August 16th, S. S. Peter & Paul, Eckington

S. S. Peter & Paul noticeboardYesterday I went to the parish church, since the village church, St. John the Evangelist, had a family service with no Eucharist. As usual, I received a warm welcome back.

It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky was a clear blue, and as I arrived and took the photo at the top of this blogpost Reverend Andy came over to put a new notice on the noticeboard. The church has taken all the names from the war memorial and is remembering each local man on the anniversary of his death, and there will be one of these services this week, remembering a man who died exactly one hundred years ago. It’s a wonderful thing they’re doing.

As the bellringers started I stood outside and listened to the bells, it’s always such a treat. Reverend Andy told me about the changes made to the belltower. Apparently they can silence the bells and practise without anyone outside the belltower hearing anything. The church recently spent quite a lot of money having work done on the belltower; I believe it’s called repurposing. Anyway, a new floor was put in one storey up, and that became the new bell loft, and the space below became the area for refreshments and fellowship after services, with a small kitchen attached. At the same time, the wall between the bell loft and the sanctuary was replaced with glass, so from inside the church it’s possible to watch the bells being rung.

After a wander round the church and some time listening to the bells, I went inside the church and had a chat with a few people, before sitting in the pew behind Eddie and Norah, faithful members of the church who have always been really kind to me.

At the beginning of the service, Reverend Andy welcomed people, adding ‘ohayo’ in Japanese, which he had asked me just a few minutes before. The service was quite different from the one at St. John’s the week before. For a start, there was an organist playing the organ, and quite a lot of the liturgy was sung. Of course, the building itself is completely different; it’s almost one thousand years old in parts, with stone floors, while St. John’s is a repurposed space, carpeted, and with more light. The two lessons were read from the lectern Bible, and the Gospel was read with more ceremony. Then Reverend Andy climbed up to the pulpit and preached from there.

I am reluctant to make sweeping statements about a priest’s preaching after listening to only two sermons, but I must say that I liked this week’s sermon much more than last week’s. In contrast to last week’s sermon on Ephesians (‘If Christ does it then crack on and do it yourself’) this week’s meditation on Solomon asking for wisdom, and what kind of gift we might ask of God, and what he might want to give us, I felt gave us all a lot more to think about.

The Eucharist was very moving for me. Of course it’s always the highpoint of the service, but sometimes it seems even more profound than usual and this was one of those times. The congregation is quite far away from the altar, so the walk up to the altar rail is further than usual in a parish church, and somehow that makes it feel more humbling to approach it.

Eckington church

After the service I stayed for a little while, and talked to Hazel and Don, two of the bell ringers. They told me about their holidays in the United States, visiting and ringing different church bells. Don told me that Eckington church is a bellringing teaching centre, and offered to teach me next summer. Apparently six weeks is enough to learn the basics. I’m rather tempted to do it. Eddie told me that he and Norah are on kitchen duty next Sunday, so for my last Sunday in the UK for a while I’ll be there again, and I’ll help out in the kitchen with them afterwards.

Eckington church is a wonderfully welcoming place. The congregation is middle-aged and elderly but faithful. People are warm and willing to have meaningful conversations in a way that I have not always found in other churches. I talked to Jill about her travels and life in Asia, and with Jean about the stained glass windows and how a church can be welcoming. Reverend Andy took time to talk to me even though he needed to get ready for the service, and afterwards spent time with others without seeming rushed, even though he had to go to St. John’s for their service at eleven o’clock. I had a brief conversation with my old headmaster, and was invited into the life of the church to learn bellringing and to help with kitchen duties. I am only there on a few Sundays a year but always feel at home, and am grateful to them all.

Eckington stained glass



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

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.