Serendipity…the unexpected discovery made by happenstance…we all have experienced serendipity. Exactly 300 years ago – in 1714 – English Baptists – the people who often were considered religious outcasts in their own country – certainly non-conformists in the face of the state church, the Anglican Church – appointed a minister to come to Virginia and plant a Baptist church along the James River. The minister’s name was Robert Norden and his chief support came from the Baptists at Canterbury. Exactly 300 years later a Baptist church along the James – River Road Church, Baptist – was invited to send its choir to provide music for evensongs at Canterbury in its ancient Anglican cathedral. That’s serendipity! Unexpected! And not just any Baptist church but the one Baptist church which has an English-style choir and which can master high church music. Certainly neither the Dean of Canterbury nor the director of the River Road choir would have realized the connection. Serendipity.
My wife, Nancy, and I planned our summer travel to coincide with the choir’s visit to Canterbury. I spent a day researching in an historical library in London and found several manuscripts related to what was known as “the Virginia Mission.” I found the last letter written by that first minister and in it he told of hardships including his failing health. He pictured the scene. By then, at age 75, he was bedridden with terrible illnesses; but he would sit on the side of his bed while the little congregation gathered around him. He remained faithful to establish a Baptist witness; and today, all about us, we see the results of that one man’s faithfulness in the large and significant body of people known as Virginia Baptists.
While the choir was rehearsing, we went exploring to find the hamlet which Robert Norden left to come to Virginia. A friend drove us down motorways, dual carriage ways, roads with barely enough room for a layby so someone could pass and finally down a dirt road named Furnace Lane and suddenly we were there – a hamlet called Warbleton with its ancient Anglican church, a pub, a workhouse and two or three houses. I poked my head into the pub and said that I was looking for someone who had left Warbleton 300 years ago. The pub owner said: “Well, he’s not here but you are welcome to check the cellar.” She told me that the pub had been there because it had been a coaching inn since the 1500s. Finding Warbleton was a serendipitous moment for this historian.
I think Robert Norden’s spirit would have been thrilled to have known that – after three centuries – a Virginia Baptist church choir sang in the great Anglican cathedral in the very town which sent him to the New World to spread the Gospel. I only can imagine that he would have been thrilled but I know that Nancy and I were thrilled to see and hear our choir in that magnificent setting. It was, in a word, serendipity.