Saturday, June 25, 2011

2011 Tour - Day 6: Westminster Abbey and Greenwich

Our host families for the past two nights brought us to the car park in Hitchin where we reluctantly said goodbye to our new friends. Gathering a little earlier today to account for traffic, we loaded the buses and met new bus drivers, Darren and Alan. They drove us to London for a much anticipated visit to Westminster Abbey.

Our group quickly took a self-guided tour of what has been England's coronation church since 1066. This world-renowned house of faith has been the setting of important national events over the centuries. It is the burial and memorial place for kings and queens and other notable figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Charles Darwin. The recent wedding of Prince William and Princess Katherine Windsor took place with much grandeur at Westminster Abbey. Most of the church was built under the reign of King Henry VIII between 1245 and 1272. The church is in the French Gothic style of architecture with flying buttresses for structural support and round or "rose" windows in the transepts. The long nave is characteristically English. One look at Westminster Abbey, inside or out, and your spirit will be uplifted. This is the church meant for kings and queens to glorify the King of all creation, and they have well succeeded.

Westminister Abbey is also all about location, location, location. The church is near the impressive Houses of Parliament, home to the legislature for the United Kingdom. The well-known Big Ben clock tower stands prominently nearby at the north end of Parliament Square. A few chaperones visited the United Methodist Hall Church and Conference Center across the street from the Abbey. Souvenirs, anyone?

With a schedule to keep, we left London and arrived in the nearby town of Greenwich for lunch. Without fanfare, we were now sitting on the Prime Meridian of Zero degrees longitude and the point on earth which was the basis for time applied to time zones all around the world. Known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), this was adopted as official time in 1847 to be used by mariners in calculating longitude as they sailed the seas. We are well into our travels at this point, but it is worth mentioning that England is five hours ahead of Eastern Daylight time! The world now relies on atomic clocks, which give a more accurate reading, but GMT is an important part of history.

We each had an allotment of eight pounds to spend for lunch in Greenwich, which is ample for a drink and a sandwich (such as salmon and cheese, or Parma ham and rocket salad). England has lots of ethnic restaurants, especially Indian or Mexican, as an alternative.

We regrouped at St. Alfege's Church to attend a beautiful piano recital given by Akiko Murakami. All from memory, she played difficult pieces by Bach, Beethoven,Ravel, and Debussy. Our youth sat in the second story gallery, looking out at the elaborate columns and cornices, and the tall, elevated pulpit.

Afterwards, our youth sang enthusiastically to the glory of God with Katherine Williams as accompanist on the piano. The point of our coming to this church was to see and experience the house of worship that so moved Thomas Tallis to write beautiful music. Tallis was a gifted composer who was appointed to Henry VIII's Chapel Royal. His influence was significant to the golden age of Tudor music in the 16th century. Tallis wrote two of the pieces our choir has sung at nearly every stop on the tour. It was incredibly moving to hear "If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments" start off in a capella with the tone resounding throughout the home church of Thomas Tallis. The youth ended with the Tallis Canon, sung as a four-part round, after which you could hear a pin drop. The words to this doxology are worth repeating:

All praise to thee, my God this night
For all the blessings of the light
Keep me, oh, keep me, king of kings
Beneath thine own almighty wings
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

For you history buffs out there, here's a word about St. Alfege's Church. Known officially as the Parish Church of St. Alfege in Greenwich, the church is named after the selfless man who became the Archbishop of Canterbury and gave his life working for the poor. He was murdered after refusing to allow anyone to pay ransom money when he was taken hostage at the time Canterbury was sacked in 1142. As for the church building, during World War II on the night of March 19, 1941, bombs lodged in the roof of the church and set it ablaze. Only part of the 1552 organ console was saved, protected by its casing. That bit of history dates to the time of Thomas Tallis.

We arrived at Bethesda Methodist Church in the lovely town of Cheltanham quite late for rehearsal. We went straight to a wonderful dinner the church members had prepared for us. Across the globe, Methodists seem to share fellowship around good food. We enjoyed a meal of quiche, potatoes, beets, salad, and tomatoes. English strawberries are in season! We've had them with double cream and creme fraiche, and tonight they were served with vanilla ice cream. Absolutely delicious!

Our concert started a bit late but soon got into full swing. The audience was warm and appreciative as our youth sang and played from their hearts in praise of our almighty Father. One familiar song, "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again," was arranged by our DUMC organist Steve Kalnoske explicitly for tour. The arrangement was written with the message of unity across nations through the common desire for peace. Starting a Capella, the harmonious tone of the choir was even more beautiful when the orchestra joined in. Here's to you, Steve, and glory be to God! After applause and encores, Rev. Hillary Ewing presented Walt with a chalice decorated with the Cheltanham coate of arms. Soon after, we were all assigned to host families and off we went for a good night's rest.

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