On Sunday I chose to attend two very different churches. Despite both being in the same demonination, I came away with a number of questions and feelings that have plagued me since. It important to note that I had no intention of attending either of these churches. Inasmuch as they are interesting to visit and normally an enjoyable experience, they are so far removed from my context that they would offer little to take home. However, I wanted to attend worship anyhow, so went along for that reason alone.
St Paul’s Cathedral and Holy Trinity Brompton are possibly two of the most well known English churches in the world, but for very different reasons. People travel from all parts of the globe to see and experience their ministry. Yet, despite being in the same Anglican tradition, you could not find two more different expressions of church life. I attended HTB’s morning service and St Paul’s Evensong.
Holy Trinity is best known for it’s international Alpha programme, not just in the UK, but around the world. Alongside Alpha is it’s equally developed and ongoing discipleship ministry for the wide range of people who live in the London area. The building, like lots of old buildings in London is covered in scaffolding for renovation, but they have used the scaffold to emblazon pictures of Bear Grills as they launch a new Alpha series worldwide. Their worship is, as expected, contemporary and based on a warmth of welcome, community, inspiration for faith and aspiration for life-long service. Yes, I got all that from the hour and a half spent there. HTB has four locations around London with a weekly attendance of some 4000 people of all age ranges and ethnicities. It’s got a sort of Baptist style with a posh accent in a central location, with lovely old building. What makes it different from a Baptist church however, is the complete lack charismatic leadership. Nicky and Pippa Gumble are disarmingly English Anglican. What is often forgotten in the aftermath of Alpha’s success, is that the Rev Sandy’s Miller saw to the growth and strength of HTB many years prior.
Comparatively, St Paul’s Cathedral is on a different planet. It’s got tourism written all over it. It tells a story of a city rich in western Christian history. It screams royalty, wealth, architectural grandure, liturgical purity and distinction. I would suggest that the majority of the 300 people at Evensong that afternoon were tourists. Looking around there was little engagement with the service itself as very few sang the hymns or joined the prayers. In that sense it felt like a amusement. I’m familiar very with Evenosong, but this was not a community at prayer. The place is bustling with tourists at the rear of the nave (auditorium for the Baptists) while the service took place. The choir was 10 strong and barely audible in such a huge space. They were all blokes too, which I don’t personally enjoy. But perhaps I was missing the point, and in doing so the differences between these churches appeared unnecessarily stark.
This week is the 350th commemoration of the Fire of London when the original St Paul’s building was raised to the ground. The new building has that feel of being a testament to the strength of the era and the subsequent rebuilding of the city. For St Pauls the commemoration takes up nearly their entire attention for the duration, while for HTB there was no mention at all. And that’s because both churches know what they are about. Put crudely, St Pauls is known for what it is and represents. HTB is known for what it does. The differences are are acute because their role is not the same. And it’s this difference that offers the lesson. A place like St Pauls reminds us of our history and history makung. Such Cathedrals are at the forefront of difficult debates that churches like HTB cannot easily have. Yet both need each other. On its own HTB could easily be another light weight franchise church, so places like St Paul’s remind us of the long tradition of mission and learning we have come from. Likewise, HTB pushes the church beyond mere debates and worship in to ordinary places of life where the gospel speaks.
In their own way they are both titans of Christianity: one spans centuries and continues to draw people in to think and remember, even as tourists. The other is something of a lightening rod, perpetually challenging the status quo and reminding us that despite wanting to be a place of welcome to all people, there is in fact one God who is revealed in Jesus and continues to transform simple lives, simply.
Personally, I’m hoping to find a Cathedral that does a bit of both.