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.

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.

St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Another Sunday, another church, but this one is special, because my friend is the vicar. It was a Family Eucharist, and all we needed was a laminated service sheet, (A4, printed on both sides) and this week’s bulletin (B4, folded, printed on both sides) containing the hymns, collects and announcements.

Since it was a family service it wasn’t difficult to follow. I just had to remember to keep an eye on both sheets. Of course, I am kind of biased because it’s my friend’s parish, but I did enjoy the service. Her homily was short and held the children’s interest but had a message for the adults present too.

To receive communion we all stood in a circle around the altar, and children who didn’t receive the bread and wine received a blessing and a sticker, which I thought was a wonderful idea. I saw a little girl later with her sticker proudly stuck on the front of her dress.

After the service there were refreshments at the back of the church. All the children sat together on the floor (apparently there are usually tables and chairs) and the adults stood around and chatted. I asked for a cup of tea and then stood near the table and . . . no one spoke to me. Eventually the person in charge of the tea and coffee said something, but no one else said anything to me at all.

And so I was left wondering again, what is it about Anglicans and welcoming visitors (or not)? Why are we not very good at it? I was there with a member of their vicar’s family, so right there I would think are two points; I must be a visitor (because they don’t know me) but I am with someone they know, so surely it would be easy to start a conversation?

I know we all lead busy lives, and one of the joys of being a member of a congregation is the connections to be made, the friends to catch up with every week (or however often you attend). Of course that shouldn’t be neglected but what about the visitor? Can’t we spare a few minutes to welcome them?

Every week when I am in the UK I attend a different church, but every week I am struck by the same things; I am a visitor and yet no one checks if I know my way round the service, if I am clear about how to receive communion, and no one talks to me unless I lurk near them for a while and they eventually can’t put off speaking to me any longer.

For about three years I was a member of a Lutheran church in Tokyo and I was impressed by how different their approach to visitors was. There was always a welcome, a small joy at someone new joining the worship. It’s not difficult, and surely we can all do it.

We may be greeting someone who has felt called by God to come to church, but is feeling nervous, unsure of what to do, who needs a helping hand through the service, a smile over a cup of coffee. It’s such an opportunity and one that is so often missed.

We may be entertaining angels. We may be welcoming someone to church for the first time, and our greeting, conversation, help might make all the difference in the world.