St. Ansfridus, Amersfoort

St. Ansfridus

Several weeks ago I mentioned to friends on Facebook that although I would manage to attend church on most of the Sundays of my summer vacation, the Sunday I would be in the Netherlands would be a ‘churchless Sunday’, since I had never been to church on my annual visit to friends there. Apparently in saying this I threw down some kind of cyberspace gauntlet, and was informed quite speedily that I was mistaken and that we would, in fact, find a church service to attend. I must say, for the record, that this wasn’t meant to be any kind of challenge or rebuke, and I was even looking forward a little to having an opportunity to think about what a Sunday without church was like. It just turns out that it wasn’t to be last Sunday.

My super-efficient friends easily found out which of the seven churches in their diocese would be holding services, and we had two choices. We decided to go to St. Ansfridus, where there would be a service at 11am. You have probably not heard of St. Ansfridus, or St. Ansfried; this is the only church in the world dedicated to him. He was Bishop of Utrecht from 995 to 1010. After his wife died he wanted to become a monk but instead was made Bishop. He founded two abbeys (including one where his daughter was Abbess). Towards the end of his life he went blind, and was finally allowed to become a monk. Before I go any further, I have to say that St. Ansfridus is a Roman Catholic church, and I do not speak Dutch. It all sounds rather promising, doesn’t it?

I am blessed with many wonderful friends, and my Dutch friends are particularly so. Not only did M and S get all of us to church on time (involving two small children and someone having to get there by bike) but M made sure I knew what was going on by giving me translations of a lot of the remarks, prayers and homily. She also checked beforehand that it would be all right for me to receive a blessing when everyone received communion.

And now I have to admit a great deal of ignorance when it comes to how the Roman Catholic Church operates in some European countries (I am told this is true of the Netherlands, France and Germany). I must say, I really like Pope Francis, but there are plenty of things I could happily list that I don’t like about the Roman Church, and chief among them would be the patriarchal nature of the hierarchy, and the refusal to allow women to be priests.

So it was with total, utter amazement that I attended this service, which included communion (with consecrated host) led completely by women. There was a small choir and their leader was a man, but apart from that, everything was done by women. Yes, really. The woman who led the service was called Josephine and she was a ‘pastoraal werker’ or pastoral worker. The translation doesn’t help much because the term doesn’t seem to exist in English, so I will try as far as I understand it to explain it.

Of course, there are priests, but this particular parish of seven churches only has one full-time priest and one part-time priest. There are also deacons. And then there are pastoral workers who are not ordained, but have studied at some kind of theological college and work full-time for the church. While they can’t celebrate the Eucharist, they can provide communion for the people using already-consecrated host, and this is what happened on Sunday. They can also, at the discretion of the parish priest, officiate at baptisms and funerals. When they lead services they are vested and preach. They do far more than what in Anglican churches is called a Lay Eucharistic Minister (LEM). This is a job they do during the week too, visiting the sick and housebound and sharing in the ministry of the parish.

Back to the service last Sunday. The service began with some remarks about the terrible things we see going on in the world, and our confusion that they even happen at all. Then followed hymns (familiar tunes so I sang along with the verses I could remember), reading from the Bible (by another woman), a homily and prayers. It was all thoughtful, prayerful and rather lovely. With M providing translation as we went along I felt I understood quite a lot.

One challenge was to find where we were in the booklet and leaflet. The booklet was one issued by the diocese for use by every church that day, and the leaflet was specifically for St. Ansfridus. We seemed to jump around in the booklet but M kept up and made sure I knew where we were.

A lot of the service seemed to be familiar elements. At the communion, the pastoral worker and the woman who had read the Gospel both administered the host, and although there must have been fifty or sixty people it was all done very speedily. Of course, there was no chalice. When it was my turn I received a blessing. It has been a long time since I received a blessing instead of communion, but I found it meaningful and moving.

After the service we had coffee and I had an opportunity to meet Josephine and hear a little about her work. There was another pastoral worker present and he was the one who said the same system exists in France and Germany. I was at once amazed that I had no idea this happened and also sorry that I had assumed the Catholic Church didn’t allow women to do anything like this.

So, as far as a welcome is concerned, I was welcomed very warmly, and as a non-Dutch-speaking, non-Catholic I felt very comfortable. There were no greeters, ushers or sidespeople. Everyone seemed to know what to do and picked up everything they needed. They also put money in a basket to pay for the booklet and leaflet used in the service. Afterwards, during coffee, people were helpful but I only spoke to Josephine and briefly a man who knew M from the choir.

I certainly knew what was going on and what to do because I had M by my side explaining and guiding me, for which I am extremely grateful. If she hadn’t been there then I would have understood what was going on (the Gospel, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, receiving communion) but I wouldn’t have known what was said in the remarks, prayers or homily. The music was printed in the papers we had, but the challenge was finding where they were. The choir leader conducted the people as well, and everyone seemed to know what to do.

I left St. Ansfridus feeling very grateful that I had friends who had been determined that I not have a ‘churchless Sunday’, that I had received a warm welcome and could worship with them. The congregation was in great part elderly, with very few people under fifty. The building itself was lovely; not stunningly so but a beautiful, peaceful place to be. Unfortunately, with falling numbers and not enough people to lead services, the church could be closing soon.

It was an eye-opening experience for me. It turns out the Catholic Church is not at all how I thought, at least in some European countries. What a wonderful, churchful Sunday it was.


Sheffield Cathedral, 8th Sunday after Trinity

Sheffield Cathedral

Over twenty years ago I used to work in the centre of Sheffield, and because the only bus I could catch which got me to work in time actually had me in the city centre much earlier than I needed, I often attended the morning Eucharist at the cathedral. There were never many people there, but it was a lovely way to start the day. In the years since I have often popped in to the cathedral for a few minutes of prayer or just to sit quietly, and once went to a carol service, but it had been a long time since I attended a Eucharist.

Yesterday morning started a foul, rainy, windy day, as the weather forecasts had been threatening. Hurricane Bertha had become Tropical Storm Bertha and then, apparently ex-Bertha, but still brought plenty of unpleasant weather to Sheffield. So I was doing my best impression of a drowned rat as I scuttled into the cathedral at about 10am. In fact, my first challenge was actually managing to find my way into the building, because where the entrance had previously been there was now the front of the cathedral shop and only a window. The entrance was a little further round, and waiting inside were two greeters or sidespeople.

One of the things I have been thinking about a lot is how a church welcomes visitors, and so, as a Sheffield girl I am happy to report that I received a lovely welcome. As well as the service book (with everything printed inside) there was a gift aid envelope (for donating money if you’re a UK taxpayer) and the weekly bulletin or newsletter, plus sheet music for the responses. I was very happy to receive the music, since most churches don’t provide it, and it’s a surefire way to make a visitor feel completely left out of the service. The two people greeting everyone were very helpful, and answered all my questions. There was also information inside the booklet about receiving communion etc. which I thought was useful.

There was still about twenty minutes before the service began, so I went on a wander for old times’ sake, taking a few photos as I went. Even though there was plenty of activity as people got ready for the service, there were still several side chapels where I could sit quietly and not be disturbed by all the bustle.

Just before the service began, the Canon who was the main celebrant made some announcements, mainly about clergy who were not there, including one, announced with great glee, who was away with the diocesan camping trip. (Remember, there was torrential rain at the time.) Having established that there were very few clergy in attendance, there was a short time of silence before the service began. The cathedral seemed relatively empty, I suppose because of summer holidays and inclement weather. I’d like to go again when more people are there.

At the confession, the booklet stated, ‘we sit or kneel’ but following the renovations to the cathedral the old, dark wood pews had been removed, and new, lighter wood pews, minus kneelers, had replaced them. So for the confession everyone sat, and so did I, but after a few seconds I decided I just couldn’t, so knelt directly on the cold stone floor. Uncomfortable, but better than sitting.

As I have already mentioned, I had been given some sheet music when I arrived, and I had assumed that this would include all the arrangements used in the service, but I quickly discovered this wasn’t the case. Sigh. We sang the Gloria, to some arrangement I hadn’t heard before. I caught on eventually, but was already thinking, what is the point of giving me only some of the music? The service continued; the directions were clear, so I knew what I was supposed to be doing and when.

The sermon was reasonably interesting, based on the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 14, but about thirty-six hours later I can’t remember more than the general points. After the Creed came the intercessions, and I wasn’t hugely thrilled, for two reasons. The first is one of my ongoing objections to the Church of England, specifically that it is the established church, which in the twenty-first century seems absurd to me. Any prayers for ‘Elizabeth our queen’ have me opening my eyes and staring around beadily in an irritated manner. Of course, no one else does the same, so I quickly simmer down and close my eyes again. The second thing that surprised me about the intercessions was the editorialising that was going on, the kind of bush telegraph feeling, the extra information the intercessor was adding. I felt it was unnecessary, it seemed more for the benefit of the people present than anything the Almighty needed to know.

And so on to the Eucharistic Prayer and the receiving of communion, which didn’t take very long, partly because the congregation seemed quite thin on the ground, and also because there was an efficient system for moving people up to the altar and back to the pews.

The service was over and the organist played the voluntary. The booklet stated, ‘we warmly invite you to sit for the playing of the Organ Voluntary, or to leave at this point without disturbing those who wish to listen’ and so I sat to listen and noticed that a lot of the regulars around me were already having a good chat to their friends, hmmm. The voluntary finished, and there was the usual round of applause for the organist. Why do people do this? I particularly dislike it, we seem to end the service to the glory of the organist and it seems inappropriate to me. I wish people wouldn’t do it.

As people were leaving I looked around the cathedral a bit more, particularly at the altar and the angels in the roof above it. They have always been there, but following the renovations they are well-lit and beautiful. (You can see them in the photograph at the top of this post.) I decided all altars should have angels over them.

As I left a different person was on duty in the entrance. I returned the music sheet and she asked if I wanted to sign up for any of the activities they had coming up. I was impressed with the way information was available, even though it wasn’t applicable to me. I think newcomers would feel able to join in but not pressured to do so.

So, Sheffield Cathedral. It was lovely to be back, and following the renovations the interior is stunning. It is a lovely, airy space, with plenty of places for quiet, private prayer. I felt I didn’t see the service at its full-on best, and would like to go again when the congregation is bigger. I would like them to provide all the music, not just some of it, and kneelers for people who don’t wish to sit for the confession and intercessions. I was happy to feel so welcomed, and look forward to visiting again at Christmas.

Open Church Week

St. Andrew's, Trowse

This week I was staying with my godmother in Norwich for a few days, and so on Wednesday ended up spending the day with her at the church she attends, St. Andrew’s in Trowse, as part of the Open Church Week in the deanery. The idea is very simple, that churches in the area were open during the week, so people could drop in, look around and chat to someone from the church if they wanted to. Since a lot of parish churches are locked during the week this is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is interested to have a look round, but it also means quite a lot of work for parishioners willing to spend time at the church, making tea and coffee, welcoming visitors and chatting to them.

I had already arranged to visit my godmother and booked my train ticket, when she re-checked her schedule and realised that she was busy after all. Since I have been thinking (and blogging) a lot about the welcome visitors receive at church I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to be on the other side of things, and anyway, I find people endlessly fascinating and can usually find something to talk about with anyone I meet.

We arrived at 10am and left at 4pm. I discovered that my capacity to chat to anyone I meet is not, in fact, endless, but rather I hit a kind of wall at 3pm and felt quite drained. Before I felt completely talked-out, however, I had some lovely conversations with people who visited the church.

For most of the day there were just three of us there; my godmother, the assistant priest and me. The visitors seemed to fall into three categories; people who knew it was Open Church Week and had come from outside the parish; people who lived nearby and didn’t attend the church but were curious to come and see it, and finally other members of the congregation who popped in to say hello and have a chat.

The first visitors of the day were a couple who had driven from another county to visit several local churches in the hope of finding the graves of two great uncles who had fought in the First World War. Not only did they manage to find the graves in the graveyard at St. Andrew’s, but they also found photographs and other information about their ancestors in the small exhibition commemorating the start of the war inside the church. They stayed for a while and before they left took photos of the graves as a reminder of the connection they had made.

The next visitors were a retired couple with their daughter, accompanied by a friend who was a member of the church. While the wife, daughter and friend looked around the church I made the husband a cup of coffee, plied him with chocolate biscuits and chatted to him about a lot of things; his experiences working in Kenya, Julian of Norwich, prayer . . .

We had a couple of visitors who were already members of the church but who wanted to pop in to say hello, and then we decided it was time for lunch. Just as we were finishing a woman walked in and since my godmother and the assistant priest were in the middle of a conversation I got up to welcome her. She lived very near St. Andrew’s, but had attended only once, just before Christmas last year. She had so many questions about the church, about faith, about issues of gender and sexual orientation. We talked about the early church, I mentioned Julian of Norwich again, and then felt that as a lay person and not even a member of St. Andrew’s it would be wise to ask the assistant priest to join the conversation. I felt so impressed that this visitor had thought about so many issues, and so glad that Open Church Week had given her an opportunity to come in to church and discuss those questions.

Later, a young father with two young children came in. They were on their way to the park but had seen that the church was open and decided to come in and take a look. They spent some time exploring the church, looking at statues, carvings and different parts of the church.

While I was happy to see the visitors from further afield, I really felt that this woman, and this father with his children, were the ones to really benefit from the church being open and may feel more inclined to attend a service now that they have had the time to express their concerns, speak to one of the priests and have a look round. Maybe it demystifies it a little, maybe they feel they know a bit more about the church before they try it on a Sunday morning.

Towards the end of the afternoon more parishioners dropped in. I had a conversation with an elderly gentleman, but by then was really feeling quite talked out. After he left I sat quietly on the other side of the church to the small group sitting and chatting, and then went outside for some sunshine and fresh air.

It was lovely to be part of Open Church Week, and to try to be the welcome I would like to receive myself. I feel very strongly that the welcome a church extends to visitors, and the support that is given to anyone not accustomed to the service is so important. Spending the day welcoming and talking has given me a lot to think about.