Although there are still a few weeks until the season of autumn officially arrives, with the children going back to school this week, in practice summer is now drawing to its close. And as I think back over the summer months, and our daytrips out, there is one in particular that comes to mind.
For our wedding anniversary, my wife and I spent the day wandering a few villages and towns of Northumberland, an hour or two from home. We finished in the small town of Warkworth, just a few miles from the coast, where we went to the old castle up on the hill for an evening performance of Much Ado About Nothing.
We arrived in Warkworth early and strolled through the town and along the river, spending a little time in the Church of St Lawrence. It is a beautiful small church, and had a lovely feeling in it. Parts of the current building have been there for close to 1,000 years, with evidence of an earlier structure several hundred years before that.
As we walked through its old interior I couldn’t help but think of the many thousands, or even tens of thousands, of people who have worshipped in this building over a millennium. I could see no evidence of pretention: there was some beautiful stained glass showing scenes of the Saviour’s life, but otherwise everything was simple, and gave a sense that those who had come here had done so because of nothing more than their faith. It is a relatively small building, and I couldn’t help but feel that a thousand years of humble and genuine worship for our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ had sanctified the place, making the stones holy.
I don’t know if that is true, but it was what I felt while we visited, and it somehow seems right that so many honest and sincere worshippers would imbue a place with a holiness that is real.
I contrasted this with another visit we made while on holiday, to the Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. This part of England is the land of the “Prince Bishops”, harking back to a day when England’s monarch gave the Bishops here authority to rule in all matters (they were less of a threat to the King as there could be no hereditary claims to the throne) – they printed their own money, they raised their own armies, they collected the taxes. Though Bishops, they were in practice very much also Princes, and ruled as such.
Auckland Castle was the palace of the Prince Bishop of Durham. We only live a handful of miles from this building, but I’d never been in it before this summer, and as we walked through I noted all of the trimmings that made it more of a royal building than a religious one. We walked the grounds, and around the ornate building that had been constructed for the Bishop’s deer.
The chapel was far more ornate than that of Warkworth’s Church of St Lawrence, with the many stained glass windows showing grand scenes of Durham’s Bishops through the ages – a large statue at the chapel’s entrance: of a Bishop. We had to strain to find evidence of deity in that chapel, and my sense was that its purpose seemed more to show the greatness of a few men, than of worshipping God. Appearing to me to be more of a monument to the pride of men than of love for the Lord, I left saddened at the experience, and doubt I will ever return.
I’m sure that my contrasting feelings of these two buildings are over-simplified. There must have been individuals walking the corridors of Auckland Castle over the centuries who had a genuine love of God and of all men; and certainly within the walls of the smaller Church of St Lawrence there will have been men and women of pride through the course of a thousand years.
But regardless of how accurate my feelings of these two places, as I have pondered these very different religious edifices, I have found myself thinking of my own worship. Am I like the small and humble Church, or am I more akin to the building that seeks to be a palace, using religion to build my sense of importance?
The Lord has warned us that, “…it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (D&C 121:39) As soon as I start to think I am more intelligent than someone else; as soon as I start to think that I know more or better than another; as soon as I start to feel that I have authority of any description, including the authority of understanding – then I start to build of my religion a palace to my pride, rather than a chapel for humble worship.
Christ warned of this during His mortal ministry. Of the Pharisees, who considered themselves the most righteous of their day, He warned, “…all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” (Matthew 23:5-8)
And that last statement of our Saviour’s really is the key – for none of us should consider ourselves the Rabbis of our day. There is really only one Teacher, one Master, one to whom we bow both our necks and our knees. The rest of us are all brethren and sisters – all alike unto God.
In another of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry VIII, Queen Katharine rebukes her husband for this duplicity of heart, saying, “You’re meek and humble-mouth’d. You sign your place and calling, in full seeming, with meekness and humility; but your heart is cramm’d with arrogancy, spleen, and pride. You have, by fortune…gone slightly o’er low steps and now are mounted where powers are your retainers…. You tender more your person’s honour than your high profession spiritual.”
We contrast this with the words of Richard C Edgely, who once spoke of many in his local church congregation – people, “…I see, admire, and am grateful for. They are not seeking position, prominence, or fame, but each is earning a place in our Father’s kingdom by taking care of the business of everyday living. They are consistently doing the unnoticed, the unspectacular, but humbly and righteously doing the important.” (The Empowerment of Humility, October 2003 LDS General Conference)
And so I return to the small Church of St Lawrence, in Warkworth. It was not built for politics or economy. It had no ambition other than to serve as a place for the local people to worship, and occasionally to act as a defense as the thick oldest walls attest. It did not attempt to mingle the spiritual with worldly ambition and power. It was – and remained – humble.
At least, that is how I see that small Church. And I hope that my own nature can be similarly disposed in my worship.