‘It’s a mystery’

During Advent I was invited to a parish in Kingston to preach at their morning service.  It is one of the things that I really enjoy, getting out of the Cathedral and into the diocese.  Don’t get me wrong; I love being in the Cathedral.  But as I keep reminding people, being a Dean is not just about looking after life in the cathedral, it is also about being the Senior Priest in the diocese.  Knowing what that means will vary between people and places but for me it has always meant getting out into what is a very large and populous and exciting diocese.  So, I arrived at this church where I had had the joy of acting as Patron for the last appointment.  I went into the vestry and the vicar said to me ‘We found this when we were clearing out a cupboard.  I thought you might be interested.’

All Hallows

From the vestry cupboard

What it was was a copy of the Southwark Diocesan Gazette from 100 years ago. This was the forerunner of ‘The Bridge’, the present Diocesan newspaper.  But in this edition was included an article on All Hallow’s Southwark.  This is a church that is now in the Cathedral parish. However, it is no longer a functioning church and the building that is referred to in the article no longer exists as it then did.  During the Second World War the building suffered terrible damage and only part of the Victorian structure now exists.  A new aisle was added in the 1950’s to enable the church to continue as a parish church, but with the changes in demographics and churchgoing in the 1970’s the parish ceased to exist and it was put instead under the care of the cathedral.  We have plans for the future of the church but until we have the money they remain just plans.

What this article describes, however, is the rather exotic ecclesiastical life and practice at All Hallows.  The tradition of the church was at the top end of the candle.  Such scandalous things were happening, as are described in this piece, including ‘wearing a stole, making the Sign of the Cross and using the mixed chalice.’  Can you imagine?! The church was under regular attack from more protestant groups for these Popish practices.  At one stage a petition was made to the House of Lords to get all of these excesses stopped but the then Bishop of Winchester (the parish then being in his diocese) defended the priest and the Clewer Sisters who were at that time based there.

I was thinking of all this as I was saying Mass this morning.  I had said the Offertory Prayer, ‘Blessed are you…’, over the bread and then took the empty chalice to meet the verger who was serving me.  He had the cruets in his hands, wine and water, and I charged and mixed the chalice.  What was a scandal back in 1878 is much more commonplace now.  The congregation hardly noticed what I was doing. Not a glimmer of a reaction to what was going on!

When the priest mixes the chalice they often say the ‘Secret Prayer’ that accompanies the action.

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.


‘By the mystery…’

I have said these words so many times over the last 36 years, day in, day out, as I have stood at the altar, presiding at the Eucharist.  But as I said them today the words struck me.  We are still in the Christmas Season, still celebrating the mystery of the incarnation and here in the chalice part of that mystery is expressed.  As the water and wine mix together in the chalice, so in Christ these two natures, co-mingle as it were, divinity embraces humanity, humanity embraces divinity.  That mystery, celebrated in a backstreet church in Southwark, a scandal to so many, is still in its essence a scandal to some.  How can this be, this mystery of the incarnation, this deep truth of Christmas, that as St Athanasius described

‘God became man that man might become God.’

In the film ‘Shakespeare in love’ we meet a former Warden and Vestryman of St Saviour’s Southwark, now the Cathedral, Philip Henslowe, who has a phrase which recurs throughout the story.

Philip Henslowe Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman How?
Philip Henslowe I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

It’s a mystery.  That is what we are drawn into at Christmas and drawn into in the Eucharist and drawn into in every liturgy.  It may have been shocking at the time but that is what churches like All Hallows were seeking to rediscover and re-present, through ritual, through teaching, in mission, the wonderful mystery of God.

God of majesty, God of mystery,
take the water of my life and make of it the wine of the kingdom,
take the worship that we offer and make it a window into heaven,
take the stuff of today and make it the sign of our eternal tomorrow,
take our flesh and make it divine.


My Lord Archbishop,

My wife and I worshipped at Southwark Cathedral on Sunday morning last [19th August] and I write to ask you to be so good as to inform me if the practices to which we were there made a party are now accepted for our Church. I refer especially to the posturings at the altar out of sight of the congregation and the mumblings out of their hearing. I thought it was one of the accepted principles of the Reformed Church of England that the congregation should have fully and intelligently in all the worship at this service. At Southwark the congregation can neither see nor hear what is going on at the altar. We feel as many others do that if we wanted that sort of thing we could and should go, not to an Anglican cathedral, but to Brompton Oratory.

I am yours faithfully

Percy Hurd

This was 1934 and Sir Percy Hurd was at that time the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Devizes. The correspondence begun by this letter of complaint sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury continues for some weeks and it is all to be found in the archives of Lambeth Palace Library.  The Archbishop’s Chaplain at that time tried to do the right thing, to bat the complaint in the direction of the Bishop of Southwark, but the MP would have none of that. ‘We have nothing to do with the Bishop of Southwark’ he wrote. ‘As members of Parliament we are concerned with the Church in its corporate capacity and as represented for us in yourself.’ The correspondence stumbles on until September 1934 when the Chaplain basically tells the MP that there will be no more communication on the matter.


Sir Percy Hurd, a fine looking gentleman

There was obviously a great deal of posturing going on and it wasn’t all in the High Altar sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral!  Sir Percy obviously had a few axes to grind. One axe seemed to be against the newly introduced 1928 Prayer Book which had failed to gain parliamentary approval but was being used in places, such as the Cathedral, where some of the ‘inadequacies’ in the Book of Common Prayer as some Anglo-Catholics would have it, were sorted out.  Interestingly we, like many cathedrals I suspect, still use the 1928 Prayer Book, day by day. But he was probably opposed as well to some of the catholic practices that were becoming more common in the post-war (First World War) Church of England.  Perhaps there was a lot of ‘bowing and scraping’ going on up at the altar.  Sir Ninian Comper, the Cathedral Architect and a great mediaeval revivalist had certainly dressed the High Altar Sanctuary for the part.  The walls and pillars were draped in pink damask (the material was made into the copes that the Archdeacons in the diocese now wear, a kind of Maria act from the ‘Sound of Music’ with those curtains!) and the reredos was now modelled on the Pala d’Oro in St Mark’s Venice.  Cloth of gold Eucharistic vestments had been designed and made and it would have all looked very splendid.

The mumblings could have been about the difficulty of hearing from the nave if services were held at the High Altar, but that was nothing new.  So maybe Sir Percy heard some more pious, private mumblings going on, the ‘Secret Prayers’ that many priests say during the Eucharist.  They are meant to be said sotto voce but they can appear, I suppose, like mumblings and mysterious incantations.

But there is posturing and there are mumbling that put us in touch with important elements of the Feast of the Incarnation that we are still celebrating.  It is right that we use our whole selves in worship, we bring our whole body, our five senses into prayer.  We see and touch and taste and smell and hear.  True liturgy invokes all those senses and that sixth sense that recognises the divine in the midst.  So one of the Epiphany hymns that we have been singing begins with this verse

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before Him, His glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
Kneel and adore Him: the Lord is His name!

Worship, such as the worship of the Magi in the presence of the Christ Child, involves bowing and kneeling and adoration.  It feels to me like the natural response to being in the presence of the divine.  The Magi point us to this reality of ‘God among us’, of the Word made flesh, through their posture, for as St Matthew says

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (Matthew 2.11)

They saw the child and they knelt in homage, and so do we.


‘Kneel and adore him’


And then, those mutterings.  One of the things that High Church priests were accused of doing when the ritual trials were going on at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries was around the mixing of the chalice.  We no longer fight about this in the Church of England since we discovered sex! In fact, it seems so normal perhaps few people realise it was a problem.  In most offertory processions that I see perfectly reasonable, law-abiding people bring forward cruets of wine and water.  It’s the mixing of those in the chalice, this so called ritualistic practice, that caused the problem.  But what is the prayer that the priest says as they do this?

It’s a prayer that takes us to the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation, and something that we remember every time we celebrate the Eucharist. The priest will ‘mumble’

By the mystery of this water and wine
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

As mumblings go its pretty wonderful, I think.

So, Sir Percy, if you’re still looking for an apology I’m afraid you’re not getting one from me. We will continue to offer worship in Southwark Cathedral worthy of that holy house in Bethlehem, worthy of the God who dwells with us, worthy of Jesus, the Word made flesh before whom we kneel in wondrous adoration. We can do nothing less.

Holy God,
you bring us to our knees
in humble adoration.
Accept the worship we offer
as we accept the love you show for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

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