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.

Conjunctions

HumilityWe do not presume                                                                                                           to come to this your table, merciful Lord,                                                                  trusting in our own righteousness,                                                                                   but in your manifold and great mercies.                                                                           We are not worthy                                                                                                            so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.                                                   But you are the same Lord                                                                                         whose nature is always to have mercy.                                                                         Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,                                                                                     so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ                                                            and to drink his blood,                                                                                                    that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body                                                    and our souls washed through his most precious blood,                                                 and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.                                                Amen.

This is the Prayer of Humble Access. Over twenty years ago, I used to attend the morning service of Holy Eucharist at Sheffield Cathedral. It wasn’t something I intentionally started to do, it was simply that there were very few buses into the city in the morning, and the only one that would get me to work on time in fact got me there with quite a lot of time to spare. Rather than sit and drink coffee I didn’t need, I decided to attend the service every morning.

There were never many people there, often only one of the canons, one other woman and me. Every morning we used the Prayer of Humble Access; it found its way into my heart and I loved it as part of the liturgy. Occasionally I hear it used, but it seems these days it isn’t used much.

Last year, I spent a happy Sunday afternoon showing some American visitors round Tokyo. They were both Episcopal priests. Over dinner the conversation somehow turned to the Prayer of Humble Access, and I mentioned my attachment to it. One of them remarked that she felt differently, and knew other women who felt the same; women who had been in abusive or damaging relationships, for whom the statement, ‘We are not worthy . . .’ was painful. I was challenged to account for my positive feelings.

At the time I think I said that I didn’t hear ‘not worthy’ as much as ‘mercy’. I didn’t satisfy myself with that answer, I felt there was something more, and so I thought and prayed about it. Eventually I arrived at an explanation that satisfied me.

From when I was eleven and my brother was nine, my father was an alcoholic (though my mother never admitted that and we never talked about his drinking until many years later). He drank every evening and then became verbally abusive. Many times every evening he would come into the living room, look at us, then close the door again, swearing at us as he did so. This was mainly to check we weren’t about to walk into the dining room where he was going to get another drink. As he closed the door he would say with some venom, f*** off or some other equally hurtful expletive. Evening after evening, my brother and I would look at Mum and she would always reply with, I didn’t hear anything / Just ignore it / Rise above it. This went on for many years. I was never able to ignore it, was never able to understand why she let it happen. I became clinically depressed for two years at university, and everything that I spoke about with my doctor at that time was connected to him or my grandparents. In my twenties I was able to stand up to him and when he swore I looked him in the eye and asked him to not do that because it was hurtful. He never stopped but I had my say.

My grandparents also said things that stayed with me. They often asserted that their love was conditional, and that because I fell short I was a disappointment or had hurt them and therefore love would be withheld on some level. ‘If you really loved us you wouldn’t go to China.’ ‘We’d love you more if you stayed here.’ That kind of thing.I knew that they loved me dearly, but still, their words hurt.

All of the above is not to paint me as some kind of victim, because I don’t feel that way. I feel sad about it, but I came through it, I’m stronger for it, I learnt about psychology and grew in faith and made my peace with it as much as I could.

My point is, the message I got from all of that was, I was not worthy because I was a disappointment; Dad was drinking and in a bad mood so we had to just accept it; adults had these negative feelings or had experiences in their past or something I couldn’t fathom and we had to take it. Lots of connections, conjunctions; and, because, so.

Then I came to the Prayer of Humble Access and again, it told me that I am not worthy. The difference was the conjunction. ‘We are not worthy . . . but . . . ‘ and that is what makes all the difference in the world to me. There is no connection between my unworthiness and what happens next. There’s no so, and or because, it all gets blown apart because of the ‘but’. Because of all the things I was told as I was growing up I have buttons in my head. It’s quite easy to rattle me, to make me feel anxious. I’m ready to believe it must be my fault, that I let someone down in some way.

I keep coming back to the Prayer of Humble Access because it breaks that cycle for me. I am not worthy. But. God doesn’t change, there is always mercy and grace.

That is why I like the Prayer of Humble Access. Everyone has their own experiences, and I know that for other people the word ‘unworthy’ might be just so loaded that there’s no getting round it, but for me it has the opposite effect.

From Sheffield to Tokyo, via Lhasa and Norwich

Mt. Fuji

In September 1985 I came to Asia for the first time. I arrived in Shanghai towards the end of a sticky summer, just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Shanghai has changed a lot since then; I’ve changed a lot.

By the time the following February rolled around, and the university gave us time off over Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), I knew exactly where I wanted to go: Tibet. Specifically, I wanted to get there before I turned twenty, for some reason I’ve long forgotten, if indeed I ever had one. It may have been an arbitrary challenge to myself. I’ve always thought bloodymindedness to be an underrated virtue.

Having hung around in Chengdu for a few days over Spring Festival (and shared my hotel room with a rat) I flew to Lhasa, and from the airport outside the city we were put on a bus into Lhasa itself. I remember waking up just as the bus stopped, and looking up at the Potala Palace towering over us against a bright blue sky.

At the time, the Holiday Inn was being built, and there were only two hotels where tourists stayed; the Banok Shol and Snowlands. I stayed at Snowlands for a week. I hired a bicycle and went out to Sera and Drepung monasteries, climbed up the steps to the Potala Palace, ate fresh yogurt made from yak milk delivered to the hotel courtyard every morning, met the great-neice of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, watched the sun set over fluttering prayer flags and sent triumphant postcards back to the UK. I’d made it, about ten days before my twentieth birthday.

At the airport waiting for the flight back to Chengdu, I met a North American woman and a South American man. They were Christians, of which denomination I don’t know. I don’t remember their names, but I can still see their faces. Waiting in line, the woman insisted I pray with her. More to humour her than with any great purpose, I went along with her prayer: Lord Jesus, if you’re real, come into my life. I returned to Shanghai, finished the school year and went back to the UK.

Over the summer I visited my godmother in East Anglia. Although growing up my family had been C & E (Christmas and Easter) Christians, (probably because my father was the headmaster of Church of England primary schools), we had stopped going, and although I can see now that my faith had stirred itself on several occasions, I had not been to church in years. Somehow my godmother recognised in me a need, a longing, I don’t know what, and while I was staying with them I went to church with them and she encouraged me to look for a church in Leeds when I went back to university in September.

I found a church; Wrangthorn, a huge, cavernous, dark building. I also started attending confirmation classes in the parish where I grew up, and on Advent Sunday in 1987 I was confirmed. I remember there were six of us, all women. That day we were all given a book, and this is where Julian found me. I received a copy of Enfolded In Love, a short, pocket-sized book, which I took with me to China when I went back after graduation. It came with me too, when I came to Japan for the first time in 1991.

Slowly, gently, Julian settled in my heart. Her most famous sentence, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” gave me strength when life was difficult, and when I returned to the UK after two years I visited my godmother again. By then they had moved into Norwich and her son had designed a walking tour of the city as a school project. No one had done the tour, and I agreed to be his guinea pig, as long as he included a detour to St. Julian’s and the shrine on the site of Julian’s cell. That day I became a member of the Friends of Julian, and twenty years later I still am.

Through Julian I have gained so much. I have met inspiring people. I have read the full text of her Revelations Of Divine Love and found so much there which resonates in my soul. After twenty-five years, I want to find the words to explore what she means to me, and what she has shown me. How I have grown in faith and learnt how to pray. How Julian has sometimes reassured me and sometimes surprised me. How I have found connections through her that have changed my life.