Sunday, 19 May 2024

One in Christ

Duncan Wood, originally a Moravian, reflects on life in an Anglican parish in Norfolk

I was baptised and confirmed as a Moravian at Westwood, but over the course of my life I've attended an Anglican college chapel in Cambridge and three different Anglican parish churches. I've been chair of governors of a Church of England primary school, and now I'm a churchwarden in rural North Norfolk. My fellow churchwarden lives in a stately home, and the rector is directly descended from a prime minister. The patron of the church living is the King, in his capacity as Duke of Lancaster. Every now and then we have genial visits of inspection from the chaplain of the Savoy Palace, which was the London base of Henry VII and still exists notionally as a royal residence.

St Peter's church is small and ancient, in a tiny village. Saxon in origin, the church has had several medieval makeovers, and has a pretty round tower with a single bell from the reign of Henry VIII. The bell is big and heavy and used to dangle me mercilessly before I learned how to ring it properly. We have two altars but no chancel. The high altar sits inside a tiny sanctuary in the nave. The chancel fell down during divine service in 1727, nearly killing the rector and churchwarden. In one of the church registers there is a very excited note by the then rector, thanking God for saving him, the parish clerk and two gentlemen (one a high sheriff of the county) from death. The walls fell outwards, presumably taking the roof with them.

The culture at St Peter's is High but not Anglo-Catholic. There is no incense, but attention is paid to Mary and the saints - and rightly so, as Mary played a key part in God's work of salvation. For the eucharist (holy communion; the word simply means thanksgiving), the rector wears a white alb (a long close-fitting garment) with a stole or scarf the colour of the current church season or day. In Moravian terms - i.e., whether things are essential, ministerial or incidental - I regard these as ministerial. They are part of the message about Christian life. Messages do not have to be in words. Oh, and we sing Wesley's hymns just as vigorously and joyfully as anyone else.

The church is liberal in the sense that it tolerates diverse views and tries to serve various communities. And that service is practical. Wasn't it St Francis who said preach the Gospel, and use words if you have to? As a 'benefice' (i.e., several parishes joined together with one rector), we support Ukrainian refugees, local food banks, people who need a helping hand in our own communities, and Palestinian Christians. And we are deeply committed to green stewardship of our churches and churchyards. There is genuine fellowship, but sometimes vigorous debate about how to move forward in faith, hope and love.

I think I could honestly say that this Anglican community demonstrates all five aspects of the Spirit of the Moravian Church as defined by Bishop C H Shawe in his famous lecture series: simplicity, happiness, unintrusiveness, fellowship, and the ideal of service. Well, perhaps the fellowship does not involve quite so much vigorous handshaking! Of course, more widely, the Anglican-Moravian Conversations and the Fetter Lane Statement of 1996 have created a much closer relationship between the two churches.

I have in front of me John Amos Comenius's Exhortation from 1661, written when the Unitas Fratrum was in great danger of dying:

An Exhortation of the Churches of Bohemia to the Church of England : A description premised of the Order and Discipline used in the Churches of the Brethren of Bohemia : Dedicated to his most Excellent Majesty Charles the Second, in Holland, at his returning into England; If possible it may be for an Accommodation amongst the Churches of Christ. By J. Amos Comenius, the only surviving Bishop of the Remains of those Churches.

What is it that I, as a Moravian, do to help that Accommodation at St Peter's? Well, perhaps I show a taste for simplicity. I rather shocked the rector recently by describing vestments as 'fancy togs'. Perhaps another thing about being a Moravian is a fondness for praying to Christ. I certainly do that whenever I lead prayer here in church. Like Zinzendorf, I believe that the joint presence in Jesus of divinity and humanity, of suffering and glory, is at the heart of our faith.

Duncan Woods

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