I’d only known her an hour or two but it was instinct that took her hand as we rounded the corner into the churchyard. I was nervous. Bethan laughed and squeezed my hand in return, but we were soon parted; the narrow path permitted single file only. It was barely a foot wide, a concrete strip embedded in the mossy ground, making a way for us through the neat rows of headstones, right up to the church front.
My group and I, perhaps ten of us, hesitated a moment.
“Why is the door shut?” I whispered. My breath billowed white in the freezing air.
Nobody answered. One of the lads stepped forward and gave it a confident push. The oak heaved and split open. A damp cloud of heat hit me in the face, familiar, the portable kind provided by ancient town halls with thick walls and no pipes.
Pooling into the building, we declared our presence with the clattering of boots. The cold was stolen from our lungs, eyes streaming a little in the sudden warmth. I huddled into the group, head down, before courage came to me.
I looked up. The church was absolutely stunning. I gazed mouth agape at the gorgeous ceiling, noting the sweet sting of thirteenth century must and old hymn books. One was offered to me by a lady standing ready by the door. “Here you are, dears.” She smiled at us one by one, and my anxiety began to thaw.
Little navy books in hand, we filed into the pews and quietly took our seats. Usually a boisterous bunch, we made an effort that morning to keep tongues bitten and giggles stifled. I savoured the tranquillity and looked about with polite curiosity. Our group filled up nearly half the space; across the aisle, the weekly congregation consisted of no more than six people. None were under fifty.
We rose to sing the first hymn, and I bowed my head, intentionally serene, trying my best to fit in for once. But someone had other ideas. Before the first stanza was out, I felt the presence of God descend on the whole building in a great opaque curtain, wrapping us up in golden folds that shimmered with every note.
“Oh God,” I whispered in my heart, “why here, why now?” I was terrified of bursting into tears and offending somebody. My lips trembled as I tried to stop the tears, but they came anyway. I stood there with sodden cheeks, trying to sing, trying with all my might not to let out a sob. I felt God smiling at me, teaching me, letting me in on a few of His beautiful secrets.
I stole a glance at the six regulars and my heart opened to see. I had an overwhelming sense of how much they loved The Lord; their devotion ran deep and true, and He honoured it with His presence. Everything I had ever heard about old village churches being rigid and hollow was blitzed from my mind. These people were gracious in their duty, joyous in their rituals, gentle in their worship.
The time came to take Holy Communion. My heart thundered in my throat. I knew how we did it at my church, but things here were very different. I resigned to watch and copy. I waited until one of my peers stepped out, and I followed her to the altar. The vicar stood in the centre while an elderly couple tended to the bread and wine. We knelt on a line of cushions that ran parallel with the altar rail, upon which we rested our cupped hands, palms up ready to receive.
The Holy Spirit was at my ear. “I know it’s different,” He said, “but it’s alright.” I decided to trust him.
The elderly lady pressed a dry white disc into my hand and whispered something with her head bowed. I put the sacramental bread in my mouth and chewed it slowly. (I found out later that you’re supposed to let it dissolve on your tongue.) It tasted horrible but I didn’t mind; I tried to think of Christ’s body, broken for me, and my eyes smarted anew with fresh tears.
My spirit stirred as I saw God literally bursting out of everything, erupting hot and alive from the altar, the stone floor, the heavy cloths laid all around. I ran my hand along the wooden rail and felt Him there.
Next, the elderly gentleman came along with the sacramental wine. He put the silver goblet to my mouth and tipped it up gently for me to drink. It was such a tender thing, servant-hearted and dutiful. I looked up into his old eyes as I drank, and something twinkled, two people recognising each other.
We live inside the same God, I thought, we are in the same family.
He smiled at me kindly and blessed me with more whispers.
Nobody shouted here, nobody cried out – though I sensed no oppression, only a sweet-tempered reverence. I dabbed the tears from my cheeks and made my way to the back of the church for a hot drink. Could their coffee be as good as their worship? I reached the table to find delicate white cups upturned on saucers, and devotees handing out macaroons on gilded china plates – that’s a yes then!
St John’s Church, Broadwindsor, England