survival within the Anglican Church of England and I prayed that within this group as well, the Holy Spirit would breathe new life and encouragement.
We listened to Holy Scripture and heard the small choir sing, a quartet with professional, mellow sounding voices, giving life to Tallis in this nineteenth-century church. We knelt, gazing at the golden altar, and sang Alleluia, Alleluia, for we were in Eastertide, and we celebrated the glorious resurrection of Christ from the dead.
Father Bushau did indeed ascend to the pulpit arising from the midst of the congregation, and I smiled. It was so very good to see this, to see the use of earlier forms, forms that still spoke to our world. He preached on Mary, for this is the month of May, Mary’s month, and today was, at least in the U.S., Mother’s Day. Today we would crown Mary with roses, but first we considered her role in salvation, her reception of God, her bearing the Word, her obedience. Just so, our good preacher said, we must bear the Word into the world, tell all by our lives, our deeds and our words, who we believe in to save us from death, from sin, from separation from the source of love, from God. Take not thy Holy Spirit from me, I thought. Do not allow me to be separated from you, the source of love, love itself. Yes, we must be the bearers of God, of Christ, into our world.
We moved from the sermon to the Eucharistic offering, and how good it was to see this priest celebrate the Mass, consecrate the elements of bread and wine, facing East, his back to the congregation, his face to the altar. For in the consecration, he represents us, his flock, in the great offering of ourselves. Then, when he turns to us, with the consecrated elements, the Body and Blood, he represents Christ, offering God back to us. These actions all have immense meanings, and how good it was to see they were repeated here, that indeed, the ritual of two thousand years had not been lost. For it communicates God’s love for us.
Lastly, we crowned Mary, an earthy image in the south transept, with roses. We sang hymns to her with great joy, glad that she cares for us and intercedes for us. I said a silent Hail Mary.
As the songs of the choir and the congregation rose to the vaults, as the booming organ led us through the liturgy of love, I gave thanks for St. Stephen’s Gloucester Road. I gave thanks for the witness that this parish continues to offer in the neighborhood of South Kensington.