English Churches and Christian Hospitality

· Travel,Church,Hospitality

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to take our dream trip to England before COVID-19 hit. There, we explored all sorts of dwellings from grand castles to humble cottages. We enjoyed live theatre in London’s West End and peaceful walks through the countryside. We also visited some of the most magnificent churches in the world.

One of them was York Minster. Approaching the south entrance, we were met by an imposing sculpture of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity—a real game-changer for the Christian religion.

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After paying our admission fees, a remarkably learned tour guide took us around, recounting the historical significance (and grieving the historical wear and tear) of the stained-glass windows. As we allowed the widows to lift our eyes upward, they gave us a glimpse into another time—a time when Jesus, his companions, and other church figures were depicted with a radiance of pallor and well-groomed tresses. The importance of conserving these windows was impressed upon us when we were informed that the cathedral was soon to host two celebratory services to mark the completion of a 10-year effort to restore York Minster’s Great East Window: the largest medieval stained-glass window in England.

We also toured Westminster Abbey. The site of coronations, it is also the resting place for more than 3,300 notable persons, among them Queen Elizabeth I, William Wilberforce, and Charles Darwin. (The recorded audio tour was voiced by Jeremy Irons!) We walked over Cosmati pavement and gazed at priceless paintings, taking care not to brush up against anything for fear of damaging a precious artefact. Toward the end of the tour, we found relief in two folding chairs waiting for us in the Poet’s Corner. And we were reminded that the Abbey offered corporate hospitality for large events (not to mention a royal wedding or two).

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These structures were impressive. There was much to be admired, much to be learned, much to be preserved. Furthermore, both were presented to us not only as architectural splendors and historical treasure troves but also as places of worship. Westminster Abbey was described as “a living working church” with a worship service every day. And we took the opportunity to engage in worship at York Minster’s evensong service guided by a choir of adults and children.

Truth be told, I was more impressed by another church we visited. While staying at an inn in the village of Sleights, couched in the North Yorkshire moors, we took an evening walk. Behind a low stone fence and fronted by an aged, somewhat unkempt graveyard was St. John the Evangelist’s Church. As we walked up to the door, we saw a sign bidding visitors to enter, take a look around, and stop for a time of quiet reflection or prayer. So we did.

No one else was there. Should we really be inside? we asked each other before a new feeling rushed in: the feeling of being welcomed home.

As we circled our way around the sanctuary, we could see that this was a place of weekly worship. The congregation provided children’s education and community ministries. The building, though, was in a state of disrepair. The eagle-adorned lectern held two pieces of paper. One was a neatly typed hymn list for the month. The other was a handwritten message: “Do not use lectern. Risk of falling lumps of plaster.” The truth of this message was verified by the fallen lumps of plaster sitting in front of it.

On our way out, we spotted a small notice promoting an ongoing campaign to renovate the building. Reading it, I knew that this church was far less likely to attract public investment than the other churches we had seen. No historic windows, no noteworthy history. It was charming, but it was plain and common like any number of humble country churches dotting the land.

And on our walk back to the inn, I began to reflect on the messages I had received from each of the churches. The larger churches felt like monuments—constructions very removed from my life. I might be able to join in regular worship at one of them. But with their constant special events and endless crowds of tourists, could they ever feel like home?

I certainly don’t regret visiting York Minster and Westminster Abbey. I will treasure the memories of my time spent in these places. But I would have missed something truly significant had I not crossed the threshold of that small Yorkshire church. It’s a space where the everyday realities of crumbling ceilings and decaying gravestones indicate our responsibilities. We care for such spaces not because they are glorious but because they are places of belonging. We belong to them just as we belong to God and each other.

I hope that I make my own church a little more like that. I hope that, despite a recent roof repair, people feel at home when they enter.

“Welcome. Come meet with God. Stay a while and meet with us. See what we have to share. Tell us what you have to share. Mind the step. Grace and peace.”