Monday, May 29, 2023

So Many Bones

Sarcophagi and burial plaques along the north transept
of York Minster
Bones. Bones. Bones.

Everywhere you turn there are plaques telling you there are bones. But you can’t help it when the heritage you are exploring extends over centuries and the core tenet of its culture calls for a belief that these dry bones will breathe again.

The tomb of St. William, patron saint of York in the 
crypt chapel

A place like York Minster, though points mostly to the bones of the rich and famous – lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses – or the well placed – bishops and deans, canons and benefactors of note. Their bones are everywhere to be seen – well not their bones actually, but certainly reference to them: “Here lie the mortal remains …” usually in Latin, sometimes in English. The one notable exception is reference not to the place of rest but a plea for memory for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of life and limb for their country. Chapels and memorials recall battles and wars, soldiers and their leaders and the ultimate sacrifice they made for “king and country” – more here than in any major church I have seen in this fair land.

The West Entrance of York Minster
Of course, York Minster is the second most important church in England. The seat of the Archbishop of York, it is the metropolitan capitol of the Church of England in the north of England, second in honor only to Canterbury, so it makes sense that it holds these calls to honor the memory of those dear to the country, especially those from this region of the nation.

Beyond that, there is just so much here it is hard to take it all in. It was here, in this northern fortress town, that Constantine received word that his father had died and was declared to be emperor of all Rome. Of course, there was no minster, since Christianity was still a persecuted religion, but it was Constantine in time that would sanction the Christian religion as a binding power for the empire. Much would happen. Christian missions. Norse invasions. Culture wars that dug deep. It all mixed together to create that unique blend of Christianity that we have come to know as Anglicanism. And it is on full display here in York.

The magnificent reredos from the Lady Chapel
behind the High Altar at York Minster
The north of England has always had a distinctly catholic flavor, so it tends toward Anglo-Catholic sensibilities. That is clear in the open appreciation of the Virgin Mother and other devotional practices clear at York Minster.

There was so much here, I could scarcely take it all in. There will be more on this blog about this magnificent place – pictures and even a video montage. It will, I am sure, remain a highlight of this pilgrim’s trek.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

God's Language on Pentecost Eve

The porter's gate to St. John's College
Low voices.

That was the posting for Evensong at St. John’s College on Saturday evening. My third time at St. John’s was again an experience of intense appreciation for the beauty of music as it enhances our prayer life. My time here in Cambridge has only strengthened my conviction that there is no better way to pray and to worship God than through the use of music – certainly with the sound of “lyre and harp,” namely through instruments made by human ingenuity, but more importantly through the use of that instrument made by God – the human voice.

The ”low voices” Evensong featured the men’s sections of the usual men and boys’ choir – no trebles in view. When high range was required, a counter tenor provided the pitch, but this was only seldom. The psalms were prayed with the restraint of the festal tones of Gregorian chant – plain, simple, exquisite. The anthem was solid, fulsome, strong. A perfect setting for the eve of Pentecost.

Last Tuesday I was again at King’s College. That evening, prayer was led by the “King’s Voices,” a choir of mixed voices of men and women – a rather modern innovation for King’s. But again, the varied timbre, the style of music employed, and the ambience that resulted all produced an experience of prayer and meditation that was thoughtful and filled with meaning as we together reflected on the nature of Christ’s post resurrection gifts of peace given to us through those first disciples. Interestingly, the second lesson was not taken from scripture but was a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail – poignant and revelatory as it tied together the words we so easily toss about as Christians – salvation, life, justice, love, and peace. They are all of one piece and they come together in the spirit of the Risen Lord.

And still, the noble music of these longstanding colleges is not the only expression of musical prayer freighted with such meaning. The modern praise music of Ridley Hall also touches the heart in unexpected ways, especially when wedded to the words of Samuel and Charles Wesley who through their poetic hymnody sought to warm the hearts of believers in an Anglican church that had grown overly rationalistic and even cold in its approach to the divine mysteries of God's love for the world.

At the same time, in the secular world, we heard news of the death of Tina Turner – a giant not only in the industry but among human beings. Someone who certainly was able to persist in what was clearly a “man’s world” even within a relationship filled with pain and abuse, Turner was able to use music to overcome pain and sorrow and to demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit. Music has this power in and outside of the Church. It can be and I often one of our most effective tools for proclaiming good news. Let’s not forget that. Let’s never think of it as expendable or as something nice but non-essential. It is the universal language of the human heart. It is for that reason, the language of God among men.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Gifts are everywhere to be found

You never know.

As I was walking past Great St. Mary’s on a sunny afternoon, the faint sounds of organ music wafted through the front doors. The doors are usually open beckoning tourists and passers-by alike in to visit the gift shop and take “tower tours” to see Cambridge from heights not available anywhere else open to the public in the city.

Something else pulled me in, however, as the music seemed more than the usual kind of noontime recital repertoire. What I discovered on entering was that it was “jury day” – the time when organ scholars from the university were sitting for what were essentially their term exams. It’s a time for them to demonstrate to their professors that they are worthy of the credentials they seek from this prestigious university. Here is but one of the pieces heard that noontime (secretly recorded - don't tell anyone).

It was a wonderful opportunity to experience the prodigious musical talent on display.
I have no way of evaluating the relative talent of the various scholars as they went through their paces, but it was an unexpected pleasure to be able to walk into this magnificent space and enjoy talent that most likely would only be otherwise available in a concert hall – or after long travel to a designated church or cathedral in a distant city. And here it was, right here. All one needed was to mindful of one's surrounding and paying attention to the gifts that are being given without our even knowing they are there. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023


Approaching All Saints Church on 
High Street, Cottenham
Wednesday’s journey was by bus to a village on the outskirts of Cambridge. My destination was just a bit beyond walking distance for a day trip and the city bus system will take you there – just barely – it’s where the line ends. Cottenham is one of the larger villages surrounding the city of Cambridge, located around five miles north of the city. My pilgrim destination there was All Saints Church, the largest landmark in the village of neatly arrayed English cottage homes interspersed with some larger houses of some pedigree. “Why?” you might ask, “did I go to Cottenham?” What is significant there?

That’s a simple point. All Saint’s Church is where my dear friend Robyn Szoke was wed to Philip Coolidge several years ago. The people of St. Luke’s are getting to know Robyn Szoke-Coolidge very well these days, since she is one of the priests that is taking services and providing advice to the wardens and vestry while I am on sabbatical. That fact alone made All Saints a “must see” during my time in Cambridge.

The journey gave me a glimpse into the simpler side of life around this sophisticated university town with all its cosmopolitan hustle and bustle – even more so than little Grantchester to the south. Because it is just a little further out and opposite the direction of London, its surroundings are a bit more rural (although urban encroachment is evident). Life in Cottenham is very different. I arrived just before noon and trekked my way to the church – about a mile from the bus stop. Nary a pub or coffee shop to be seen. What was there would not open until closer to supper time. This was a “stop by the house” for coffee town. There weren’t a lot of visitors like me walking the streets.

The "lounge" area in All Saints Church
Once at the church, the peaceful churchyard beckoned a time of quiet reflection in the noonday sun. The church was open (another sign beckoned a visit) and in what I have already observed is the style in these parts, the substantial parish church (larger than the one on Grantchester) used just about every square foot for some activity space from children’s play to a lounging area! There was of course the area for worship. No pews here – moveable chairs that provided, I am sure, for flexible use of space in the nave and a décor that reflected the many historical periods through which this worship space has endured.

Looking down the nave at All Saints Church
All Saints was probably founded sometime in the tenth century (late 900s) and fragments of the present structure date from the thirteenth. A storm destroyed all but the base of the original church steeple, but that was rebuilt between 1617 and 1619 – a relatively new part of the church! Elements of the interior décor date as late as the twentieth century giving clear evidence of a living parish community, not merely a relic of history.

Another interesting fact about this little village is that it is the home of John Coolidge, who was born in Cottenham, baptized at All Saints' Church in September 1604, and emigrated to the American colony of New England. Among his many notable American descendants is one J. Calvin Coolidge, former President of the United States. Of course, another relative, though I am not familiar with the exact degree of heritage, is Phil Coolidge, spouse to The Very Rev. Robyn Szoke-Coolidge mentioned above. So … now we have come full circle!

Pilgrimage is not always about the famous and the notable. It is often about roots and rootedness. In a similar way, I have the hope of ferreting out the place where a certain “Samuel Blanchard – Soldier in King Phillip’s War – June 24, 1676” might have originated before emigrating to the colonies. Indications are that this would have been near Goodworth Clatford, England. The degree of putative relation? 8th-great grandfather! Hardly a close relative – and the only clue to relation at all is work on and their DNA database. But that is a story for another time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

We, too, must persist

The main gate at Westminster College, Cambridge
In a recent blog entry (“In a Sea of Faces,” May 21, 2023), I mentioned Dr. Jonathan Soyars, a fellow Episcopal priest and member of the Society of Scholar Priests. He currently holds a position at Westminster College here in Cambridge and was kind enough to invite me to lunch at the College on Tuesday. Westminster College along with six other religious colleges (of which Ridley Hall is one) forms the “Cambridge Theological Federation” (CTF). These colleges are not part of the University of Cambridge but are affiliated with the university. They concentrate principally on teaching disciplines related to training clergy and, in this, are in some ways closer to the original conception of the main university colleges when they were founded centuries ago.

Lewis and Gibson
Founders of Westminster College
Westminster was founded in London in 1844 and only moved to Cambridge in 1899 following the gift of a prime site of land near the center of the city by two Scottish sisters, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson. Although Lewis and Gibson were exceptional biblical scholars in their own right, they were never fully accepted by the Cambridge establishment. Two things stood in their way – they were not Anglicans, and they were not male. Nonetheless, to use a contemporary phrase, “they persisted.” Following an appeal for funds from the wider Presbyterian Church, the college commissioned a new building designed by Henry Hare, which was built between 1897 and 1899. In 1967 the college began to amalgamate with Cheshunt College, Cambridge, foreshadowing the eventual combination of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches that would form the United Reformed Church (URC) in 1972.

In our conversations, Jonathan noted how the situation at Oxford University differed – how colleges like Westminster became part of the university structure. Interestingly, he pointed out that those same colleges have pretty much disappeared. It seems that what might appear to us today as elitism and an attitude of exclusiveness, in the end, proved to be the motivation for the colleges of the CTF to maintain the independence of their respective missions – and their path toward continued survival. However, we also discussed how these same colleges are struggling, as are the seminaries of The Episcopal Church in the US. Just how we all respond to these challenges is part of what I have been reflecting upon during my sabbatical, and our discussions on Tuesday gave us both food for thought – and a motive to look for a time to “share a few pints” in the coming days!

The lesson for us in all this may be that God blesses us with resources for the day (not a literal day, perhaps). But when that day is complete, we are called to move on, to new horizons, to new destinations within God’s kingdom. Scripture tells us plainly, “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8) Our task is not to change God’s mind about that. Our ask is to discern just where God will lead us … and then to follow. Like the sisters who founded this college, we, too, must persist.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Still Walking with Me?

I arrived at Ridley Hall four weeks ago. I know it sounds hackneyed, but I’ll say it anyway. In some ways, it seems it was just yesterday. It is hard to believe that nearly a month has passed since I arrived bleary eyed and exhausted after a grueling twenty-something hour journey. I’ve more than made up my rest, to be sure. I’ve acquired some good habits, too. I am to bed at a decent hour – sometimes it is still light out, sort of. (It gets darker later here since we are at a higher latitude.) I walk – a lot – 10,000 steps no longer seem like an unreachable goal. In fact, I surpass it quite frequently these days. I read. And read. And read. (Did I tell you I love to read?) And, yes, I pray, too.

Something happened this morning that hasn’t happened in a great number of years. It was 4:35 a.m. I was suddenly wide awake and needed to get up, boot the computer and start typing. I had an idea – a creative thought. That kind of thing hadn’t happened to me since I was writing my doctoral dissertation over twenty years ago. Reading it this afternoon, it probably wasn’t as profound as I thought it was at that hour of the morning. But it did give me joy that creativity was still possible, that I wasn’t merely a hack stitching together strings of other people’s thoughts, that I could have thoughts of my own. Even if they were not going to change the course of time, they were still my thoughts – God’s gifts - something for which I am grateful.

It has been a great gift being here in Cambridge these several weeks. There was a time in my life when I really desired a career in the academy. However, it was not to be for reasons I will not describe here. And now, that opportunity is well past. But the taste of it that this time has afforded will be fondly remembered. And the best part? It isn’t over yet. There is still more to come. Stay tuned. I only hope I don’t’ need to be up at 4:30 too often to have more profound insights!

Sunday, May 21, 2023

In A Sea of Faces

Sunday was a most interesting day. As usual, I awakened and prepared myself for the walk to St. Bene’t’s for the 10 AM Eucharist. I was running just a few minutes behind my usual schedule having gotten distracted by an unusual email in my inbox. But no matter, I got there in plenty of time to collect myself and prepare for worship. It was nothing out of the ordinary and was everything I have come to expect from this lovely little parish in the heart of Cambridge – until communion. I had gone up to receive, as usual. I returned to my place, as usual. I knelt in meditation, listening to the anthem, again as usual. And then I looked up and to my left coming down the aisle, I saw someone I swore looked just like someone I knew from the US.

Jonathan Soyars at the Annual Meeting
of the Society of Scholar Priests in Toronto - 2016
I looked again. It was uncanny, but no, it couldn’t be. I went back to my meditation. The liturgy finished as usual and as we were dismissed. The postlude concluded. I turned to my right and at the very rear of the church there he was. He was chatting with someone, but as he looked up, he smiled and waved as he continued chatting. Clearly he recognized me, too. In the end, it was indeed someone I know. It was a colleague from the Society of Scholar Priests of which I have been a member since its beginning. It was Jonathan Soyars.

At the time I met him in SSP, he was just finishing his doctoral work at the University of Chicago. In the present encounter he has now been a tutor at Westminster College, part of the same theological federation as Ridley Hall, for four years! He introduced his two young sons, the elder of which certainly trades on his father's same sardonic wit. As he introduced me, Jonathan said, "He is a priest, too, like me" to which the young lad answered, "You're a priest?" We traded contact information and will no doubt spend some time trading stories over the next couple of weeks over coffee and maybe a “few pints” more than likely sans the comic commentary.
You’ve heard me speak of St. Botolph’s before. It’s the parish church at the south end of Corpus Christi College. Later in the day, I attended a concert of the Cambridge Chamber Academy featuring three young artists playing the music of Benjamin Dale, Ernest Bloch, and Johannes Brahms. The pieces by Dale and Bloch featured piano and viola, an unusual program since the viola usually gets to play “second fiddle” (pun intended) to the glitzier, usually dominant violin. The Brahms piece was equally unusual because it was composed as a trio for piano, violin and Waldhorn. The problem is that a Waldhorn has no valves and so can sound only sixteen natural notes. It is also much quieter than its valved cousin, the French horn, with which we are more familiar. People complained to Brahms, so he rescored the piece to have the viola take the place of the Waldhorn. This was the piece we heard.

The concert itself was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But there was something more. In the front pew was a family. Grandma, mom, dad, two boys and a girl. The oldest of the three children could not have been more than eight. What struck me was the rapt attention that the two older children paid to the performers as they gifted us with their music. The youngest, a boy, got a little fussy, after a bit, but the elder ones were amazing. I have never seen children of that age so engaged by anything for a full ninety minutes. It was a sheer joy to behold. I only wish I could have photographed it to share with you.

So today was filled with little things. In a sea of faces, I found one I recognized from years ago. In another smaller sea, I found little faces filled with awe that inspired me. These are the little joys that make the days worthwhile. These are the blessings God gives to us each and every day, if only we take the time to notice.

So Many Bones

Sarcophagi and burial plaques along the north transept of York Minster   Bones. Bones. Bones. Everywhere you turn there are plaques telling ...