My wife and I are finishing a month long move to a new apartment in the DC area, and have just had a quick glance through an old photo album where I encountered the picture above. It was nearly nine years ago now, in the late summer of 1999, that I stepped into this small parish church in Castle Combe. At that time, I had really no idea what liturgy or the sacraments were, what anything in the church was called or what it was for. What I did find, however, was an extraordinary sense that it was a special place.
Now, my group was on a tour from Bath that day, and previously we had been in London where we had visited the magnificent St Paul's Cathedral. While that was mystifying and awe inspiring in its own right, I had no context for its use as a center of regular religious activity. The disconnect was, frankly, too great. It was simply a monument.
Strolling in to St Stephen's a few days later had a much different, if brief, impact. I didn't know what to make of it. Clearly, this was a place meant for the local villagers to gather and 'have church' (as I was raised to say) and was used regularly - everything seemed well maintained. The size of it was right. The layout was mostly right, with pews and a pulpit (albeit, on the side). The overall effect of the space was enchanting. In fact, I was intimidated by how reverent the space felt. There I was, alone in this church, on a beautiful summer afternoon, knowing my party would miss me soon. And yet I had found something there I didn't even know I was looking for. I now believe I had found the spirit of the true church, the one that continues its incorporated presence in Christ throughout time, is not bounded by the church walls, and yet is rooted there for its sustenance. My rector, Fr Sloane, has said that parish churches are like great lungs, its members are drawn into them in rhythmic fashion, infused and changed, and blown back out into the world. I think, in my naive way at the time, I felt the church's desire to be filled once more, drawing its people in for the worship of God, and made better for it.
In all, I think I was inside the church for maybe five minutes. I didn't wander very far in. I didn't examine the medieval wall art, the chancel array or organ. I didn't look at the hassocks, what hymnal they were using, or look at the board to see if they had Mass, Matins, or Eucharist. Instead, I was opened to new possibilities. I had made a pilgrimage, unwittingly, and had been changed for it.
Weeks after my return to the States, I saw I needed to make changes in where I was heading. Those changes were precipitated in good measure by the trip to Our Lady's Dowry (and Ireland) and in some way by my short time standing at the back of this church and snapping this shot. A couple years later, when I started running headlong towards Anglo-Catholicism, this memory surfaced and I began to see it as a precursor for things to come.
Looking at the picture now, it's hard to put myself back in the place where I was then, looking at it with fresh eyes. If I ever make it back, it's sure to be a different experience and I'm sure I would be paying much more attention to the details of their parochial life. Nonetheless, I'm glad of the chance encounter I made with God in this small English village and, particularly, of the journey He's led me on ever since.