I came across a story today at the Catholic News Service about a priest being turned away by emergency personel from the site of yesterday's tragedy:
"The image of emergency services wanting priests at the scene has finished," said Father Peter Newby of St. Mary Moorfield Parish. "They don't want priests there.
Not because of any lack of respect for clergy, mind you, but because it's important to keep the streets clear for the really important personel who are doing some real work at the scene.
When reading a story like this one can't help but be reminded of the moribund state of the Church of England, in which attendance has been dropping for years reflecting, one presumes, a corresponding drop off in religious belief. The Catholic Church is not exactly booming there but at least they can muster up more than a clergyman and two servers for a service. Indeed, considering the way things have been going recently it is tempting to imagine that in a few years the Anglican Communion will be a denomination that consists entirely of clergy, since the only people who seem to actually want to belong to it are people who can't find a way to become priests or bishops anywhere else.
But enough with the catty ex-Episcopalian sneers. Something else about that CNS story was of more interest to me: there was a mention in it of St. Etheldreda Church, the oldest (surviving) Roman Catholic Church in England and a Church that I have actually visited. When last I was in London I took a self-directed tour of historic Churches and other religious landmarks, including the obvious stops like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's. But I also visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral and, among other places, St. Etheldreda's. (That really is a remarkable name, by the way. Sadly, it is not listed in the most recent (2004) Martyrologium Romanum.) It is a small church in the heart of London's business district, surrounded by modern buildings and busy streets. Step inside, though, and you are in the middle ages.
What is remarkable about the religious heritage of Great Britain is its profound seriousness. In looking at all of these sites, one gets the impression that, when England was a land of faith, it was a land of very deep and serious faith. I suppose one has only to look at the internecene conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries to see just how sadly bloody the differences over the most serious matters of faith became for the English, but putting that aside we also see, in their art and architecture, their music and their liturgies, their abiding joy of faith in Our Lord. How sad, really, for those English of the 21st century who have lost the opportunity for that joy by turning from the faith of their heritage! What a pillar of strength it could be for them now, in this new time of Troubles.
But St. Etheldreda's, though it was virtually empty at Mass yesterday, is nevertheless ordinarily a lively parish, even though its home base is a rather dilapidated looking 13th century stone structure in the middle of The City. There is faith yet in London Town, and it has real work to do, and new martyrs to celebrate. Those of us who have not lost the faith are joined in brotherhood with those who suffer unjustly--and those who die unjustly. For today's Daily Office I prayed the Office of the Dead in honor of those who fell in London so that, being far away, I am nevertheless with them in the only way possible for me at the moment. This kind of solidarity is what connects us not only to those far away from us in space, but to those far away in time--it is our connection to the martyrs of the past and to our heritage. Although the emergency personel in London may not recognize it, our bond of faith serves an important purpose: it unites us. We are one Body.