July 21st, St. Michael’s

Our Lady

I have been soooooooo looking forward to this.

It was quite a journey to get here; from Chesterfield to London St. Pancras, across London to Vauxhall on the Tube, transfer to the overground, from Vauxhall to Clapham Junction, then from there to Richmond. I could have taken a bus from there, but wanting to be sure to arrive in time for the Eucharist I took a taxi instead.

I have been feeling tired for weeks. I want to say I am exhausted, but it’s really not that bad. The journey this morning showed me just how much I need to spend some time here. The train seemed too full of people being too noisy, wearing perfume and aftershave that was too strong, people talking on their mobile phones, taking selfies . . . I retreated to my kindle and watched the countryside and cities speed past.

So I got to Richmond and made a half-hearted attempt to look at the bus timetable but then gave up and went to find a taxi. Halfway to the convent I suddenly started to unwind. I closed my eyes and leaned back. The taxi driver sounded concerned, “Are you all right?” Yes, thank you, I’m fine. I’m going on retreat, you see, I added in my head, and I really need to just . . . stop. Stop the noise, stop the crowds, stop having to be somewhere. Just stop, and be. Breathe. Unwind. Pray.

I arrived with plenty of time before the Eucharist, so I was shown to my room and had some time to let the silence start to soak into my consciousness, to sit quietly and put everything down, put all the thoughts away.

12:15, the Eucharist.

The Chapel has changed a little since my last visit twelve months ago. The altar is in a different place, the chairs arranged in a different shape. From where I sit I can see into the garden, the altar is to my right, the lectern to my left, the chairs arranged in the shape of a boat, two rows on either side facing each other.

There is something very soothing about the the Eucharist and the Daily Offices being said and sung in only women’s voices. The pace is calming, our voices all merge together in an unhurried and soothing flow. It feels timeless. There is no rush to anything, we all join in this process. It is easy to feel my heart open, lifted up.

After the Eucharist it’s time for dinner, the midday meal being the main one of the day here. After that I spent some time in the garden, waiting for my spiritual director, who lives here alongside the community but has made her vows through the Single Consecrated Life. We usually Skype about once every six weeks, so it was wonderful to sit down together in person, in the same place, in the same time zone! We talked about all the things that have been on my mind and that I want to work on. It was a beginning, not with conclusions but with openings, things to try, to do.

With lots of things percolating in my mind I wandered around the garden for an hour, sitting in different places, taking photos, enjoying being in the quiet, green space. It is such a wonderful place to be. It’s not just a garden, it’s an orchard and woodland. There are squirrels, foxes, ravens, magpies and even parakeets. Apparently the urban legend is that when Jimi Hendrix was in London he released his two pet parakeets and from that pair has come all the parakeets that can be found in different parts of London. I think the ancestors of these beautiful but screechy birds must have been someone’s pets, but Jimi Hendrix?

5pm is Evening Office, so back into the Chapel for that, then supper, a lighter meal than dinner. While we ate our supper a fox helped itself to the dog biscuits the Sisters put out for the foxy family every afternoon. There are two parents and three cubs, but I only saw one animal this evening. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a fox before, but I’m told they come every day so I shall look out for them again tomorrow.

Right after supper is Compline, in the dining room, so the elderly sisters don’t have to trail all the way back to the Chapel. Compline over, I headed outside again, and sat on one of my favourite benches and prayed the rosary. Tuesday, the Sorrowful Mysteries.

By half past eight I was inside and starting to think about blogging. Maybe it seems odd to blog while I’m on retreat, but one of the things I talked about with my spiritual director was doing more of the things that bring me joy, and feed my soul. Writing is one of those things, also; playing the flute, studying French, baking and maybe taking singing lessons.

Now it’s dark (it’s after ten) and the only sound from outside is the water bubbling through a small water feature under my window. I feel extraordinarily peaceful, looking forward to tomorrow and a full day of services in the chapel and quiet time, time for prayer and sitting in silence waiting to see what God will give me in the quiet space of this beautiful place.

At. Michael's at dusk


July 19th, St. Mary’s Ambleside

St. Mary's Ambleside

I arrived back in the UK last Wednesday and have just spent a few days in the Lake District. Today was the first of my six Sundays away from Tokyo, and my first visit this summer to a church wherever I happen to find myself. The morning didn’t start well. I had checked service times at local churches and had found that St. Mary’s has an 8am Eucharist. Perfect. I liked the idea of attending an 8am service, as usual. However, when we arrived shortly before 8 there was a notice on the noticeboard saying there was NO 8am service this week and next. A pity that notice didn’t make it as far as the church website.

Not to be beaten I returned at 11 and this time was successful in attending a service. I received a warm welcome and had short chats with 2 men who were at the back of the church; one was in charge of the sound system, the other I think was just on hand to be sociable. Through them I found out that the church was Victorian, about 200 years old. When I commented that it was not as dark as I would expect for a church of that era Mr. Sound System explained that the church had been refurbished (did he say repurposed?) about 6 years ago, and the old dark flooring and dark pews had been replaced, and the walls painted. It really was a light-filled space. I heard also that the screen that the music is usally projected onto was not working, so we had sheets with he words instead. Thank goodness. I’m not a fan of screens and projectors in church.

Mr. Sociable directed me to the side of the church where there were a lot of leaflets and pamphlets available in a variety of languages. I picked up several in Japanese. He also told me that the church has a lot of visitors on any given Sunday. Last week the ratio had been one third regulars and two thirds visitors, but usually it’s reversed. I had a wander round the church, took a few photos, then sat down and watched preparations for the service. I had a look through the service book, and discovered it was one of the simple and modern Eucharistic Prayers from Common Worship. Nothing tricky to navigate there, then.

St. Mary’s is in the middle of an iterregnum, so they have no rector and the priest was the assistant priest (as listed in the notice sheet). There was a bit of faffing at the begining of the service, a few announcements, housekeeping stuff, and then we started the service.

A couple of observations:

– The hymns were a bit of a mixed bag, some traditional, like Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, and others that were clearly more modern. All the regulars seemed to know the modern ones, though.

– There was no Epistle reading. We went straight from Exodus to the Gospel. We stood for the Gospel but as far as I could tell it was read by a layperson.

The sermon

I liked the sermon, it was on today’s theme of Meeting God. The priest didn’t use the pulpit or notes. He spoke about Moses and the burning bush (from the Old Testament reading), then St. Peter denying Christ and Thomas doubting that the other disciples had seen the risen Christ. In each case he described it as God ‘sorting someone out’, then commissioning them. From there he moved on to what the church (meaning this church) could do to be more welcoming and inclusive. He had 3 suggestions:

1 To spend more time in silence and maybe even incorporate it more into worship. Here, he felt, was where people really could meet God.

2 To welome visitors and really listen to them.

3 To be part of the wider community, to not stay inside the church and lob ‘holy grenades’ over the wall regarding issues the church and its people felt strongly about, but instead to really engage and actively promote the church and its image in the town.

From there we moved to the intercessions, which were quite long and a bit of a bush telegraph. In the middle we were all required to ferret out our weekly notice sheet to recite the ‘interregnum prayer’. There was, I felt, quite a focus on local people and giving extra information. It made the intercessions longer and didn’t feel prayerful at all times.

Then we had another hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, while the bread and wine were prepared for the Eucharist. There was no collection. A plate had been left out before the service with a notice explainign that there would be no collection taken during the service, but at the end of the hymn the plate was carried up to the altar. I rather liked that, it seemed a better way than the pressure of the passed plate, but at the same time I wondered if the church received less because of it.

The Eucharistic Prayer was relatively short (I would say definitely no longer than the intercessions) and then we all received communion. While everyone went up the the altar rail there was a vaguely Celtic recorded version of When I Survey The Wonderous Cross which I could have one without. A bit of that silence the priest had mentioned would have been better. The wine was not wine but red grape juice.

After everyone had received comunion we said the post communion prayer and then were blessed. It was a pleasant service, and nothing was rushed. Everyone seemed friendly, they seemed more practiced in the art of welcoming visitors than some churches I’ve visited, but given their loction I suppose that makes sense. I liked the sermon, and the general atmosphere, and the church is lovely. I was less keen on the mixture of hymns and the long-winded intercessions, and I would have liked to have heard the Epistle read too.

The notice sheet was well done. It contained all the information I imagine regular parishioners need about the interregnum update and upcoming services and group meetings. What I really liked about it was its emphasis on prayer. There were detailed prayers for each day of the week ahead, and most importantly, this:

Keeping the Sabbath

Remember the day of rest is for worship and socialising.                                                                       Please try to do your Church, Parish Centre and school business on the other six days of the week.

I thought that simple reminder was something every church could well include in its weekly bulletin.

St. Mary's stained glass

August 24th, York Minster

York Minster

The last Sunday of my summer holiday, and I was in York. Since I have friends who live near York and a family member who lives in the city I visit sometimes and have attended a weekday Eucharist at the minster several times, but I had never been to a Sunday service. When I made plans to stay in York over the weekend I realised I could go to the Minster on Sunday morning.

I decided to go to the main service of Holy Eucharist at 10am. I arrived at about 9:45 and spent a few minutes outside, listening to the bells. It’s one of the joys of attending church in the UK (and other European countries) that there are often teams of bell-ringers and joyous peals are such a wonderful way to begin worship. A parish church can produce a wonderful sound, but a cathedral is something else. Standing outside the Minster, under a vivid blue sky and in bright sunshine I felt excited to be there and really looked forward to going inside.

The welcome. How would the Minster welcome visitors? Surely they must be used to it. A first for me, there were members of staff outside the building, giving people information about where to go, the times of services etc. Once inside, I spoke to the two people at the back of the church and they directed me forward to more greeters. Apparently everything I needed for the service would be found in the pew.

So, onwards, and directed further towards the front by more people. I was encouraged by an elderly gentleman to go even further forward because there were empty seats there. I thought this was a good way of keeping everyone together, by filling up the pews from the front, rather than letting people scatter themselves about. Seeing that there were seats just a few rows back but on the left side, I decided to walk right to the front and then go round to the side to sit down. I reached the front, turned left and there he was, right in front of me: the Archbishop of York John Sentamu.

I couldn’t just walk past him, so I walked up and said good morning, and shook his hand. I asked him if he was preaching, but he said he wasn’t, because he was beginning a week-long prayer vigil for peace. However, he would be at the service. I asked him to bless me and he did, and I walked to my seat feeling very blessed indeed. On reaching my seat I was really happy to see that there were kneelers, so no need to kneel on a cold stone floor this Sunday.

Before the service started I had time to look at the service booklet (for yesterday only) and the pamphlet containing the Eucharist service. There was enough information about how to receive communion, as well as who was celebrating (the Dean) and the visiting choir. Just a few minutes before the service, another priest made an announcement about the beginning of the service, because it would be a little unusual. We would start with prayers from the Archbishop, then the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic by a bishop visiting from Egypt, then a piece of classical music. It was all rather lovely.

After this unusual start, the service continued normally. The music was beautiful, the choir was wonderful, and to hear their voices soaring was incredible. The sermon was interesting, about servanthood. I particularly liked the way the sermon ended with questions to mull over about what servanthood meant for each of us.

The communion itself was administered efficiently and I was surprised at how little time it took for everyone to receive and return to the pews. There seemed to be a lot of people who attended the Minster regularly and knew the drill, as well as more sidespeople discretely ushering everyone about. There were three priests administering the host, and for each one there were two people administering the chalice. I noticed that the Archbishop had left the service several times (to go to pray in a side chapel I think) and he returned to receive communion after everyone else.

At the end of the service there was of course an organ voluntary, and people were already starting to leave. I held my breath because at many churches there is a round of applause for the organist at the end and I hate it, but the voluntary ended and there was nothing, just people greeting their friends and leaving quietly. As I turned round I found myself facing an elderly woman, who apologised to me for not greeting me at the Peace. I assured her that it was fine, but she insisted that it was not, and that she really should have greeted me. We exchanged a greeting then, and went our separate ways.

I looked around the Minster a little more then left, feeling quite elated. It was a lovely service, the music was wonderful, the sermon was thought-provoking, and of course I met, and was blessed by the Archbishop. I am already looking forward to my next visit to York and will definitely try to be there over a weekend so I can go again.

So that is the end of my summer visits to other churches. Next Sunday I’ll be back in Tokyo and at the church where I’m a member. I have lots to think about after being at so many different services, and feel very grateful that I have been able to go to church every week. I’m also feeling much more at home within the Church of England, after many years of not quite connecting. The NSKK (Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Japanese Anglican Church) is my home for most of the year, but when I’m back in the UK the Church of England is home too. It’s good to be back on the mother ship.