A Spacious Place

Our Church often seems very empty in lockdown. Rarely are there flickering candles now, people are not coming in and out, our 5pm worship – so much a feature of our Church takes place on line now. The building is cold.

Yet sometimes when I come in and sit quietly I sense the company of worshippers, past and present. The statues and windows surround with colour and give a glimpse of other realities. Closed, or not closed, our church stands in our community as a sign of the spiritual as a sign that God, in someway, dwells among us.

When children from the schools visit I often stop them at the back of church and invite them to stand in silence and look forward to the altar and then to look up. Most times when they look up there are some cries of amazement. The ceiling is huge and high up. The feeling of space and wonder is there when one sits alone too, and can almost be overwhelming.

The Bishop of Manchester has recently remarked that large Victorian churches can be a problem. He should know, his diocese has a great number of them! They need a lot of care – and heating. I’m sure the Bishop is right – especially when the churches are underused, no longer used, or in the ‘wrong’ location. Two churches where I was a priest were ancient, medieval, churches. They were much smaller and in many ways more ‘serviceable.’ In fact at one a churchwarden used to clear the church gutters himself and climb up the roof to replace a slate. I can’t imagine the St Chrysostom’s churchwardens doing that!

Nevertheless, as I sat in church yesterday, waiting and being still, I was grateful for the huge space which surrounded me. I was thankful that I could sense the holiness, and that I could ‘wonder’ in this special – and spacious – place.

Later words from the Psalm at evening prayer stood out for me “We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” (Psalm 66.12)

This is the second entry in Fr Ian’s ‘2021 Lockdown diary.’

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Closing the church doors?

Should we close church or should we not?

I was asking myself this last week. In the first lockdown there was no choice. In the current one safe worship is permitted.

A friend advised me not to consult too widely. ‘In fact’, he said, ‘I can’t see much benefit from consulting at all! Look at what people around England are saying about church closures on social media. Apparently, he told me, ‘it has become a ‘toxic’ debate with people on either side ‘shouting at each other.” I could see his point but did feel it best to see what others thought, especially those with leadership roles in our church.

I asked clergy and churchwardens what they thought. We carefully thought and discussed and decided we would remain open on Sunday for Mass. We would not particularly encourage attendance, and instead we’d emphasise our online presence. We would take extra care and discourage any socialising, and shorten the length of the service. We would review the situation on a weekly basis.

As I waited for Mass on Sunday to begin I wondered how many, if any, would come. In fact more came than had come the previous week. That puzzled me a little. It was not what I expected. It was particularly puzzling as several regular members had, understandably taken the decision not to attend.

Afterwards I reflected on who had come. Most were under 40 years old. Most did not engage in our social media activities. Many of those attending that Mass would not have known one another.

What was clear was that some, because of the restrictions, were socially isolated. We had, for example, students not able to interact with other students, a father far from home – his wife recently having given birth in the home country, a woman suffering anxiety who finds peace by being in the church.

Clearly, those attending found comfort and solace in being there. They felt less isolated. They were welcomed and through the Sacrament connected with others and with God. They were spiritually fed, hopefully in a way which they were seeking. In this way, I hope, they were strengthened.

No matter how high quality online worship is, and some is being wonderfully done, it clearly is not engaging some church people, especially that group of people who receive much by being present at Mass but are not particularly concerned to mix socially with their co-worshippers.

Public safety and health must, of course, be the main priority in these pandemic days, yet at the same time we have to be aware of mental and social health issues which affect us all. Closing church for worship is not an easy thing for the priest It has some significant pastoral and spiritual consequences, some of which may not be easily seen.

This is the first entry in a ‘Lockdown Diary’ which Fr Ian will be keeping on our church blog through the current lockdown.

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Spinks and ousels sing sublimely

In a lovely short poem entitled Epiphany the poet and economist Jeffery Wheatley gives thanks for some of the added details of the Christmas story which we find in Christmas Carols. (The first two verses of the poem are illustrated here).

Each year I find something new strikes me from a carol – an insight, or a curious phrase…

The Sunday after Christmas Day can be something of a ‘low Sunday’ after all the excitements of Carol Services, Christmas masses and so on. Its a Sunday when often some of the ‘leftover’ carols appear. At St C’s on this day we also like to bring forward an unusual or different Carol from the past. This isn’t so much that we try to rescue a carol heading towards oblivion. Rather its to gave an airing to something a bit different – singing a seldom heard carol that we think is worth hearing, although not necessarily often, or at big events.

This year at St Chrysostom’s we sang Christopher Smart’s hymn Where is this stupendous stranger? at Mass on the Sunday after Christmas. Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771) was a curious and interesting man, with a very active and at times disturbed mind. So disturbed at times that he was obliged for a time to live in seclusion in an asylum, (with his cat Jeoffry) and while there he wrote this hymn.

I was intrigued by the hymn and explored further. The Oxford edition of Smart’s poems gives verses understandably, but sadly, missing from hymn books. There is also editing of some of the obscurities of the poem. “Swains of Solyma, advise” is replaced by ‘Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise;’ – The ‘swains of Solyma’ being the shepherds…

What I found particularly interesting was Smart’s emphasis on the birth of Christ being for the whole of creation. Smart firmly believed in the value of all creation and here he puts into verse a less anthropocentric view of the incarnation than many Carols. The ‘birds on box and laurel’ listen to the angels. ‘Spinks and ousels’ sing of their Saviour. Spinks being chaffinches and ousels, blackbirds. Creation delights in the birth of the son of God.

Thank you Christopher Smart for your querky yet profound poem – a treasure, for me, from Christmas 2020. May the spinks and ousels continue to sing sublimely.

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20 + C + M + B + 21 Blessing our homes

We all probably spent more time at home in 2020 than we intended. Now it looks as though this will be true for at least the first months of 2021.

We’ve found comfort and security at home in the face of the Coronavirus and the change it has brought. We have come more and more to see home as a refuge, a place of safety.

However it has not, and is not, always easy. Many families are not used to being together so much, and incidents of disharmony have grown, as well as mental illness. For those living in flats or cramped accommodation options are often limited. Single people have their own concerns too – not least lack of day to day meetings and seeing friends.

More than ever, as we begin a new year, there seems to be a place for saying a prayer for blessing on your home. We’ve encouraged this ancient custom for many many years and it has become very much part of our church life at St Chrysostom’s. It is a custom we share beyond our immediate Church family and into the community. We are delighted that other churches are picking up the custom too.

This year circumstances are different and we are obliged to do so many things differently. It’s important for the church to adapt to circumstances. So this year instead of blessing candles and chalk and distributing them with words of a prayer of blessing for people to take home, and instead of inviting people to ask a priest to bless their home, we are, here, simply encouraging you, dear reader, to pause and say a prayer of blessing on your home. At the same time a prayer of solemn blessing on the homes of church members and all homes of our parish will be said at the end of the Epiphany Mass in church.

It is good to have a reminder and sign of a prayer or blessing said. A traditional way is to mark the lintel or doorway of your home, outside or inside, in the traditional way. Chalk can be used. For this year the traditional marking is: 20+C+M+B+21 or if you wish to be even more traditional Roman numerals can be used: MM+C+M+B+XXI.

20 and 21 being the year. C,M,B being the initials of the names often given to the Magi (wise men) who came to Bethlehem – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Those initials can symbolise then welcome to visitors.

So, on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) or around that day we are encouraging you to pause, with a nice cup of tea, or a glass of wine, relax, perhaps light a candle, be still in your home, perhaps light a candle and say these, or other prayers:

We’ve a special recording of a simple sung home blessing, which cantors recorded in our church. You could play this as you pause in prayer: Click here: on this link. (And you can read about this song of blessing here.)

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only Son to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this home and all who live in it. May it be a place of comfort, safety and peace. We ask this through Christ who dwells among us. Amen.

Loving God, visit this home and bless it. May there be no evil here. Let your holy angels dwell here and keep all who live here in peace. May you bless us, and all whom we love, today and for evermore.    Amen.

We’ve done the blessing of homes in different forms in the past – for example using crosses from Ethiopia given by a church member – see here, or using blessed candles and a prayer card – see here.

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She crossed the gender line

Apollinaria

The account of the life of St Apollinaria goes back to the 5th century, and is rather confused in parts. Nevertheless the curious story has within it lessons of acceptance and inclusion for the church today. So let’s commemorate Apollinaris / Dorotheos (feast day 5th January).

An Orthodox website ‘God is wonderful in his saints’ gives this account

Appolinaria was a maiden of high rank, the daughter of a magistrate named Anthimus in the city of Rome. Filled with love for Christ, she prevailed on her parents to allow her to travel on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem she dismissed most of her attendants, gave her jewels, fine clothes and money to the poor, and went on to Egypt accompanied only by two trusted servants. Near Alexandria she slipped away from them and fled to a forest, where she lived in ascesis for many years. She then made her way to Sketis, the famous desert monastic colony, and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos. In this guise she was accepted as a monk.

The story continues:

Anthimus, having lost his elder daughter, was visited with another grief: his younger daughter was afflicted by a demon. He sent this daughter to Sketis, asking the holy fathers there to aid her by their prayers. They put her under the care of “Dorotheos”, who after days of constant prayer effected the complete cure of her (unknowing) sister. When the girl got back home it was discovered that she was pregnant, and Anthimus angrily ordered that the monk who had cared for her be sent to him. He was astonished to find that “Dorotheos” was his own daughter Apollinaria, whom he had abandoned hope of seeing again. After some days the holy woman returned to Sketis, still keeping her identity secret from her fellow-monks. Only at her death was her true story discovered.

The story of Appolinaria belongs to a different age to ours. At that time a woman acting to the world as a man would be more independent and able to do what they wished. This could have been Appolinaria’s purpose. It may not, however. Whatever it is clear that Appolinaria named as female at birth chose in later life to self identify as male.

What is also significant is that the Church in history has accepted and honoured the story of one who stepped over gender lines in those distant days. There has been an official acceptance of what Appolinaria’s actions and life. Appolinaria is named as a saint. A saint who speaks to us today from the misty days of the fifth century.

To many who go through a difficult process of recognising, and accepting their identities – in terms of gender or sexuality the church has been seen as lacking in understanding and, indeed, often hostile. The story of Appolinaria stands out today as one to place before Christians especially those seeking encouragement to come to terms with who they are.

Fr Ian

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2020 Veni Creator Spiritus: God Knows!

HAPPY NEW YEAR! 

In 1939 the then Princess Elizabeth gave to her father, King George VI, a copy of a poem. It became famous when the King quoted it in his 1939 Christmas Broadcast. The poem,  God Knows is by Minnie Louise Haskins. It encourages hope and trust in God at a difficult time. The section the King quoted was:

opened-gate 1And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Hope and trust in God, leading us into the future, are appropriate things to ponder and pray for at the beginning of a New Year, and surely this is particulalrly true as we move into 2021. Hope and trust are qualities to encourage in ourselves and others.

At Mass on New Years Day at St Chrysostom’s we join with Christians all over the world in following the Christian tradition of singing together, Veni Creator Spiritus, asking for the Spirit of God, to inspire and guide us as we begin a new year. We pray for hope and trust in God.

VENI, Creator SpiritusWhy not, as part of your personal prayer, join your voice with other Christians and pray this ancient hymn perhaps in the traditional form of John Cosin, (Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire). You can listen to it sung at St Paul’s Cathedral, here,  from time to time at Mass at St Chrysostom’s we use the less well known but also poetic version of John Dryden, (Creator Spirit by whose aid).

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Te Deum Laudamus! The past year

Giving thanks with Angels The Angels window in the Anson Chapel at St Chrysostoms

Giving thanks with Angels
The Angels window in the Anson Chapel
at St Chrysostoms

So often the news seems to be disturbing or even upsetting, this has been so true in 2020.  

It’s hardly surprising that some people wish this year to end. The blight of the Coronavirus has affected us all. However, let’s be careful in case we slip into being too negative. We’d not want to be people who find it difficult to see what is good and beautiful.

There has been good news, and among the awful times there have been positives too. This positive and encouraging website lists 99 reasons why one year was a good year in the world, in so many areas. It offers a positive perspective.

Why not try this personally? Can you list some positives of last year? We may not be able to reach 99 reasons but we will surprise ourselves by how many reasons we can find. It is a good and honoured Christian tradition to ‘count our blessings,’ many of them simple and everyday.

As the year ends it is ‘good to give thanks and praise.’ Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures for ever. (Psalm 107.1)

Saying ‘Thank You’ to God is at the heart of the Christian faith, and it’s at the heart of our worship. Another name for the Mass is Eucharist, a Greek word meaning thanksgiving.

One good tradition many Christians follow at the end of the year is to say or sing the ancient hymn Te Deum Laudamus (We Praise you, O God). It’s found in many prayer books of many Christian traditions.

“Te Deum laudamus! We praise you, O God! The Church suggests that we should not end the year without expressing our thanks to the Lord for all his benefits. It is in God that our last hour must come to a close, the last hour of time and history. To overlook this goal of our lives would be to fall into the void, to live without meaning. Hence the Church places on our lips the ancient hymn Te Deum. It is a hymn filled with the wisdom of many Christian generations, who feel the need to address on high their heart’s desires, knowing that all of us are in the Lord’s merciful hands.”  (Pope Benedict XVI)

Stanford BfSo as the year ends give thanks for blessings received, and why not say a Te Deum Laudamus?

Click here for an English version of Te Deum Laudamus from Common Worship, or if you prefer the traditional English language version click here.

Why not take a moment and pause to listen to it, for example in the glorious version sung at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 – Stanford in B Flat. (Sung by Winchester Cathedral Choir here). Or if you’d prefer a traditional plainsong version here it is sung by the Monks of Solesmes.

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Hark! The herald angels sing

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Hark! The herald angels sing is a beautiful and majestic carol usually sung to a traditional tune by Felix Mendelssohn, but, the words first appear in 1739, written by Charles Wesley and adapted by George Whitfield. Later there is further editing of the texts, and the addition of the familiar “Chorus” at the end of each stanza as we sing today.

The words echo verses from the New Testament – the Gospel of Luke, and also verses from the Epistles and references to Isaiah and Malachi. There is a mixture of surprise, of encouragement and of theology. We see all this in the first verse alone.

“Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”.

This continues in the next verses and one writer comments “That teaching surely produces in us a childlike response of faith; we too can sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!’” Over time the original texts were altered and some references to the “Fall of Adam” were removed.

The tune as we have it originates in 1855 from Mendelssohn, but earlier hymn books p

ut it to the tune which we associate with “Christ the Lord is risen today”, and, it also fits the tune to “Thine be the glory” by Handel. It is one of the most favoured carols today, and many will know it as the final carol of Carol Services.

The carol speaks to us today as it simply weaves thought and prayers around the Christmas story so easily. We may well find the exclusive language unhelpful but it is hard not to be inspired this Christmas – after the year that we have had – in the words

“Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth”

Let us all hope and pray for the “healing in His wings” as 2021 opens before us.

Fr Chris

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O Holy Night

O Holy Night is one of the best loved of all Christmas carols. The words and music combine to create a rousing and beautiful carol. It also has an interesting history.

The carol was originally written as a poem by French poet and writer, Placide Cappeau (1808-1877). In 1843 he was approached by his parish priest at Roquemaure, a town near Avignon in southern France, to write a poem to commemorate the restoration of the church organ. Cappeau accepted the request and published his finished work with the title ‘Minuit, chretiens’ which means ‘Midnight, christians’.  Soon afterwards Cappeau approached his friend and composer, Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-1856) to write music to accompany the poem. Adam was a prolific French composer of operas and ballets and music tutor to Delibes and other influential composers.

Adam called his finished tune ‘la Marseillaise religieuse’ or ‘The religious Marseillaise’, reflecting the republican and secular views of Cappeau. This may account for the rousing nature of the melody. The carol premiered at Roquemaure in 1847 in a performance by the opera singer, Emily Laurey.

It is interesting to consider that accounts of Cappeau report him as a somewhat irreligious man.  Although born and raised a Roman Catholic he is said to have been an atheist in later life. This led to the carol being banned for a time by the Church in France!

In 1855 John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian Minister in Boston, Massachusetts, translated ‘Minuit, chretiens’ into English. Dwight is said to have softened the tone of Cappeau’s original work, successfully substituting the lyrics in the refrain from “People, kneel down, await your deliverance. Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer” to “O night divine, the night when Christ was born.”

The English translation alongside Adam’s melody was an immediate success, particularly in the United States where the third verse which contains the words “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease” resonated greatly with abolitionists, including Dwight.

An archive recording of the carol, sung to the original French lyrics can be heard online via the Bibliothèque nationale de France website:

https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k13112821.r=Cantique%20de%20No%C3%ABl%20adolphe?rk=21459;2

Today, the popularity of O Holy Night remains strong. It has been sung by greats such as Andrea Bocelli and features in the annual Carols from Kings, Cambridge. It has also been voted the Nation’s Favourite Carol by listeners of Classic FM.

In a year when the world has witnessed so much pain and suffering the words of ‘O Holy Night’ can surely provide us with some comfort. In proclaiming the holy night on which Christ was born the following lines give us hope and joy:

“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”

Graham Naylor – Graham, an archivist in Plymouth, is a former worshipper at St C’s and is now a member of our ‘diaspora’ people who are part of us and take interest in our work and encourage us from afar.

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Cornered

The story of the massacre of innocent children by King Herod (recalled especially by christians on December 28th) is a significant reminder of the innocence of children, and the way children suffer and are abused – not only in history but in the world today.

Only recently we have learned of children being abducted or sold by human traffickers, and of the abuse children have suffered at the hands of wicked people.

The massacre of innocents described in St Matthew’s Gospel (2. 16-18) is, tragically, a timeless story.

In the face of such tragedy what can we do?

Here is a painting by the French art teacher and painter, Louis Cogniet (1794 -1880). Cogniet had over a hundred famous students. He himself mainly painted portraits and he painted few religious paintings. Nevertheless this painting The Massacre of the Innocents (1824) is one of his most famous. We see the massacre under Herod portrayed. The dark colours and the ruins in which the scene is set make this a tragic and solemn painting.

The woman is cornered, literally. She seems to have no means of escape. What is going on around her seems to much. She is extremely vulnerable – and her bare feet and appearance emphasise this.

The woman, who, had she not managed to escape could be Mary. Yet, this is a modern portrayal as well as a historic, religious one. Many women, many people, are ‘cornered’ today in highly stressful situations. They feel they can do nothing.

The woman holds on, in love, to her child. In her anguish she also has hope. In her corner she is showing love and protection.

In the face of such tragedy what can we do?

Taking time to look at the painting and reading the Bible story, in the light of our world today, leads us to prayer and leads us to work for peace and justice in our world. Kindness, generosity and goodwill to the ‘cornered’ in whatever way we can give it is a calling of the Christian and of all people of good will.

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