“They recall the waste, pity and devastation of war- both a hundred years ago and, in particular, today.”
On Sunday morning July 2, Sandy and I attended St. Paul’s Cathedral. On this site, the original church was dedicated to the apostle in 604 A.D. The current structure was built in the 17th Century after a fire took much of London, and it became the first Protestant cathedral. It is a site layered with Christian history.
Pilgrims look up when approaching St. Paul’s, it demands attention. It sits on London’s highest hill, and though the city’s modern skyline is filled with residential high rises and office towers, the Cathedral’s iconic dome .is still a focal point in the urban landscape.
When we stepped off the city bus, a loud clattering of bells were ringing from the towers, a spiritual chaos, that filled the square. We were being called to worship. From the church yard, up a series of steps, and then into the sanctuary nave, we walked with our heads tilted back, like young birds in their nest, mouths open and waiting to be fed. We were drawn upward, toward the stone archways and the morning light that refracted through the stained glass windows. The windows ascended higher than I anticipated.
We took our seats as far to the front as seats were available. Despite what we hear about the decline of Christianity in the Western world, and metropolitan places like London becoming mostly secular, the seats were being filled and St. Paul’s, the historic site, became a place to worship. Even the transepts, those outer areas of the cathedral floor that extend beyond the altar like the horizontal beam of the cross, began to fill in.
London has become one of the most diverse cities in the world, and what I had seen in the streets was reflected in the congregation. This was not the crowd of old London movie sets. I was reminded of a line in the Book of Acts, when the writer is describing the crowd on the day of Pentecost, “from every nation under heaven”. Perhaps “every nation” is an overstatement; even so it was the most colorful crowd I had experienced in a worship setting.
Anchored to the stone walls on either side of the nave, not far from where Sandy and I sat, were large white crosses that extended partway over the congregation. They are the shade of white one sees in the crosses at Flanders Fields or other vast gravesites of the war dead. These large crosses were imposing and threw off the equilibrium of the cathedral; an interruption within the sanctuary, stopping us in our tracks.
Placed along the cross bars were models of city buildings and neighborhoods, but just the skeletons and all of it in that same stark white. I thought of news photos from a devastated Syria. Near each cross there was a description, like what you would see in a museum, which labeled them as sculptures, installed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The description continued, “They recall the waste, pity and devastation of war- both a hundred years ago and, in particular, today.”
It was discomforting art, and throughout the service its presence was apparent, almost irritatingly so. Like St. Paul’s Cathedral, it demanded our attention. We could not turn away from them. This was an Anglican service centered on celebrating the Eucharist, and serving it to the congregation. I imagine that these two white crosses were anchored to the wall in such an ungainly place so that the congregation would have to walk underneath and between them in order to receive the body and blood of Christ. We were forced to reckon with the failure and pain they represent, “the waste, pity and devastation of war…” In all our diversity, we were invited to carry this heavy sin we call war, to an altar that has been consecrating the holy meal of our deliverance since the first century. That morning, a thousand of us, maybe more, opened our hands and received Jesus and were reminded of his great love that can deliver us from our violence.
Gathered at St. Paul’s, from all parts of world, it seemed entirely possible.
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world adore His sacred name.
– George W. Kitchin