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.┬áBut 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.



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.

Holy Eucharist, Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral

Since there was no 10am service at St. Julian’s or the guesthouse this morning, I decided to go to the 11am Holy Eucharist at the cathedral. When I arrived I checked which of the side chapels was being used and found out it was the Jesus Chapel. It’s small (of course) with curved stalls along the wall.

When I arrived there were already about ten people there, and it seemed as though about half of them were regulars, the other half visitors. Most of them were elderly. I found a place to sit and found in front of me my old friend, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. There was just time for me to find the right page before the priest, verger and one other man in a cassock entered the chapel and began the service.

It was not the most uplifting of experiences. The celebrant launched into the service without announcing the page number, and proceeded through the service without any reference to where we were at in the book. The third man of the trio read the lesson, in such a halting way that it seemed he hadn’t read it ahead of time.

As was pointed out to me later in the day, the Eucharist is still a sacred and moving act of worship, no matter what surrounds it, and I am glad I went. Norwich Cathedral is beautiful and I enjoyed having the opportunity to worship there and have another look round.

What disappointed me was the perfunctory nature of the service, the disconnect between the priest and the people assembled to worship. To not announce the page numbers, to go through the motions when you are in a place of pilgrimage and sight-seeing, when the possibility of visitors or people new to the service must be high, seems a particularly unwelcoming way of going about things. In York Minister, I have found that the priest who has celebrated the Eucharist generally stands outside the chapel and greets people as they leave, but today the three men left the chapel and that was the end of the service.

A breathtakingly lovely building, but a missed opportunity to really welcome people into the heart of the worship it has been home to for over nine hundred years.