August 23rd, Eckington again

S. S. Peter & Paul

Last Sunday I went to the parish church again. Another sunny morning, more bells. Although I don’t go there often it feels like my home church in the UK. I arrived and sat in the same pew as the week before, behind Jill, Eddie and Norah. Eddie and Norah were in the kitchen, getting ready for the fellowship time after the service, so I chatted with Jill until they arrived.

The first hymn was wonderful, the words were by Brian Wren. The second and third verses were particularly lovely:

I come with Christians near and far                                                                                    to find, as all are fed,                                                                                                   man’s true community of love                                                                                             in Christ’s communion bread.

As Christ breaks bread for men to share,                                                                      each proud division ends.                                                                                               The love that made us, makes us one,                                                                            and strangers now are friends.

The sermon was something that spoke to me, about welcoming the foreigner, the stranger. It’s something that I think about every week in Tokyo when others might visit us, and what I think about when I visit other churches. Later, at the Peace, someone said to me, you should teach us how to say it in Japanese! I told her how to say it, and she turned to the next person and said it to them. Somewhat perplexed, the recipient of the greeting said, what does that mean? I explained and added, the foreigner in the sermon? That’s me. Eddie heard me and said, you’re no stranger.

After the service I followed Eddie and Nora into the kitchen and helped with the tea and coffee and then the washing up afterwards. It was good to feel part of the regular rhythm of church life. When we had finished in the kitchen, it was time to say goodbye to everyone until December. Reverend Andy blessed me for my journey, we all hugged, and I left. For now.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Eckington church altar

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.

 

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.