We arrived early to the church of St. Mary’s Bourne Street, London. Just off Sloane Square, the church goes back to the late nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival, and while once a mission in a needy parish, now sits in a neighborhood of well-to-do townhouses.
The brick arched entryway leads into the nave through the north aisle like a treasured passageway or passageway of treasure, as though mystery and miracle were embedded in the stone. The walls are lovingly furnished with side altars and flowers, plaques and flaming candles. We moved to a row of chairs in back, pulled out a kneeling cushion from a hook, and knelt to pray our thanksgivings.
The Anglo-Catholics are Anglican Protestants who do (did) not want to give up the glorious worship of Catholicism, so their spaces attempt to recreate heaven with gold, marble, candlelight, incense, music, art. How does one express God-with-us? How does one express being in the presence of the Almighty? the Creator? As I gazed upon the high altar, watching a priest light the numerous candles on a lowered chandelier, I thought St. Mary’s Bourne Street did indeed remind me of heaven, and put me in the mood to worship, to meet God face-to-face. And that, in the end, was what liturgy was really all about, to meet God, to be renewed, reborn.
A friend from St. Thomas’ Church in San Francisco was there today – he had made London his home for a few years now – so it was a particularly joyous occasion for us to see him again and to worship together. But I also had been looking forward to the church’s annual May Procession of Our Lady. I had seen photos on Facebook, how they process around the neighborhood, carrying her image. For May is Mary’s month, and this was, after all, St. Mary’s Church.
The choir was particularly joyous today, filling the vaults with their huge song. We moved through the Mass, with Scripture readings, sermon, and Eucharist. Then the procession formed at the head of the central aisle, and the congregation followed. We joined, holding our song sheets and stepping forward. Soon we were singing with the others, walking down the the left lane of the paved road, circuiting several blocks. Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria…. It was the familiar Lourdes hymn to Mary and I smiled, suddenly recalling our visit to Lourdes years ago. In Lourdes there had been thousands holding candles in the dark moving up the wide esplanade, but today, in this busy and sophisticated city, we numbered about one hundred happy souls and we held song sheets in the partial grays of a London morning.
I glanced at the townhouses lining our route. Windows and doors opened. Folks peered out. One man joined the singing from his front step, a strong baritone. Others stood on their porches, watching. We continued, this peaceful and lively stream of Christian exuberance and public witness, finally returning to the red-brick entrance of St. Mary’s. The organ boomed, the choir greeted us in the narthex as we entered, welcoming us home.
The Marian procession ended with Benediction, fittingly, and now we sang once again as a congregation in church, surrounded by the arched stone and gilded art, the billowing incense and flaming candles. Now the gilded monstrance with the Host was removed from the tabernacle and placed on the altar. I gave thanks for all of this, all of these visible and sacramental acts of worship. I gave thanks for God-with-us.
Soon we met in the adjoining house for champagne and catching up with the vicar, Father Cherry, and our friend from San Francisco, Peter. As we chatted, I thought how this trip to Rome, Paris, and London had been so richly rewarding and was now brought to such an appropriate end here at St. Mary’s in London, this Anglican city, in England, this Anglican country.
I have said many Aves and many Our Fathers and asked for guidance again and again. One never quite knows what God has in store, what his will is for that day, that hour, that minute, so being a Christian is always an adventure. But looking back over the last three weeks, I can say he has blessed us immensely and Our Lady has looked after us. He led me to Father Paolo of the Camillians in Rome who care for the Baroque church of La Maddalena, a setting for my novel soon to be released, The Magdalene Mystery. Our Lord led me to the home of the gracious and charming Nicholas Mosley and his lovely wife Verity in London. Nicholas Mosley (Lord Ravensdale) wrote The Life of Raymond Raynes, a biography our American Church Union is currently republishing, and I have the delight to edit. We shared our love for Father Raynes and his mission to each of us, enlivening our faith with his words, and his presence again among us. And this morning Our Lord led me to St. Mary’s Bourne Street, where I could see old friends and honor his blessed mother Mary.
I think, now as I write, of all the lovely Madonnas I visited in Rome and Paris. And on this cloudy gray day in London, I was thankful for all of them, and all the wonders of our journey through these moments in time.