today i and everyone else in the group experienced something that none of us will ever forget.
it is Sunday here and of course we made plans to attend a church service. we planned to go to St. Mary’s, the Anglican Church in Lindisfarne. a fitting end to our ten day pilgrimage, hiking over 100 miles on St. Oswald’s Way. i, and others, assumed that we were in for a fairly traditional church service.
what happened instead was the most unusual church service i have ever attended. and the most moving one that i have ever been a part of.
not only did my eyes well up several times, but i had tears streaming down my cheeks throughout the service. it was so moving. and i was not alone.
what moved me so much was not one thing but several things that occurred, each one somehow touching a cord inside of me and apparently for others too.
for example, at the last minute the church decided to hold the service outside rather than inside the church itself. a piece of paper was posted on the church door, saying that the 10:45 service has been moved to the beach at 11 am. to the beach??? yes, to the beach.
the morning was brisk and overcast. and there was a breeze coming from the north. yet, here were people walking out to the beach to find a place to stand or sit, as church staff and volunteers set up a table to be a makeshift alter. a young teenager struggles to stretch an electrical cord some 200 yards across the church property and then across a stone wall into the adjoining house to try to find an electrical outlet so that the clergy will have a microphone for use during the service.
everything was makeshift. then a gentlemen arrives in a cowboy hat and shorts with a guitar and starts to set up as if to play. they test the microphone, test the guitar, and the clergy begin to put on their all white vestments. it is beginning to take shape. maybe we are going to have a church service outdoors on the beach after all.
and then i start to take in the setting a little more closely, and i begin to realize the significance of the beach that we are on. it leads at low tide to St. Cuthbert’s island.
i also realize that more and more people seem to be streaming in to the service. from where, i am not sure. but, before i know it, there are 230 people standing and sitting in a circle listening, waiting for something.
the clergy involved is not just the local rector, but it turns out that the the Bishop of Berwick is here too. the Bishop, Mark, immediately puts everyone at ease with his calmness, humanness, and sense of humor. he states that the reason he is here today and performing the service outside on the sand, which is obviously very unusual is that someone, and he won’t reveal who, had asked him to preside over a very special confirmation and do it on the beach. he then said the person called him and asked him if we could have the service on the beach. he said the conversation started out with “Dad, can we do the service on the beach?”
even when i am writing this i am welling up. his fourteen year old daughter had asked her Dad, the Bishop, for this.
on top of this, i find out that the service is not just a regular Sunday service, and not just a confirmation, but also a service celebrating holy baptisms and renewals of baptism vows. all total, some 21 people are being either baptized or confirmed.
each one of them is introduced and you can tell that each one has their own story. what is so striking to me is the diversity of the 21 individuals. some are young, some are old, some are obviously from Arabic heritage, some are infirm, some are blind. you get the feeling that they are all from different walks of life. each one of them had been touched enough by God to go through the process to be baptized or to renew their baptism vows or to be confirmed. it was powerful.
that was nothing compared to what happened next. the Bishop decided that the baptisms and renewals would be done in the North Sea! and the North Sea is cold!!
so, if you can picture this, almost all of the 200+ in attendance traipse down at low tide to the water’s edge.
the Bishop himself along with the rector get in the water up to their waist, and they perform a full immersion on each of the individuals. they did not do the more traditional method — laying of the Bishop’s hands wet with North Sea water on the individual’s forehead and drawing the holy trinity. no. rather holding with the help of the rector the individual at the waist and bending their back backwards 90 degrees until the individual’s back and neck and face were totally submerged. i was shivering just watching this.
as if on cue, grey seals started to appear in the North Sea’s waters behind the baptisms. they must have heard the clapping by the parishioners for each person who was held and leaned backward until their upper body and face were submerged in the cold waters of the sea. it seemed that every time the crowd clapped the seals almost in unison would rise up and slap their tails on the sea. it was an amazing sight to behold.
on top of all this was the music. the guitar player was phenomenal, and the choice of music was particularly moving. he played and we all sang at various times during the service “Great is thy Faithfulness”, “From the highest of the heights to the depths of the sea”, “Before i spoke a word, you were singing over me”, “There is nothing worth more”, “Amazing Grace”, and finally “I, the Lord of sea and sky”. what struck me was that i and others were not just mumbling the words, we were singing them with everything we had.
while all of this is occurring somehow the Bishop also managed to include all the traditional parts of the service including a gospel reading, a lesson, the sermon, prayers for the people, communion and the peace, where everyone shakes hands or hugs each other and wishes them “peace be with you”. the service lasted over two hours, but it seemed to fly by.
i mentioned the Bishop before, but his deft orchestration of the service was especially important i think. he somehow was able to easily go from a very serious moment to a moment of levity. he did this several times. and he did it in a way that clearly showed that he was human just like us. what this did was allow our emotions to go from one extreme to another. one moment we were crying. the next moment we were laughing. it was amazing.
i have tried to understand why this service was so impactful on me and others too. i am a little bit at a loss to understand why.
one reason may be that this event occurred at the end of a 100 mile hike over 9 days, and inevitably there is more tension and stress associated with that than we acknowledge. maybe this service was just the trigger that unlocked all of that built up tension and the emotions just flowed out. sort of like crying at the completion of a marathon.
another may be that our expectations for a standard Sunday morning church service were so so different from what in fact happened that it was like a revelation of sorts.
another may be that after hiking for over 9 days and in turn getting away from the hustle and bustle of every day life, maybe your get more in touch with your emotions and your feelings. or said another way, maybe your emotions and feelings are able to rise to the surface more after being on a pilgrimage for ten days. if so, then maybe it is easier to connect with those emotions and feelings than would normally be the case.
or maybe this was a special moment. a truly special moment. the kind that come along only once in long while. maybe this is what going on a pilgrimage is all about.
as i write these words my eyes are tearing up.