Sunday, 19 January 2020

67. Chichester Cathedral

A couple of the boy choristers are struggling to hide yawns. Immaculately pressed and with perfectly-combed hair they’re failing to hide that it’s an early start this morning. I wonder if anyone else had to scrape the car at -4 before driving the two and a half hours to get here. Still it was a relatively easy drive and I’m rewarded with one of those winter early mornings when the air seems clearer than ever and the low sun makes buildings like this sharpen and glow. 

Some cathedrals - Ely, Guildford, Lincoln, Liverpool - can be seen for miles around dominating the landscape. Others - Truro, Leicester, Exeter - tend to creep up on you and, depending on which way you approach, can be almost hidden from view until the last moment. Working my way from the car park to the entrance here is much like that, but the sudden appearance round the corner is still stunning. 

As a collector of cathedrals I always experience a sense of excitement when I come to a new one on my list. I expect pilgrims in the early years felt much the same way although their concerns on the journey were probably different from my worries about the never-ending nature of the roadworks on the M27.

Mattins this morning is well-attended given that it’s the relatively intimate setting of the choir which needs to be filled. It being January and an early start, it’s a gathering more of regulars than tourists. 

There’s superb singing to be enjoyed - matins (however you choose to spell it) is a service requiring little of the worshipper other than attentiveness. Chichester’s organ is also fabulous, quartered in a sort of towering wooden house of its own, sitting detached within the majestic stonework all round. It’s hard at times to concentrate on what’s being said or sung when you’re trying to count the seconds of the phenomenal reverb the cathedral offers. I make a point of trying to track down CDs recorded here if the shop is open.

Following a sermon on the gospels that was more academic than inspirational we have one hymn and we’re done. There’s a chance to look round briefly, although I’m conscious of steering clear of the stewards setting up for the next set of arrivals. I’ve always been more interested in seeing (an crucially hearing) a cathedral at work than standing in front of a set of highlights. It’s the atmosphere that I try to absorb rather than the history or the connections to great figures. Those sort of things I can get from books; the feeling that this is a light, open space still very much at the heart of this place only comes from a visit while it’s in action.

As I leave through the side door, there are plenty of people arriving at the main entrance for the communion service which follows on. The choir look like they’re grabbing a quick break and there’s a hasty re-positioning of a few chairs and guide ropes as the larger family service will be in the main body of the cathedral. It has all the visible efficiency of a roll-on-roll-off ferry operation.   Clearly a cathedral very much at work and, pleasingly, having to cope with a good volume of worshippers, whatever their state of wakefulness. 

Sunday, 5 January 2020

66. St Peter’s, Leamington

A second year of visits starts with a church I always thought would be in the first ten. Strangely I’ve never been inside St Peter’s in Leamington although it’s been a background and landmark to so many years. 

The telling of the story of Epiphany takes me right back to the same time a year ago. I’m glad to be keeping up the pilgrimage - there are so many places I’d really like to visit and the curiosity is still there. 

Other than being the start of the second year, there’s not a lot to note about this communion service. St Peter’s is spectacular inside. It’s very light and very large despite not being blessed with massive windows. The service is well attended and features quite the most resolutely flat singing of a psalm I’ve yet encountered. Perhaps it’s too early in the year and things need to warm up.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

65. St Barnabas, Christmas Day

Christmas Day and I’m back where I started this blog a year ago. It was while pondering a very sparse turnout for the Christmas morning service that I fell to wondering where I might find better-attended places of worship. Where were all the people going (if not here) and what was driving them to go. I decided to take a look round what I could find and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my wanderings. Just for the record very little has changed in a year’s turning. 

The church is marvelously light on this bright morning. The windows have all been replaced during the course of the year. The church had been the target of vandalism with the old mullioned windows smashed by a few stones. I’m quite proud to say that Romany Pie played our part after spotting the reports in the paper and holding a benefit evening. I can’t help remembering that we filled the pews on that evening - perhaps one of the bright new windows is down to us. Anyway, it looks fine and should last for a good many years to come. I just wonder how many people will be here to look out through them.

I thought for a while this morning we’d be in single figures but a late surge of worshippers bumped us up to the mid teens, clergy included. There was nobody on duty at the piano when the curate made a start, explaining that we’d be getting retired minister at some point who would be authorised to perform the sermon and the communion. And so we launched into Once in Royal David’s City unaccompanied and, as it turned out, arbitrarily shorn of a few verses. 

After twenty minutes or so, the curate’s increasingly plaintive glances to the back of the church were rewarded when the latch was lifted and in came the minister I normally expect to see. Spotting the vacant piano stool and noticing we were about to stumble into another carol, he sat at the keys without even the time to take his coat off and even chipped in with a decent vocal. He spent the rest of the hour racing from keyboard to lectern to altar - whatever Christmas dinner awaited him at the conclusion of such multi-tasking, he certainly earned it. 

* * * * *

It’s a quiet conclusion to the year but a homely one for all that. The experiences and encounters my last Christmas Day visit to St Barnabas inspired have been both fun and enlightening. I’ve joined services and gatherings in 65 very different places, all of which - through their nature and the way they go about spreading whatever message they bring - inspired thoughts in me and gave me plenty to write about. I’ve met lots of good people who I’d certainly visit again and learned a lot about what makes people attend the places they do week in week out. I’m by no means an expert on the religious spectrum as a result of my pilgrimage but I’ve enjoyed going into places I’ve never been and filling in some of the many gaps in my understanding of what goes on inside these buildings we walk past every day. There’s a recurring pattern of familiarity and community, reaffirming your beliefs and values, recognising change while at the same time valuing stability - all of which adds up to a palpable sense of belonging.

I’ve thought a lot about whether there’s a place to me in this process. I’m sad but perhaps relieved to report that there have been no celestial thunderbolts; at no stage has the sky parted to reveal a vision of heaven. No religious epiphany, no vision while meditating beneath a tree. But I suppose this was never about finding God, any god. It was more about finding the people who go along to meet their god and about the fascinating things they do. And they still hold a fascination. So I will carry on going - not because I’ve been convinced by any single community or theism but because the curiosity which got me started is still there. I’ll just write a lot less.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

64. Bristol Cathedral

I once came to evensong in Bristol’s fantastic cathedral in the company of fewer than a dozen other visitors. Then, we were marginally outnumbered by the choir; today we would have been comfortably outnumbered by shepherds. While the rest of the city takes advantage of free parking and extended Sunday shopping hours the cathedral is packed - the most packed I’ve seen any church (let alone a cathedral of this majestic size) throughout my year’s visitations. 

It’s the family telling of the Christmas story and blessing of the crib and there’s not even standing room. I’m put in mind of one of those Rocky Horror or Sound of Music singalong screenings because everyone seems to have come as something. There are dozens of angels and shepherds - not all of them children it should be noted - and the dress code seems to be Christmas jumpers rather than Sunday best.

We start with instructions from the vicar on our expected role - to baa at every mention of sheep, swoosh when the angels appear and clip clop the donkey. We must also boo Herod in true pantomime fashion - I suppose that’s what you deserve for being the architect of child genocide.
The noise is incredible. Like many a carol service we start with a solo voice singing Once in Royal David’s City but it’s drowned out to most of the body of the congregation by the babble of children and the shushing of their parents.

Thankfully the din subsides enough to avoid spooking the beautifully turned-out donkey which is paraded round the vast interior as we all sing Little Donkey. Just as dramatic is the appearance of the star high overhead - lit by the cunning ruse of asking parents to use the lights on their phones - which is then zip-wired along to lead the wise men and the shepherds to the stable. The conventional telling of the story has a trio of wise men and a similar number of shepherds. Here, their ranks are swollen by anyone in suitable costume joining the procession. It’s fun, a trifle chaotic but probably hugely memorable to those taking part.

Watching as parents and families juggle the demands of straightening angel wings, attaching tea cloth head-dresses and rescuing dropped toys and coats while holding crying babies and trying to follow the service, I wonder if my familiar comments about the church being an oasis of calm away from the bustle of life are entirely true. Some of these mums and dads look like they’d be less stressed pushing the family round the maelstrom of final weekend Wilko. Interesting to note, though, how many of us (and I include myself after handing over my order of service to prevent a sibling incident in the row behind me) actually know the words anyway. Out come the familiar phrases of the carols and the Lord’s Prayer. That alone must be something of a reason for celebration should the clergy spot it.

Despite the informality of the presentation and the inattentiveness of the audience, this was still a church service. There’s still a story to hear, a divine intervention to be thankful for, prayers to recite and responses to be given. Over the course of their young lives all these children will have the chance to decide whether this can form a part of their life outside the Christmas context. It would be interesting - perhaps a little depressing for some though - to be able to look into the future and see how many of these angels, shepherds and wise men next set foot in this magnificent cathedral only when lifting children of their own to see the donkey.

Sliding out of the cathedral door thankfully ahead of the carnage as 200 parents try to find which of the hundred parked buggies is theirs, I’m met by winter darkness, a steadily-worsening drizzle and an odd gathering on the far side of College Green. Today is the first day of Hanukkah and the city’s combined Jewish community is holding an outdoor lighting of the giant Menorah. Bristol’s Lady Mayoress is there, complete with fine scarlet robes and tricorn hat, sheltering under a huge city council branded umbrella.

There are traditional snacks and free coffee and a chance to hold candles to spread the light as the festival gets under way with blessings from the Rabbi. There’s a clear theme in what’s said by all the civic and Chabad leaders of the Jewish community reaching out to be an integral part of this modern diverse city. Given the numerous unanswered emails I’ve tried, not to mention being flatly refused by  the central Synagogue in London and stopped at the door in Birmingham, I’m a little envious of this openness and I’m happy to ignore the rain and hold my candle. 

Sunday, 15 December 2019

63. Queen's Road Baptist Church, Coventry

It’s only a couple of weeks to Christmas and my visit to this fine looking church right on Coventry’s noisy ring road coincides with that most traditional of offerings, the Nativity play. 

Queen’s Road Baptist Church has fitted its performance in with its normal Sunday family service so there’s a mixture of parents and those for whom dressing gowns, tea towel head-dresses and donkey masks are a a fairly distant memory. On the way in a welcomer warns me of the change in the usual schedule and promises that everything will probably go wrong. In the event, though, it all goes well - as these things invariably do.

This is a straightforward telling of the story but with the added fun of just a bit of irreverent humour in the dialogue. Joseph expresses his initial shock at the news, the parents-to-be complain about the distance the donkey trek to Bethlehem will take and the innkeeper is caught between being overworked by the arrival of so many people and just revelling in the extra cash.
Youngsters of all ages take the parts - and the microphones - and there are some splendid costumes on show. Music comes in the form of a few charming songs and some brilliant modern, reinvented handbells.  At the end there’s applause and chocolates for all.

A lot is said about the advantages and pitfalls of religion in education. Many schools these days (if not most) opt for a Christmas offering. Gone are the shepherds, wise men, angels and so on and there’s no manger and no Jesus. If nothing else, the Christmas play is a lot of youngsters’ first introduction to working together to produce something to be proud of. The messages are just as hopeful, just as moral, but in these times of cultural and religious diversity no one religion is promoted above others. 

I can understand that but I do think the idea of not offending other faiths is becoming a bit outdated now. In my early school days we were still doing scripture and learning bible stories. We then had Religious Education - almost exclusively Christian and still focussed on singing the praises of our overseas missionaries.

That became Religious Studies and then Comparative Religious Studies by the time my children went through school. Christianity (and the nativity story) takes its place in a process allowing us all to learn about others and be learned about in our turn. Most schools I come into contact with seem to take diversity in their stride. I’ve seen Diwali projects, Eid celebrations and bits and bobs representing the whole world of culture and faith. Nobody was offended and plenty was learned

I remember my own debut in the local nativity play. It was held in a very dark, imposing church and it was the day I learned what the word ‘haunted’ meant. Someone a bit older than me said the ghost of a frightening woman could be seen at the top of a wooden staircase we had to pass to reach the stage and I spent the whole time in complete terror. It wasn’t the threat of ghost which led me to tears though.  As one of the three kings we were given presents to present to the baby Jesus. Mine was a well-wrapped but palpably empty box and I remember being terrified at how such a blatant bit of cheating. 

Those are the only memories I have and I wonder what some of today’s performers will recall a lifetime from now. Whatever those memories may be it would be good to think that they’re triggered by watching another generation of youngsters taking part in the same tradition.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

62. St Peter ad Vincula, Hampton Lucy

This leisurely pilgrimage round places of worship has uncovered (for me at least) many hidden gems. Tucked away in back streets or in out of the way villages, some in buildings you wouldn’t even look at twice as you pass. Not so here. It would be hard to imagine a church less tucked away that St Peter ad Vincula in Hampton Lucy. You can see this church from miles around thanks, in part, to the flat fields around the village but mainly as a result of its wonderful soaring stonework. In this morning’s early sunshine it glows a fine shade of gold among what’s left of nature’s green.

I’m here on a bit of a gamble. Finding out when churches hold services can be very hit and miss. In these times of information at your fingertips you can easily be fooled into thinking that anything you want to know on any subject is just a click or two away. But there are still pockets of life which have yet to fully embrace the possibilities of social media, and the church finds itself, in my view, half in and half out of that pocket. A search for this church yields plenty of fine pictures and a clutch of local history articles, but finding something as basic as a timetable proves tricky.

I’m not saying churches have an obligation to advertise their business online -  like so many organisations they rely heavily on volunteers whose time may not be as regular as you’d hope. But with dwindling numbers and the church’s own sworn mission to reach out to the world, it has to be a serious consideration. Perhaps some enterprising person could recognise this gap in the market an move in, although I suspect effort will always outstrip returns.

Anyway, an online version of a village newsletter gives me hope that we’re on for 9.30 and, thankfully, the door is open. The picture inside the church is just as good as the stunning exterior - or it would be if the view of the magnificent stained glass ensemble behind the altar wasn’t obscured by a huge TV poised to deliver the service. I’m so aware of becoming an old curmudgeon about these things but if turning a beautiful church into a corporate meeting room is the price you must pay for not having to use hymn books or orders of service, then - in this case at least - it’s too high. Perhaps it’s a fad and will pass in time. I hope so.

The early service this morning is a family offering. The warm welcome from the minister warns of children and antics, but in truth it’s a very calm and well-structured hour. We have young volunteers to light the advent candles, set out the cross and flowers and then to form the focus of the minister’s talk, which comes after a selection of songs and hymns.

The theme is ‘making choices’ with the focus aimed at the younger congregation. A series of either/or questions has the very young volunteers thinking about what they would do - and very probably what they think the adults would want them to do. Will you go straight to bed or make a fuss? Would you share your new toys or reserve them for yourself? Would you take that extra biscuit or stick to what you’ve been allowed? They’re all gentle explorations of the moral questions which guide our behaviour in all we do. 

Learning the difference between what you can get away with and what you probably ought to do is a lesson which, in my view, shapes how you live your life more than anything else. It’s there in how highly you value honesty, how you develop a sense of self-respect and how much you think of the way your actions affect others. We used to rely on many things to set our moral compass - church, school, family - and it’s encouraging to see it’s still a valued lesson.

Not that these youngsters need much coaching - they’re all positively angelic and so they should be. But like all moral teaching it’s not just about the specific scenario. It’s about priming youngsters to think morally when they come across any situation which presents different courses of action. Morals are key to humanity and society. Losing sight of them through greed, selfishness or even plain ambivalence, is invariably at the root of most of the things which go wrong.

It’s a lesson every bit as applicable to deciding whether or not to share your advent chocolate, leave a note on an car you’ve dinged or choose the next Prime Minister. This church holds a prayer vigil on the eve of Thursday’s election. I get the feeling we’ll be praying for where the whole thing leaves us as a country rather than any particular result. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

61. St Mary’s Church, Cubbington

Today sees the start of Advent, the four-week lead up to Christmas. Everywhere this morning youngsters are opening little cardboard windows to tease out a Peppa Pig chocolate or similar. A look round the shop shelves this week - plus of course the easy online options - shows advent calendars dispensing crisps, sweets, collectable figures and (for the adults one would hope) different flavoured gins. You can just about get one of the old Nativity scene picture versions, complete with a blob of glitter here and there, but they’re fighting a losing battle against very brash, very pushy opposition.

My own calendar this year is a handmade and hand-chosen one which today yielded me a small wooden bicycle, a string of battery lights and a penguin joke. Like the story of Advent itself, I feel it may be leading somewhere but enlightenment may take weeks yet.

To start the seasonal lead-up to the church’s most joyous festival - it would be an interesting but ultimately pointless debate as to which is the more important out of Christmas and Easter - I am visiting the beautiful church of St Mary in Cubbington. It’s a good-looking church on any day but the low sun for this earlyish start is truly making the rose-coloured stone glow.

Inside, there is evidence that St Mary’s has already fired the starting pistol on preparations for the nativity story. There’s a handsome, fully decorated Christmas tree and a splendid nativity scene ready to illustrate the story. And there are notices aplenty about forthcoming festive events and services. The communion service has a few changes to reflect the start of the season and a very steady-handed youngster is brought forward to light the first candle of the Advent Crown. How many of us, I wonder, cannot hear the words ‘advent crown’ without conjuring up images of interlocked coat-hangers and tinsel just like the one on Blue Peter.

Strange then, amid all this preparation and anticipation, that the sermon should focus almost exclusively on a very well-trodden attack on the retail world expanding the traditional twelve days of Christmas into a spending frenzy aimed at grabbing your money while supplying little other than material possessions. 

Christmas, says the vicar, used to start on Christmas Eve, intimating it seems to me that we should all stick to that non-commercialised timetable. Involuntarily my gaze strays to the six-foot tree and its fine decorations. These are arguments we hear every year. They start the second any shop begins the process of removing the Halloween tat and replacing it with glittering plastic nonsense we’re all supposed to need at Christmas. And the complaints intensify as council staff start putting up the lights and pubs start advertising the traditional turkey blow-out for which we’ll all need to book soon. 

I utterly agree that there is only a certain number of times you can hear Slade and Wizzard again before you lose your grip on the world but I can’t let this morning’s sermon go by without noting that there are two sides at work here. Far from being the greedy, profit-soaked retail heavens they’re made out to be, our high streets are dying on their feet. 

Everywhere you look shops are closing down - and not just small, vulnerable ones, but big players too. And they’re taking jobs with them when the shutters go up. Those that are left face  a struggle to survive, cutting prices, squeezing margins just to keep pace with the online threat - more a reality than a threat. The true meaning of Christmas   to many who work in the retail or hospitality sectors is a chance for survival which must, at all costs, be grabbed and made to work. Retail needs every penny it can get at the moment. Much like our churches.

I fall to wondering if, rather than fight to regain sole control over Christmas (its meaning, purpose and bounty), the church should admit a partial defeat and perhaps hit back with a ‘churchification’ of Black Friday, Bonfire Night or Halloween. All these overtly secular happenings could easily have more spiritual connections perfect for getting more people through the church doors.

Setting aside for a moment any debate over the ‘true meaning’ of the sermon, this was a very uplifting service in the company of a welcoming congregation.  People were quick to say hello and find out what brought me along this morning and - not for the first time on this project - I’ve found myself thinking I’d be happy to go back.

This next month will bring a surfeit of some elements of the modern Christmas. Like everyone I shall feel the pressure to shell out more money to kit out my Christmas experience with things I probably don’t need. I shall feel I’m being overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall advertising, the repeats of dreadful films, the sight of otherwise normal people sporting awful jumpers and hats with bells. 

But there will also be the preparations in churches and the stately retelling of the Christmas story with all its wonder, solemnity and hope. And I’m quite happy for those two things to sit alongside each other without the need for rancour or remorse.