We headed through St. James Park, past Buckingham Palace, and down to Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic center of London, a place that has over the years touched me with its beauty and holiness, with its marble walls and arches, pillars and vaults of light and mosaic, a stunning Franciscan painted crucifix, the rood handing from the graceful chancel arch. Looking beyond and above, dark cavernous ceiling spaces were sad reminders that the church, although begun in 1895, is sadly unfinished. The Holy Sacrament Chapel in the northeast corner is a jewel of story, telling of the prophesied Lamb of God in the walls of mosaic, and showing the Real Presence-Lamb of God in the tabernacle on the altar.
I said a prayer for Christian unity in this truly Catholic cathedral in Anglican London, where these streams of Christianity appear to be weaving together into a future, that will hopefully somehow undo a bloody past.
The bloody past was recalled in the north aisle where the body of John Southworth lies, a dedicated priest who died at the hands of the English Reformers, those Anglican Protestants of the sixteenth century. He was carried to Tyburn Gallows, today Marble Arch in the northeast corner of Hyde Park, where he was drawn and quartered and hung. His crime? Being a Catholic priest in a reformist country. I shivered, for I knew he was one of many, and during Queen Mary’s time, many Anglicans were in turn burned at the stake by the Catholics.
We stepped outside into the cold grayness of the day and headed down busy Victoria Street, a straight thoroughfare leading to the Anglican Westminster Abbey, as though these two historic witnesses to English Christianity were set on the crossbeam of a cross. Soon to be the setting of the royal wedding, this medieval abbey honors the graves and monuments of England’s great monarchs and statesmen, her writers, artists, musicians. We followed the ambulatory around the high altar and under the white gothic vaulting, past the gilded shrines to Poets’ Corner and a small chapel off the side called Faith Chapel. Here, in this rustic space, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for adoration and prayer. A French girl who refused to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods of the Roman Empire, Sainte Foi was tortured and martyred in 303 under Emperor Diocletian. Her image rises above the altar in this cave-chapel of musty stone, the sanctuary lamp to her side. We entered and knelt in the silence, alone this day, as the crowds milled on the other side of the thick wall of Poets’ Corner, and I could hear sounds of children playing in a schoolyard in the far distance.
I looked at Saint Faith, in her robes, her haunting image returning my gaze. How appropriate, I thought, that a saint with this name is here in this humble chapel in this teeming city of unbelief, of slaughter, of terrible religious divisions, as though through it all we must be reminded not to offer sacrifice to the modern pagan gods surrounding us. I prayed for unity, that the Roman Catholics would continue to welcome the Anglicans into their fold, and that the Anglicans would find a way to join the greater stream once again. A trickle of Anglicans have joined with the Roman Catholics, have “swum the Tiber” as they say, but there remain difficulties for many, issues of theology, issues of history, issues of sacramental validity. For some of us, we see our place where we are at present, ministering to those in our circle, our community, our parish.
I was full of the two Westminsters when we visited the Tyburn Convent, across the street from the site of Tyburn Gallows. The Congregation of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, known as the Tyburn Nuns keep watch before the Blessed Sacrament twenty-four hours a day. They also honor the Tyburn martyrs who died between 1535 and 1681.
We stepped into a simple, modern chapel, the nave divided from the chancel by a white grill. A nun robed in white, knelt before the Blessed Sacrament raised over the altar in a golden monstrance. One other person in the nave knelt in prayer. Here too I prayed for unity in this time of fragmentation. Where better, I thought, than this shrine of recollection of the disunity. I gazed at the simple altar and the monstrance and the crucifix high above. I knew that in time all would be redeemed by God’s love in us, and I was grateful for these women who had chosen a life of prayer, praying for us all.
We stepped out onto teaming Bayswater Road, walked silently along the edge of Hyde Park, through the corner clearing called Marble Arch, where today folks may speak their mind on any number of issues, be it religion or politic. An appropriate transformation, I considered, and we headed back to our hotel, full of the history of this city of faith which today was so challenged by the doubts of the modern world.