xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: July 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Abbey and the Chapel

July 12, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

We are currently on a one-week break here in Iowa in between our summer travels. Last week, we returned from a ten-day tour from the Netherlands and London, to explore both Jessica’s ethnic heritage and our history as United Methodists. On Thursday, June 30, we visited two sacred sites: Westminster Abbey in the morning, and the John Wesley’s Chapel in the afternoon. I couldn’t help but draw contrasts between the two.


Walking through the grand, hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey was like stepping through the pages of a history book. With its high, gothic ceiling – the tallest in England – towering above us, the Abbey pulsed with pomp and glorious pageantry. After entering through the north doors and paying the requisite $51.00 admission fee, we circled back to the chambers behind the altar, where numerous monuments, tombstones, and floor markers pay tribute to dignitaries buried within the walls. The bodies of some of the most significant British historical figures, including Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and seventeen monarchs, are interred there, a graphic embodiment of Hebrews’ reminder that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” I participated in a 12:30 communion service in the nave, and our worshipping group of forty voices magnified in resonant echo against the walls of a sanctuary that has housed countless generations of Christians for the past one thousand years. It was hard not to be breath-taken as we soaked it all in.

There were several reminders that the Abbey is more than a worship space; it also plays a vital role in the national and political life of Great Britain. The twelve-gong peals of Big Ben signaled the noon hour as we entered the Abbey, reminding us of its proximity to the Houses of Parliament and the statuary tributes of Parliament Square. When we left, a swollen mob marched past us on the streets, protesting national cuts to teacher benefits. Clearly, the Abbey geographically locates its influence in the epicenter of national power, memory, and identity. In fact, Westminster Abbey is not officially under the jurisdiction of the Church of England, but is designated as a “Royal Peculiar,” placing it under the direct governance of the British monarchy. It has therefore been the site of royal coronations, stately funerals, and dazzling weddings, most recently between William and Catherine. Those who worship here regularly come not only to experience God, but to remember what it means to be a proud Brit.

The crowds both inside and outside Westminster Abbey underscored its trademark as a popular destination site. It is a place for tourists to visit, for politicians to be seen, for monarchs to be crowned, for protesters to march, and for history to be revisited. Oh, and it’s also a place to worship.


Knowing that our trip to the Wesley's Chapel was later that afternoon, I prepared myself over lunch for what was sure to be a contrast from the grandeur and austerity of the Abbey. I wondered what John Wesley thought about Westminster Abbey, in all of its posh splendor. Was he critical of its luxurious accoutrements? Was he skeptical of its intrinsic ties to the monarchy? Did he see it as yet another example of the church focusing more on monuments, rather than on movements?

We traveled away from the heart of London, into a northeastern region of the city called Islington. Gone were the bustling crowds and murmur of government buildings. There were no sprawling grounds filled with imposing statues. In fact, Wesley’s Chapel was easy to miss, marked only by a small sign on a modest iron gate, tucked between clusters of office complexes and tall commercial buildings. It was a far cry from the dirt mounds and wind mills that Wesley saw when he first chose the site in 1777, originally a dump site for unearthed dirt excavated to build St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Today, it has become a pilgrimage destination for Methodists around the world, but we couldn’t tell when we first stepped into the church. In contrast to the massive crowds inside Westminster Abbey, my family was the only one there that afternoon, except for a handful of Methodists from South Korea. A lovely, elderly tour guide named Caroline met us the moment we entered the door, eager to assist what would be her only visitors that afternoon.

She told us that Wesley built the Chapel neither as affront to the Church of England or as part of a new, upstart denomination. John and Charles, after all, never severed their ties from the Anglican Church. Instead, Wesley built the Chapel merely to be a place for teaching and preaching, which explains the unavoidable prominence of the large, three-tiered pulpit and spiral staircase in the center of the chancel, and the subtle placement of a small altar behind it. There were originally no stained glass windows, just clear plate glass. The Chapel was built neither to undermine or rival Westminster Abbey. It was a reflection of Wesley himself: inspiring without being extravagant, austere without being excessive. “It is perfectly neat, but not fine,” Wesley described in his journal. [1]

But since Wesley's death, the Chapel has been modified by the movement that continues Wesley's legacy. Methodists around the world have purchased and dedicated stained glass windows that now adorn the walls and tell the stories of the Bible and of early Methodism. The baptism font was donated by a former slaveholder who was converted to Christianity by the Methodist movement. And plaques throughout the sanctuary bear the names of people whose lives have been touched by the "brand, plucked from the burning."

I can't help but see this as the greatest contrast between the Abbey and the Chapel. Whereas the Abbey tells over a thousand years' worth of stories about the great and mighty heroes of history, Wesley's Chapel serves as a testament to the work of grace in the lives of ordinary people like you and me. The Abbey was built to be a destination: the place one goes to experience God and the glory of the British empire. The Chapel, in contrast, draws little attention to itself, instead reminding us that God’s grace flows outwardly, beyond the walls of any one church. The Abbey stands tall and proud at the epicenter of Great Britain, but the Chapel declares Wesley’s maxim: “The world is my parish.”

Despite the contrast I’ve drawn here, I think there is something we can learn from both the Abbey and the Chapel. The geographic location of St. Paul’s UMC places us at the heart of the town and county of Cherokee. We can be the place that outsiders visit to experience God’s love and find a nurturing community of warm-hearted, grace-filled people. But we can also be the wellspring from which the movement of God’s love can be put into action, out into the places of brokenness and suffering all around us. It is through our ordinary means that we can point to an extravagant God.

Two hundred thirty-four years ago, John Wesley laid the first stone for the foundation of the chapel, along with a brass plaque. With the plaque soon to be concealed by ensuing layers of the foundation, it contained the following inscription:

“This was laid by Mr. John Wesley on April 21st, 1777.
Probably this will be seen no more by human eye,
but will remain there till the earth and the works thereof are burned up.”

Indeed, may our service to God bear that same inscription, neither for the observance or the admiration of the human eye, but for God’s enduring grace, at work until the end of the earth.

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA 51012
Ph: 712-225-3955 / E-mail: mdevega@cherokeespumc.org

[1] From Wesley’s Journal, November 1, 1778, the day the Chapel was dedicated. For the first service, he preached on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple.

Thank you for your prayers as we continue our travels. We leave this Saturday for the Philippines, where we will spend about ten days visiting my parents’ families and childhood neighborhoods. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed the sampling of Dutch chocolate and brief photo montage shared in worship last Sunday!

The church office received word on Monday that Tom Kruse, now living in Weslaco, Texas, with Judy, has taken a turn for the worse and his kidneys are failing. Please pray for Tom and Judy during this time. The office has their address, if you wish to send them cards and letter.