In terms of elevation above sea level, this is the highest church in the diocese of Salisbury, or so I’m told. St James’ is tiny, without electricity or heating, and sits tucked into the folds of the down, surrounded by ancient yews.

I park the Ibiza at the end of a track already filling with fallen leaves, and enter the steep churchyard by a metal gate, sunlight sliding in on the glance, gold. The early morning air is vaporous and vaguely boozy with the scent of windfalls. All around me, the din of cockerels and lambs and children in the distance. Apart from the chill, and the dew underfoot, if I close my eyes I could be back in The Gambia.

I haven’t taken a service of Holy Communion since March. Moved and on my mettle, I take a moment in the heatless sun to gather my thoughts, to say a prayer. This is the breaking of a long fast.

Richard, the churchwarden, arrives soon after me, swinging a 1980s executive-style attaché case. I follow him inside the church and watch as he places the case carefully on the altar, and flips the catches. Nested in grey packing foam, like parts of a rifle, are a silver chalice and paten and ciborium. He lifts the precious items out one by one.

Before the service begins we gather in the churchyard to sing Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’.

Back inside, we light candles, not ceremonial here, necessary. And gradually, in the pews, people congregate, become a congregation. From people to a people. Communion begins at the door, not at the table.

I prepare the altar, re-familiarise myself with the feel of freshly ironed linen, the way the light catches and curves in polished silver surfaces, the sound of wine poured into the hinged altar jug, a soft spill of communion wafers. So much of what we do in Christian worship engages our bodies, our senses. Before theology, before ideas, before all the words, Eucharist is a physical experience. Body sits at the centre of the sacrament:

Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread.

Broken pieces, we are made whole again by sharing in Him who was broken for us all. And this is not done by magic or a miracle; it’s done by a meal. Bread, wine, water. Friends.

When it comes to the Words of Institution, I raise the paten, and then the chalice into the light and tell the story again, for the first time in many months:

In the same night that he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ,
took bread and gave you thanks;
he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you;
do this in remembrance of me.

Remembrance, a re-membering, a putting back together. So much recently has felt like a coming apart. Not only were we asked to isolate from our neighbours and friends, we were asked to self-isolate. It’s hard to know quite what this means. But it makes me think of the items in Richard’s brief case, each separated from the others, slotted into its own discrete foam niche.

When we’re cut off from one another we’re cut off, in a real sense, from ourselves, dismembered. We become prey to all sorts of abstractions and simplifications and dogmas. This is how George Eliot puts it in Middlemarch:

There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual men.

At the very least, the Eucharist is a demonstration of a deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling, a coming into contact. But it’s more than that. Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) described what he saw as the characteristic human stance on the world. He says ‘the positive openness to a revelation that God may possibly give, is part of the essential constitution of man.’ Our intentional openness on a world that may – at any moment – reveal itself as given, as grace, is essential to us. To live like this – ready, open to possibility, to revelation – is, ultimately, to be vulnerable, exposed, weak, lost even. It’s also to be blessed.

And as I lift the paten, it occurs to me for the first time that Jesus – at supper with his friends – understands this fully, from the inside; his loving response is to give. He gives three times in the space of a single sentence. He gives thanks; He gives bread; He gives Himself.

And as the congregation comes up to the altar rail, one by one, it’s not all the doctrine and the sacramental theology that counts. It’s these people at this table, all of them open to the revelation of God’s giving, all of them loved.

Hold out your hands. Receive.

Driving away from St James’, up the track and onto the lane that runs along the top through fields of stubble, I pull over to look out across the valley. Shreds of mist still clinging in the hollows and all the villages just waking up. And I realise, I’m lost. Not lost as in I don’t know my way home, but lost in the way Wesley puts it in ‘Love divine’ – I’m lost in wonder, love and praise. I pray you are too.


I wish I could say I queued A Love Supreme on my phone to play through the car’s speakers, but the Ibiza doesn’t even have a functioning CD slot, barely has a radio, let alone Bluetooth connectivity. If I had been able, as I looked down Ham Hill, I would have listened to the fourth and final movement of John Coltrane’s masterpiece – ‘A Love Supreme IV – Psalm’.

The shimmer of Elvin Jones’s cymbals like the drifting mist in the valley, McCoy Tyner’s chords – the graceful, given solidity of the world beneath, and over it all, Coltrane’s sax, Holy Spirit, hovering, giving, loving. This is simply the most beautiful music I know, a living expression of Rahner’s positive openness to the revelation of God.

so we might learn at last to live through Him:
knowing that in giving, we receive,
that in losing, we gain,
and in it all, love
for You,
our
Lord,
God of all,
who gave, lost and loved
Your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ
so we might learn at last to live through Him,
knowing that in giving, we receive,
that in losing, we gain,
and in it all, love
for You
our
Lord,
God of all,
who gave, lost and loved
Your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ
so we might learn at last to live through Him,
knowing that in giving, we receive,
that in losing, we gain,
and in it all, love
for You
our
Lord,
God of all,
who gave, lost and loved
Your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ
so we might learn at last to live through Him,
knowing that in giving, we receive,
that in losing, we gain,
and in it all, love
for You

Posted by Team editor