Golden Barnacles

After several weeks in Central Europe and the UK, Nancy and I are headed home today. Jiggety jig, as they say. We have had a glorious time, and have seen a bunch of the sights, particularly those of interest with regard to the Reformation.

We have been to the church in Cambridge where the first Reformation sermon was preached in England (Christmas Eve, 1525), and we spent time in Heidelberg, where the great catechism was commissioned. We saw a display of Bibles at the Cambridge University Libary, on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, that told a fascinating and parallel story of the Reformation. We saw, in Westminster Abbey, where Cromwell was briefly interred (for three years), and the room where Luther conducted his table talk. We saw Charles Simeon’s chair. We have been places where you can’t swing a cat without hitting some item of historical interest.

And that interest is great. Some of the architectural and aesthetic achievments we have seen have been greater still. The glory is true glory, but there is a downside. The ship of the church has been in the water for a long time, and of necessity the barnacles have grown. They have been golden barnacles, set with rubies, but in some way and in some fashion they still need to be scraped off.

We went to Evensong at King’s College in Cambridge, and it was hauntingly beautiful, gloriously situated, aesthetically glorious, and yet not really what church ought to be. There were so many golden barnacles, it was hard to make out the outlines of the ship any more. Westminster Abbey was a magnificent church, but it was also a temple to man. I am not saying any of these things to be catty or a churlish guest — the whole thing was beyond impressive, and we have enjoyed ourselves immensely. But something crucial was still missing. To see the tomb of Elizabeth I, and Henry V, and Richard II, and Chaucer, all in one place, was an experience not to be turned down. But while reminding you of the importance of history, this sort of thing also flattens distinctions within history that should not be flattened — Mary and Elizabeth are buried just a few feet away from one another, for example, as though they had been pewmates and old chums. There is a sheepish plaque located nearby, in memory of all who have died over the years for conscience sake, heh, heh.

The custom of burying saints in a churchyard (or within the church itself) is a thoughtful one, highlighting our belief in the communion of saints. Death does not disrupt our worship of God, and our fellowship in Christ. And a tasteful plaque “in loving memory of” seems to me to be fully in order — but striking statues and magnificent monuments are golden barnacles. At a certain point the tension between being a living church and a respository of glorious museum pieces becomes a tension that cannot be sustained, and you have to go one way or the other.

This tendency is present with all of us — Reformed or Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran — and so all of us should lean against it wherever we are. We should keep the barnacles off our own part of the ship, as Jesus once noted (Luke 6:41). If you don’t believe me, maybe I should pop off about it from Luther’s table, or while seated in Simeon’s chair.