It’s interesting how some weeks take on a particular character. Last week I was privileged to step into a world that I have not really been involved in since I left theological college thirty years ago. On Tuesday I went to Spurgeon’s College which is set in the diocese in Upper Norwood, to take part in their teaching programme. I had driven past the college on so many occasions but had never had the opportunity to visit there. So it was a great opportunity to do so.
My task was to talk about ‘Learning through liturgy’. It was a good subject to think about. I have always believed very strongly that we learn a huge amount by being involved in the worship of the church. I certainly learnt a great deal as a child, looking, listening, taking it all in. Sermons are important, of course, but for me there is something so powerful about the action and the drama of liturgy that engages all of the senses and what I described to the students as the ‘6th sense’ in liturgy – that ability that we have to encounter the numinous. The entry into mystery is an important part of the experience of worship, encountering the Living God ‘in spirit and in truth’.
The interesting thing was talking through this with students from a Baptist and Pentecostal background and who are training for ministry in those congregations. One student challenged me about sermons and the centrality of that element in worship. He talked about the sermon as being an hour in length, I was talking about quite a different thing. But it is so good to be able to talk about these things together and especially with those from what we might call a non-liturgical tradition. Of course there is a real tendency to create ‘liturgy’ even in these traditions.
The following day I was on more familiar territory, preaching at the College Eucharist at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. The college is set in a village outside Oxford, a beautiful place made even more beautiful by the recent opening of the new chapel which is being shared with a community of sisters who have moved to be part of the college community.
The chapel has been the focus of a great deal of attention since it recently opened, and rightly so. It is stunning! Whatever you have heard or read is all true. The Revd Professor Martyn Percy, the Principal of the College, showed me round. What is so wonderful is that you get the sense of a double construction, the outer rigid shell, and the inner wooden structure that sits independently, almost floating in the space. It falls gently from the apex to the chapel floor.
It reminded me of that great anonymous poem of the 15th century ‘I sing of a maiden’
I sing of a maiden
that is makeles
King of all kings
to her son she chose
he came also still
there his mother was
as dew in April
that falleth on the grass
he came still
to his mothers bower
as dew in April
that falleth on the flower
he came also still
there his mother lay
as dew in April
that falleth in the spray
mother and maiden
was never none but she
well may such a lady
God’s mother be.
The building spoke to me of the gentleness of our God whom we seek to know and encounter in the liturgy.
What was also good was being able to meet a great group of people training for ordained ministry. They were welcoming and enthusiastic and it was encouraging in both colleges to meet such people. It was a good sign for the future of the church.
On Thursday, I had the opportunity to see the Oscar Romero cross which has been installed in St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark. The cross forms a focus of prayer in that lovely Cathedral and contains Archbishop Romero’s skull cap and a fragment of his blood-stained alb. I have to admit that Oscar Romero has always been one of my heroes and so it was a real privilege to see the cross and what might become, when the Archbishop is canonised, relics. It is also encouraging that he and Liberation Theology have been recognised as important once again.
The cross is huge, bright, colourful, a massive version of the South American crosses that many of us have. The iconography speaks of the God who gives himself to us, in Jesus Christ and the eye represents the one God made visible in Jesus. Do take the opportunity to visit St George’s and say your prayers around the cross.
The new week has begun with a Choral Eucharist which celebrated what I was thinking about at the beginning of the week as we admitted new members to the Guild of Servers and the rededication of the members of the serving team. It was good to give thanks for those who help in the presentation of the liturgy, through which we learn about and encounter God in word and sacrament. They followed the eucharist with a celebration lunch, well deserved and enjoyed by all who could be there.
Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote the following, good words to conclude days of encounter with God in liturgy, in architecture and in people who are answering the call to be seed sowers and workers in the kingdom harvest.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.