Cathedrals, Grandeur, & Vitality

Another recurring theme in my recent trip to England with university students was the grandeur of major cathedrals and how they point to the glory of God.

Some personal history: I grew up in the Lutheran church, which has a lot of tradition. The stained-glass windows of the church told stories, and I loved the atmosphere of the stained glass.

Then I left that tradition and became part of the new evangelical and charismatic world that came into prominence in the early 1970s. I was a Jesus Movement guy. I concluded at the time that my church was too tradition-bound and had lost its vitality. To a great extent, I was correct.

Yet I now miss the feelings that go along with the tradition. I remember fondly how the atmosphere made me sense the presence of God. Evangelical churches might want to consider more stained glass.

Three of the cathedrals we visited stand out for me. The first is Canterbury.

This is the headquarters for the Church of England. The edifice and the grounds were far more extensive than I expected, and just walking into the cathedral re-created within me the early years of my Lutheran experience.

These medieval cathedrals had a distinct purpose: to point worshipers to the awesomeness of God and to help them meditate on His holiness.

Salisbury Cathedral, which has the tallest spire in England, also was impressive. It had the most unusual baptismal font I’ve ever seen.

The cathedral also incorporated a significant piece of English history, a piece that directly affected America: an original copy of the Magna Carta, on display in its beautiful Cloister House.

Photos of the aging document itself were not permitted, but it was worthwhile just to be face to face with it.

Sunday in London saw us attending the worship service in Westminster Abbey.

I wasn’t quite sure if a service there would be as Christ-centered as I would have liked. The pleasant surprise was how orthodox and Biblical it was. And to have that solid orthodoxy take place in such a magnificent structure was awe-inspiring. I recall telling the student next to me how much I appreciated the architecture because it drew one’s attention upwards and focused both the mind and heart on God’s presence.

As I went forward for communion, it was pointed out to me by another in our group that at the end of our row of chairs was this particular memorial:

Throughout the entire service, I was sitting practically next to the C. S. Lewis memorial without knowing it. For me, that was a special treat. I’ll have more to say about Lewis when I write about our foray into Oxford and to Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

I realize that architecture and grand buildings are not the essence of the Christian faith. Yet I honestly believe we in the evangelical world, in our quest for informality and spontaneity, might be missing a crucial element in the faith. We focus so much on the personal relationship (“Jesus is my co-pilot”) that we sometimes forget the regal nature of our Lord.

As I sat in the Westminster service, I was refreshed by the solemnity of the service itself and the atmosphere of the place. I came away encouraged in the Lord.

What we need are more fellowships that can combine the grandeur of traditional worship with the freshness and vitality of the personal relationship with Christ. It’s a combination rarely achieved.

Magna Carta: The Biblical Basis

Last week I wrote about the principles at stake in the American War for Self-Government (a.k.a., the American Revolution). What we need to realize is that the American colonists didn’t formulate these principles in a vacuum. There is a long history of British documents related to limited government and the rights of citizens. First on that list is the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta-King JohnWritten in the 13th century (1215, to be precise), the Magna Carta was a response to King John, who had decided that tradition didn’t bind him, and he could rule arbitrarily, even to the point of forcing taxes without any representation from the nobility in the land. They rose up to guard their ancient rights and forced the king to sign this particular document. It didn’t grant anything new; it was merely a statement of what already was.

What we have with the Magna Carta is the first written document identifying the rights of individuals. These rights had been handed down from one generation to the next orally; the Magna Carta signified a transition from orally transmitted rights to those written down for posterity.

Some of the key rights identified in this document were:

  • No tax can be imposed except by common council of the kingdom
  • Fines are to be according to the degree of the offense
  • Personal property cannot be taken without the consent of the owner
  • Witnesses are needed for indictments against individuals
  • No death sentence, imprisonment, dispossession, or banishment without due process of law

Why were these the traditional concepts upon which England operated? Where did they get these ideas?

Back in 1965, a scholar named Helen Silving wrote an article in the Harvard Journal on Legislation that brought to light the basis for the Magna Carta. Here is what she wrote:

An old document such as the Magna Carta is not only that which it “was” at the time of its conception, but also that which it becomes in the course of history. In this sense, undoubtedly, the Magna Carta stands for the idea . . . of subjection of the King not to man but to God and the law, an idea rooted in the Bible which has dominated Anglo-American thought. At this time it may be sufficient to point out the strong possibility that historically controversial old documents of the Western world, as well as some quite modern constitutional ideas, have their origin in the Bible.

The roots of this foundational document are found in the Bible. Yet even in 1965, this was a controversial statement to make, as she notes:

It is remarkable, indeed, and has an interesting bearing on the nature of our reactions to the Bible, that this has passed unnoticed, while efforts have been made to connect our constitutional documents with Greek and Roman ideas.

Whatever influence Greece and Rome had on the development of Western civilization, there was another influence far greater—the Biblical foundation laid for centuries after Greece and Rome had disappeared as empires. It was this foundation, primarily, that guided the thinking of the American colonists as they fought the battle of ideas that led ultimately to a break with the Mother Country.

I’ll provide more of this legal background in my next post in this continuing series that offers a Biblical perspective on American history.