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Wells Cathedral

Whit Sunday came to us with rays of sunshine, clear blue skies and finally a summer breeze. We celebrated the story of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the fulfilment of the Trinity through our choral evensong as the four small village churches that make up our rural benefice came together in fellowship.

Whilst getting ready for our morning Eucharist, I heard a reading of Philip Larkin’s compelling poem Church Going on BBC Radio 4.  Curious, I wondered how it might fit in with the theme of Pentecost. During the preparation for evensong, ‘someone’ forgot to supply the choristers with the Book of Common Prayer. After singing our introit, there was uneasy ‘spirit’ rustling through the quire stalls as our vicar announced which page to turn to next for the prayers. As Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had been one of my extra-curricular studies at uni 30 years ago, I quietly crept from my creaky wooden perch in the quire and attempted to walk invisibly down a side aisle beyond the prayerful towards the back of the nave, where I had earlier noticed the BCP’s were stored in a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. Our vicar had collected some extras as he went about his Eucharist round with the village churches that morning, in anticipation of an overflow crowd. (There’s always hope!)

I did not grow up with the BCP as a part of my church tradition. Although I have grown to love it, I have yet to commit it to memory as many of my fellow choristers have. Sensing a ‘spirit of unrest’ descend upon them as well, I made sure to grab an armload of these small treasures in faded blues and reds to slip to them surreptitiously and as quietly as possible when I found my way back to the quire. After I sat down and readied for the next bit of worshipful thought I had a sinking feeling the choristers around me who grew up reciting the BCP in their dreams might take offense. But I noted they all balanced the little book between pages of music and Psalter using it to guide them through the beautiful intricacies of our liturgical offering. Quiet peace was flowing through the quire once again.

Why all this fuss? Because I, a believer, hate to feel ‘cut off’ when worshipping. I need at least a few comforts of familiarity to guide me closer into God’s presence. I am already living in a land where very few of the hymns sung are those I grew up with. I am blest indeed to have the Lord introduce me to a variety of tunes and lyrics – in hymnals and Psalters – that have given Him such pleasure, honour and glory through the ages. There is a feeling of alienation when I cannot read the notes I am meant to sing or mouth the messages of lyrics I am expected to share when in fellowship with other believers. I want to know the moment I come to the altar the weave and wonders of the liturgy on offer.

Ah! So this is how a poem of Larkin’s would add to my worship thoughts. Imagine the nonbeliever or agnostic such as Larkin or some of my dearest friends, drawn into a sacred space and met with structures not familiar to their lives. As a believer I have no doubt that an agnostic’s ambivalence towards religions’ own pomposity can be stirred by a fresh breath from God. As for the indwelling and benefits of the Holy Spirit there is an air of je ne sais quoi even for the believer.

 

 

CHURCH GOING

Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round. 


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Down with a nasty cold, the worst of it striking me out from attending church. With the constant rhythm of the rain, sleeping was my greatest activity for peace and healing – rest for tonight will hopefully not be so elusive.

I hate it when I miss out on the fellowship of corporate worship, as I had to this past Sunday morning. But my dear love went, making apologies for me, and came home with some bits and bobs about what I missed. Of course, the day would be one of the Sundays our vicar was here to administer communion.

Usually, he tears off small bites of probably-not-too-freshly-baked white bread rolls from Sainsbury’s. One Sunday, he dropped a bite on the altar carpet, but with ecclesiastical speed applied the 5-second rule, and placed the morsel in my cupped hands before my eyes could protest.

‘The body of Christ, pinched off, wadded up, and dropped for your sins’.

And today, for the first time in months, wouldn’t you know he actually used wafers?!? Exciting stuff always happens when I can’t be at church.

The sacramental element representing Christ’s body used to be much blander where I came from. The church tradition of my childhood strictly forbade anything but Matzo Crackers – the very plain white crackly kind. Absolutely no salt, totally unleavened — one large cracker, passed down the pew on a silver platter to be shared amongst at least 20 congregants (all those germs, and they complained about One Cuppers?). Our silent sacred hopes for Eucharistic reflection rudely interrupted by the sound of small high-pitched explosions of dried Matzos being cracked up into tiny fragments all over the sanctuary before being ingested and washed down with a thimbleful of the next element passed down the pews, Welch’s grape juice. Strewth! Religious teetotallers don’t do alcohol for church.

I’d like to know: Did Jesus go desperately hunting for Manischewitz just prior to the Last Supper? How many times did I wish he could be with us to turn that 6-month old vile Welch’s into some mighty fine wine?

When I got liberal I made my own communion bread. But after so many moves in my life, I’ve lost the recipe!! (Robyn, if you’re reading this and still have that recipe – you know the one that uses wheat flour, honey, and real butter – could you kindly post it in the comments section?)

This reminds me of all the flap and nonsensical debates about the spiritual use of women in worship and leadership, and the a cappella VS singing-with-instruments issues. But I won’t go there tonight. My head is still fully congested and can barely get around my pillow.

I will mention the blurb that caught my eye in our Weekly Benefice Leaflet that my dear one brought home after church. Our Old Testament Reading in worship was from Isaiah 65.1-9, and the blurb reads:

Isaiah tells his people that they have overlaid the true worship of God with many worthless and corrupt practices and rituals. This will make their healing all the more painful and costly.

The things I have let get in my way, and the obstacles I have set up for others, keeps healing at a great distance. The lesson I learned in last week’s sermon on forgiveness also adds into this one. In my spiritual quest to grow in relationship to God, I discover that holiness and wholeness are directly related. To become more Christ-like and explore and adapt to the holy space of his presence within me: that’s the way to complete wholeness. My flaws, my sins, go through a healing process as I forgive those who have caused me pain, and as forgiveness is graciously extended to me (or even as I forgive myself).

Which brings me back to today’s blurb and thoughts from Isaiah 65.1-9. Allowing issues to seep into the sacred space of my relationship with Christ – or practices and rituals which might make me feel better and more comfortable – only serves to corrupt the healing process.

So, if the vicar doesn’t have time to make his own fresh communion bread, that’s okay. I’ll share my recipe with him. If I can find it…
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