A beautiful church

I apologise. This blog normally gets posted on a Sunday afternoon, after I’ve been to Choral Evensong. But yesterday, with the best will in the world, that was just impossible. It was one of those days when I thought ‘why aren’t I better at diary management?’ But I always have a range of excuses for why the diary is chocker-block with different things and often they’re not just excuses but true. So I was a bit fearful of Sunday at the beginning of last week. It looked almost impossible and if not impossible, exhausting, demanding, all of those things.

For one reason or another I had ended up with three sermons to write for very different places and situations. That is a challenge in itself, not so much the writing (thank God) but finding the time to actually sit down and get them written (that is another failure of my diary management system (sic) that I don’t identify blocks of preparation time) was going to be a real challenge. Anyway, Sunday arrived with three sermons written and printed off and so I had at least a few thousand words to deliver in these three places.

One of the things about being a Dean, and something that I try to hold to as much as I can, is that you are not just there for the Cathedral but for the diocese and, in many ways, for the wider church. That is why, if I get the chance, I always correct people who bill me as ‘Dean of Southwark Cathedral’. I’m in fact ‘Dean of Southwark’ and the loss of the word ‘Cathedral’ means that I can have this wider brief and not feel as though I’m somehow playing away from home if I’m out somewhere else.

But this Sunday was going to take me to a wide variety of places and situations and when the day finally drew towards its close I realised what an amazing experience of the church I had just had, what a series of privileges and what a beautiful creation the church actually is.

After Morning Prayer, said on my own because the service in the Cathedral would have made me late for getting to my first church, I set off, satnav directing me, across the River Thames and the diocesan boundary into the Diocese of London and the Edmonton Episcopal Area. I had been invited to preach at St Mary, Tottenham by Father Simon Morris, the Parish Priest there who had at one time, many years ago, been a verger at Southwark. He had decided to keep the Feast of the Holy Cross that day, which was fine by me as I always find it much easier to preach about the cross than anything else to be honest!

The church in Tottenham is just off the high road, the scene of so much rioting a few years ago. I knew that it was a real community church and that the whole community had been much involved in helping the rebuilding of relationships and lives after those sad events. What greeted me was a rather vast Victorian Anglo-Catholic red brick church. Like so many of those churches the money wasn’t spent on the exterior but on beautifying the interior. They were seen almost as ‘jewel boxes’ – you stepped from a rather humdrum existence, a grey world into the splendour of the vision of heaven.

Fr Morris at St Mary's Tottenham

Fr Morris at St Mary’s Tottenham

The church has wonderful wall paintings depicting aspects of the faith. I sat opposite one section which had rather charmingly been given ‘In memory of the vicar’s father’. No one bothered to name either of the individuals – they knew that God would know who they were on about.

The church filled up and I mean filled up. It was a wonderful Mass. This is a church of the traditional catholic variety, looked after by the Bishop of Fulham. I was given a biretta to wear and a ‘fiddle back’ chasuble. But in the midst of all of that was a screen that had been fitted to the underside of the rood screen onto which were projected all the words of the Mass and the wonderful collection of traditional hymns (‘Lift high the cross’) and worship songs. The place was vibrant, real, honest and the worship was authentic and transforming. Was it Anglican? Of course it was Anglican! No one can quite do it like that.

I headed back to Southwark from Tottenham. The traffic had built up and the return trip took slightly longer. I had had to decline lunch in the presbytery as I had to preach at Evensong – and in Southwark that’s at 3pm. We were to install nine new Honorary Canons and the Bishop was to commission a new Vocations and Discipleship Missioner. I was due to preach.

Despite the horrendous traffic and parking issues that enveloped south London that afternoon the Cathedral was packed. All of those to be installed had significant ministries in the diocese and the nine of them represented the breadth of the church’s ministry. Some were evangelical, some catholic, some were in sector ministry, some were self-supporting minsters(NSMs), some were stipendiary. They were a fantastic bunch of clergy, all delighted to be recognised in this way (its the nearest thing that the Church of England has to the Honours list!) and they were all supported by family and friends.

Beautiful Southwark

Beautiful Southwark

It was the kind of occasion when cathedrals get all the best things out, lovely copes, wonderful staves, bishops, archdeacons, Chapter all on parade. As a Dean it makes you proud. The choir sang from the wonderful corpus of music that is at the heart of the English choral tradition and even a shaft or two of sunshine slipped through the windows to brighten the occasion. The Cathedral cat, Doorkins, also ambled through the choir and up the nave as the choristers and Lay Clerks sang the responses, much to the delight of the children that were there. It was lovely. Was it Anglican? Unmistakably – where else do you get processions like that!

I had the official photo taken and then dived into the Vestry, took of the cope etc and got back into the car. I had to get to the very south of the diocese, to a parish on our border with the Guildford Diocese for their evening service at 6.30pm. All the talk of horrendous traffic made me nervous but the satnav said I would get there in good time and it was true to is word.

The church I was heading for was Christchurch, Brockham Green. Its a lovely village, quintessentially English just in the shadow of Box Hill. The church is on the edge of the village green which has cottages and a pub and all the things you associate with ‘Midsomer Murders’ (apart from a dead body).

Brockham Green

Brockham Green

The service, I had been told, was informal. So despite the Canons of the Church of England I arrived without robes. Well, so far I had been in a biretta and Latin chasuble, a cope and all that goes with it and so I had done quite well for vesture! As I went in the little Victorian church had been filled with the equipment required by a worship band including my second screen and projector of the day. I was to deliver a longer ‘sermon’ on the parable of the prodigal son – around 20 minutes of something more expository.

The worship began. It was wonderful. There were blocks of songs, some meditation, some prayer, the reading, my address, some silence, lots of people for a small village church and it was wonderful. A lot of that was due to the quality of the band but also the leadership of the Reader who held the service and gently guided us through it and into the presence of God. It took longer than any of the others services I had been to that day – and I loved it. Was it Anglican? Wonderfully so.

I loved the whole day. Each church was beautiful because in each church people were worshipping authentically and well and with enthusiasm. Each of the churches was full of people; we were diverse, interesting collections and in one day I saw what the Church of England is about.

Ok, so we didn’t get to talk about gay marriage or women in ministry or the other things we regularly fall out about. But what we were doing was so much more important. We were being the church, and being the church in this land, and some of it was fresh and some of it was traditional and all of it was real and I thought, what a beautiful church.

Lord of the Church,
we thank you for your church
in every community
of every shape and size and style.
Bless us as we witness to you,
worship you
and serve your people
in your name.
Amen.

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