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Communion, on a trek across England

By Paul Knowles

(This is an earlier draft of an article published in edited form in The United Church Observer). At times, it felt like our tour bus was a time machine, as we hop-scotched our way across the south of England, touching down at key historic sites between Kent and Cornwall.


The coach carried 26 of us, mostly members of Thamesview United Church in Fullarton, Ontario. We were hitting the highlights, including a fine sampling of church history. And history, there certainly was. Canterbury Cathedral, where you are hands-on with 1500 years of church history. Salisbury, a spectacular 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, constructed right next to a Roman site where worshippers brought offerings to gods and goddesses a millenium before that. Glastonbury, a beacon to pilgrims caught up in legend fostered by entrepreneurial monks. History, for certain.
But was this "church"? I confess the same problem at these sites as I had on a long-ago visit to Israel. Others in the Middle East tour group were swept up in the spirituality of the moment; I was reveling in the ruins. Similarily, the English sites offer great stories – the murder of an eventual saint, the bones (or probably not) of a mythical king and queen, construction, destruction, armor and art. Fascinating stuff, but for me, not necessarily the stuff of faith.
But I did find occasions for celebrating faith, none the less. Not necessarily at the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, or beside The Holy Thorn, or on the wind-swept heights of Old Sarum. No, I found them on the bus, and in the dining rooms, and in the pubs. That's where we celebrated community, every day of our tour. We didn't call it "a celebration of community" – that would have sounded entirely too ecclesiological. We called it travelling together; we called it "having a pint"; we called it walking to the seafront.
Sometimes, the occasions were planned – like our visit with the congregation of Minehead Methodist Church, on the coast of Somerset, where we shared worship and then (of course) a sumptuous repast provided by our new friends. Mostly, though, our moments of communion were spontaneous.
At St. Michael's Mount, about a dozen of the group happened to coalesce inside the conical stone dairy, where we spontaneously sang a hymn in the most resonant acoustic we had ever known. I can't explain why I chose the old chestnut "How Great Thou Art", but it was a terrific sound, rich and harmonious. The event lasted only 40 seconds or so, but now, recalling the wonder of the moment, my delight in the shared moment resurfaces.
Over the last three decades, I have frequently travelled with groups of writers and with groups of tourists. There is often camaraderie – but I don't believe I have ever before known the kind of genuine communion that this group of United Church members shared on our England trip. We saw many of the great sights of the south of England, but when I asked my fellow travellers about their favourite experiences, most often I heard about these moments of sudden unity.
One man thought hard about that question, for several days, before telling me that his highlight had been singing with the choir members in our group who had provided the anthems at the Minehead Methodist service. The reality was, all across England from Kent to Cornwall, we were being church; we were sharing communion.
Each day, at breakfast or on the bus, we had a short reading, which I had been asked to write. On a Tuesday morning, one of our group read these words: "One of the most wonderful parts of our visit to south England has been the opportunity for many of us to visit the very towns and villages that were home to our families, generations ago. "It reminds us, once again, how important families are. These family members made tough decisions, more than 150 years ago, and moved to Canada. Their acts changed everything about our lives, so many decades into the future. "Our choices make a difference, not only in our lives, but also in the lives of everyone close to us. "There's a short, powerful quote in the book of Joshua: 'As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.' "Today, may the Lord be with you, and with all those you love."
He was.