August 2nd, a Service of Benediction, St. Julian’s

St. Julian's sanctuaryI was here a year ago. I think on that day we arrived a little late and missed part of Evensong, I don’t even remember having a service book. I suppose I must have had one, but all I remember is being unsure of what I was attending. Yesterday evening I was back, and it was such a different experience.

St. Julian’s is a Church of England church, but very much an Anglo Catholic one. Around the walls are the Stations of the Cross, there is a statue of Our Lady where you can light candles, there is a lot of incense.There is also a lot of genuflecting, people crossing themselves, chanting and traditional language. Just a few years ago this would all have had me running for the hills. But my faith has changed shape and now this all seems a lovely way to worship.

Here is something I have had to unlearn: Anglo Catholics are not snooty people, not aloof or puffed up in any way. On the contrary, the people I have met at St. Julian’s are some of the friendliest, most gentle and humble people you could ever meet. For some reason I thought for the longest time that Anglo Catholics would be hi-fallutin’, perched up on their smugness. How wrong I was.

St. Julian’s is not just another church that I visit sometimes. Two years ago I became a Companion of Julian of Norwich and so make a kind of pilgrimage here in the summer, to spend time at the Julian Shrine (attached to St. Julian’s) and to see the people here, to reconnect. I wonder how much difference that makes to how welcome I feel, since I am, in some ways, coming home. People ask me, are you a visitor? Yes, I am, but I am also a Companion of Julian, I belong here.

Yesterday evening I was made welcome, and given all the books and sheets of paper I needed. The wife of one of the priests made sure I knew what was needed when. I sat for a while before the service and looked through the service book. Although it was traditional language and more would be chanted than I was used to, it was familiar enough. It was a regular service of Evensong, with the Benediction after that.

A Service of Benediction. Amazingly simple, but also potentially mind-bogglingly perplexing. I suppose the crux of it is, do you believe in transubstantiation? Do you believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ? Or do you believe that they are symbols of the same? Believe the former and a Service of Benediction is for you. Believe the latter and I don’t know what you make of it.

This has been part of my journey, too. Not so long ago I would have said that the bread and wine are symbols of Chirst’s body and blood. But in Tokyo I serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister (LEM) and administer the chalice at the Eucharist. Some Sundays I look into the chalice and see that the wine has become blood. I have seen that. I can’t explain it, but I look into the chalice and it’s no longer wine. I drink, and it’s still wine, but in my heart I know it’s not.

At a Service of Benediction, a consecrated host (wafer) is put in a monstrance, which is an elaborate and beautiful container for the host. A monstrance is usually round, almost like the sun, with rays radiating out from its centre. It is on a stand, which is first on the altar, and then lifted by the priest to bless the people.

I attended the service last year, and went back to Tokyo perplexed. It was a consecrated wafer. On one level I knew that it was the body of Christ, but on the other . . . really? I asked my priest, if that is how we can be in the presence of the consecrated host, then surely at every Eucharist we should be beside ourselves? Yes, he said.

St. Julian’s has a Service of Benediction at 6:30pm on the first Sunday of every month. I timed my arrival so I could attend. I wanted to try again. I had spent the last year thinking over what I had seen at the Service of Benediction, I felt better prepared, ready. Evensong was beautiful, the sanctuary was full of incense, the canticles were lovely.

The Benediction.

Both priests (one the parish priest, the other a retired priest) knelt before the altar, offering more incense. The parish priest was wrapped in a further vestment before he picked up the monstrance. We were already on our knees. As he held up the monstrance, we bowed our heads. With tears in my eyes all I could do was repeat the Jesus Prayer. In the presence of such holiness, what else can you do? I totally got it. I loved it.

After the service, someone approached me and asked if I was a visitor. When I told him I was, but that I was also a Companion of Julian, he told me that he had noticed me and wondered if I would know what to do ‘but you knew how to do everything’.

Yes. Yes I did. Because now I am Anglo Catholic too.

I know there is a Service of Benediction once a month in Tokyo, and I’m going to find out where it is. I don’t want to wait another year.



St. Ansfridus, Amersfoort, July 26th

St. Ansfridus, exteriorLast weekend I was on my annual visit to friends in the Netherlands, and so on Sunday I made a return visit to St. Ansfridus, the Roman Catholic church I had visited last year. On my first visit I was surprised and thrilled to meet a ‘pastoral worker’ who had taken the service. What had surprised me was the sight of a woman, vested, leading a Roman Catholic Mass. Of course, the bread and wine had already been consecrated, but still, it was lovely to see a woman playing such an active role in ministry. And I have to admit, it wasn’t what I expected. I was happy to have another opportunity to worship there.

St. AnsfriedSo here he is, St. Ansfridus of Amersfoort, or to put an Anglicised slant on it, St. Ansfried. Last year I neglected to write much about the saint himself, so I shall start by remedying that.

Ansfridus was Bishop of Utrecht at the end of the tenth century, but before that he was a knight, in the personal service of Otto I. He was married to a woman called Heresuint and had a daughter called Benedicta. He founded an abbey, which, like Whitby Abbey founded by St. Hilda, housed both men and women. His daughetr was abbess there, and Ansfried planned for his whole family to retire there. That was not to be.

His wife died, and Ansfried asked to be allowed to become a monk and spend the rest of his days leading a monastic life, but instead he was prevailed upon to become Bishop of Utrecht. At this point he wasn’t even a priest! He agreed and was ordained priest and consecrated Bishop at the same ceremony. He held this office for about a decade, and during this time founded another abbey. Finally, when his health was failing he was allowed to retire to the abbey and there he spent his final days, in service to the sick. He was buried in the Cathedral of St. Martin in Utrecht. His feast day is May 11th, and he is the patron saint of Amersfoort. This church is the only one which bears his name.

Welcome to St. AnsfridusBack to the church in the twenty-first century. When I visited last year, I was told that the church might be closing; there were simply too many churches in the parish. I was glad to visit this year and hear that the church has been given a reprieve, at least until 2020, and is proudly celebrating its centenery this year.

We arrived at the church about ten minutes before the service was to begin at 11am. Time to pick up the booklets we needed and light a candle. There are two booklets needed for the service; one that contains the liturgy and all the music and readings for the week, and is produced centrally, maybe by the diocese or the Roman Catholic church in the Netherlands, and the other, smaller leaflet containing the page numbers and references and several extra settings for parts of the service. This second leaflet is really important, because it helps you find your way through the larger booklet.

The service was led by the assistant priest of the parish, who is something of an Internet sensation, Father Roderick Vonhogen. He has his own YouTube channel and posts short animations featuring Lego and explaining events in the church year. There were two other people serving at the altar, a man who was the acolyte, and Marilyn, who was the lector. She later explained to me that the lector each week is responsible for reading the lessons, leading the intercessions and administering the chalice. There was also another woman who led the singing, and a pianist.

Last Sunday, the Gospel reading was the feeding of the five thousand. Fr Roderick began his sermon by commenting that Jesus clearly wasn’t Dutch; if he had been then he would have first found out how many people needed food, and then produced exctly enough for them all. There would have been no leftovers, no second helpings. Instead, Jesus produced enough food for everyone and lots more besides. Fr Roderick meditated on generosity, and also pointed out that dividing the numbers present by the number of disciples meant that each disciple was probably responsible for carrying food to roughly the same number of people as today’s parish priest.

When it was time to receive communion, Fr Roderick and Marilyn stood at the front of the church and the people lined up in two lines to receive the bread. Only Fr Roderick, the acolyte and Marilyn received the wine. I should have lined up in the right, since I was sitting on that side of the church, but instead I stepped over to the other line, so that I could ask Fr Roderick for a blessing. Being Anglican, I couldn’t receive the bread. The lines moved quickly, and when I was in front of Fr Roderick I told him I wasn’t Catholic, and asked for a blessing. He blessed me in English. Just as last year, I found the experience moving. Instead of feeling cut off from everyone else receiving, I felt truly blessed.

The service ended quite quickly, and people either left or went into the church hall for tea and coffee. We spent a few minutes looking round the church, and that’s when I started talking to Marilyn. She was extremely welcoming and full of joy. She invited us to stay for tea, so we ended up in the church hall. She sat down and talked to us, and as a lot of people left Fr Roderick joined us too. We talked some more about his sermon and how a church can take care of the needs of its members. I remembered the first time I had gone to the Lutheran church in Tokyo. When I met the pastor at the end of the service he asked me, is there anything we can help you with? Christ took care of people’s physical and daily needs, and we should, too.

Then it was time to leave. I bought a candle commemorating the church’s centenary and shall use it for Morning and Evening Prayer at home when I get back to Tokyo.

St. Ansfridus candleOnce again, I received a warm welcome and felt blessed to have worshipped there. As someone who is not Roman Catholic and doesn’t speak Dutch, I found that welcome and inclusion inspiring and very lovely, and I’m looking forward to visiting again next year. Thank you, St. Ansfridus.

St. Ansfidus altar

Community of the Sisters of the Church

St. Michael'sAfter I posted my last blogpost yesterday I realised that I have never written about St. Michael’s and the Sisters of the Church.

I have been coming here for a number of years now. My first spiritual director asked me once, where do you go on retreat? When I replied that I didn’t go anywhere he told me very clearly that this wasn’t good, and that I should make an annual retreat at one of the places about which he would be sending me information. One was a house belonging to his own order, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) in Durham, the other was St. Michael’s at Ham Common in Richmond, belonging to the Community of the Sisters of the Church (CSC). At the time my brother was living in London, so St. Michael’s was easy to get to and so I contacted them and asked if I could come.

As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, St. Michael’s is a large, sprawling house. It has a large garden, some of it orchard and the edges are woodland. The Community has been here about sixty years, but will soon move to another, more manageable location north of London. This will be my last visit here. I’m feeling nostalgic before I even leave. While the house and grounds are lovely, what really makes this such a wonderful place to make a retreat is the sisters themselves.

The order was founded in 1870 by Mother Emily Ayckbowm. In their early decades their work was in education and children’s homes. In the 21st century, the schools and children’s homes are no longer run by CSC, though I know at least one of the schools continues today. Many of the sisters at St. Michael’s are elderly and in the last year several sisters have died. Some sisters work outside the convent. There are other houses in the UK, but this is the largest. There are also sisters in Canada, Australia and the Solomon Islands, which is where the order is growing.

In everyday life the sisters don’t wear their habits, though for special and solemn occasions they do have them. They are distinguishable here by the crosses they wear round their necks. Their Daily Offices are simple. A lot is sung. The pace is always unhurried, calming, prayerful. There is no fuss, everything is done in a very matter-of-fact manner. As with all religious I have met, they are direct when they speak and astute. Nothing gets past them. They also have a keen sense of humour and a great love for one another and everyone here. As well as the sisters, there are a number of alongsiders living here and sharing their life, all with different circumstances.

This is a quiet place, a place where I have always felt everything fall away, so that I can pray, sit in silence, worship with them, walk around the grounds or read. This afternoon as we prayed the Evening Office I could see foxes in the garden, and after Compline I sat outside and prayed the rosary. A local Buddhist group meets here on Wednesday evenings and came out for the walking meditation part of their meeting while I was still in the garden.

Tomorrow I say goodbye to St. Michael’s. It’s always hard to leave, but tomorrow will have a finality and will be harder. The new St. Michael’s will be open in 2017, so I will see the sisters again then. Until then, they have a big move, big changes. St. Michael’s is closed during August, but will be open from September to December, when it will finally close its doors to visitors. If you have time before then to visit this wonderful place, I encourage you to do so.

My favourite memories of the sisters at Ham Common will be these:

On my very first visit here, most of the meals were taken in silence, but supper once or twice a week was a talking meal. At the end of my second day, I was in the dining room when one of the elderly sisters approached me and said, Are you on retreat? Because we’re TALKING.

One evening at supper, which was a talking meal, with some consternation they realised that Compline would clash with Midsomer Murders. They realised they couldn’t all hunker down in front of the television to watch John Nettles solve a crime and protect the good people of the picturesque Cotswold villages; someone had to be at Compline. Over supper they bargained attendance at Compline that evening and the following week; by the end of the meal everything was sorted to their satisfaction, while I was left a little goggle-eyed at the sisters and their viewing preferences.

Finally, four years ago, I was here a couple of months after my father had died. It had been a strange spring, first with the earthquake, tsunami and aftermath in Tokyo, and then my father’s death. I felt I wanted to talk to someone and so made an appointment with the Sister In Charge. I told her about my father, and about his funeral. I told her I had given the homily. When other people had heard this they had been perplexed, maybe, a little alarmed. The sister simply looked me in the eye and asked, Were you honest? Which of course was the most important point, but no one else had asked me that.

The Community of the Sisters of the Church. As another sister, a member of a different order, said to me last summer, They’re always good value. I am so blessed to know them.