Lent Thoughts – Architecture

I love church buildings. It has become a bit of a hobby – trailing round churches when I’m on holiday and visiting somewhere new, or gazing up or around at new and familiar buildings. And if you haven’t read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett then please do now. It will transform how you view cathedrals in the future.

My Lent reading today was from Michael Mayne’s Lent book Pray, Love, Remember which is his personal account of this time as Dean of Westminster. The building itself features heavily as inspiration, as an invocation of stories and memories and memorials. And that made me think of buildings in which I have worshipped and become familiar with throughout my ministry.

angel laddersMy home church of St Michael & All Saints is a beautiful wee church where the stones just reek of incense and a million prayers. It is the church where I first learned about God and heard the stories, and steeped myself in high-church liturgy. I have my favourite pews, and a host of colourful images to contemplate if I need to think on higher things. It is a church of the senses and if I think carefully now I can see the light coming in that window and creating ‘angel ladders’ down to the sanctuary floor where the smoke of the incense can be seen swirling and moving like the Holy Spirit.

Then there is St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth where I was ordained and did my curacy. St Ninians cathedral interiorStanding at the altar underneath the most grand baldacchino and the people in the pews far off in the distance, was a terrifying prospect at first. Daily Prayer in the Lady Chapel with beautiful stained glass of the Annunciation where I said my prayers just before Ordination. It was the first cathedral built in Scotland after the Reformation and I remember it being absolutely transformed at Easter with flowers galore, and smell the damp greenery now if I try.

2005-02-04 15.35.06From there I went to be Priest in Charge of two little churches but both with a delightful character. St Peter’s in Linlithgow is one of the smallest churches anywhere but is made to the grandest design with dome and pillars and about 50 seats all crammed in among them. They used to say you came in the door and almost tripped over the altar, it is so small. I loved the shape and proportions and the fact that everybody had to sit next to someone because there were no spare seats. It was painted hideous colours when I first went there but was re-done in my time in delightful shades of lilac and white. (This has since been remedied! but I loved it.) It was only 75 years old but looked much older and was terribly cramped that everything had to be curtailed to fit the space, including celebrating mass. And then there was St Columba’s in Bathgate, a warm church with (glory of glories) loads of toilets. Oh how I loved that church and its toilets. It was beautifully looked after with lots of polished pine and comfy ch2005-02-04 15.30.24airs, and a little meeting room adjacent which was well used. When the pews were removed someone at Falkirk made a font out of the old wood so the past became part of the present. It was a family church with many generations of the same family in attendance, and each was proud of that little building and its beautifully kept gardens.

StmarksunThen I moved to St Mark’s Portobello which was a strange church architecturally. Strange because from the outside it looked like a large Georgian house with a carriage driveway and the story was that it had been built like that in case it didn’t last as a church and could be transformed into a house. As a result it was wider than it was long, which made for a very different feel. The sanctuary was a beautiful big space so I could stretch out my hands orans as much as I liked. There was some nice stained glass, including the rather racy David and Jonathan. And it was there that I learned, after I had my cataracts removed, that the rather dirty grey glass above the altar was in fact shades of lovely lilac! Downstairs there is a crypt chapel which was used for mid-week services and was a lovely intimate space with a very prayerful feeling. But the church itself could be transformed into so many different worship spaces because of its size. Outside in the garden in front of the church stood a tall wooden cross with a bench in front of it which looked down to the sea, and a graveyard surrounding the building. At Easter the cross was covered in daffodils. I once had a dream that we planted daffodil bulbs in the grass in front of the cross which would appear at Easter like a shadow of the wooden cross. I told my secret dream to one of the Junior Church leaders and they planted the bulbs but we told no-one. The next year shoots appeared and what popped up? Not daffodils at first, they came later, but a host of purple crocuses which made me cry.

20131229_085724Christ Church Falkirk was different again, designed by the same architect as my home church, it felt almost familiar in a way. It was a dark church, with wooden paneling all the way round and some lovely stained glass. My favourite window was the one opposite my chair with the Blessed Virgin Mary stamping on a snake with stars round her head. There was a rood screen and a wonderful sense of moving up into a holy place when you came to the altar. All of this could be transformed with candles all around the wood panelling and fairy lights on the rood screen at Festival times and it always took my breath away. Below the church was another crypt chapel which was in a great state of disrepair so we renovated it, painted it white, acquired an altar and chairs from a church which had just closed down, and it became a lovely intimate place for worship and prayer.

And now we come to St Fillan’s. Home for me for the past 21/2 years and more to come. It StFillans' gate openis not Westminster Abbey by any means. It is a small simple church, white outside, and like a community hall inside. And it is used by the community all week from morning to evening by every group imaginable. Because of this it is not in an immaculate state of decoration. It has some wooden panelling scuffed by footballs and plastic chairs knocking against it, with primrose walls and a sort of brown colour behind the altar. There are heavy tapestry curtains which screen off the altar space during the week, and at the west end of church to keep the draughts out. Four simple walls, no lovely statues or pricket stands or stained glass for they would all be damaged during the week. The chairs are old grey plastic bucket seats which are light for stacking and that’s important but they are cold and uncomfortable. There are some comfy ones with padding for the elderly and infirm and they are much sought after. One lovely tapestry is brought out on Sundays, but is taken down and hidden away after the service, as is everything else behind the curtains. It doesn’t often feel like a sacred space to me.

Yesterday we had a guest preacher who had once been the rector here at St Fillan’s many years ago. As he preached I was listening and looking around the church. That’s when I realised this church is not about the beautiful building but about the beautiful people. I rearranged the chairs during Lent so that we are facing one another instead of the backs of heads. I brought a wee table in to use as a nave altar so we could be closer to the ‘action’ at the Eucharist. It is not a gorgeous table, not a beautifully carved altar, but it allows us to be close to seeing the bread and wine – the most important things. The building really belongs to the community, to the groups who use it, the children who play and learn in it. And all of the people who come on Sundays have in the past been part of those groups, have led them, have taken their children to them. Children now grown up and far away around the world. But the people who come to St Fillan’s belong not just to this church, but to one another. They are close to each other because they’ve come for such a long time, some since the building was first put up. It is in the people that I encounter God, not in the architecture. Of course, this is true in every church I’ve worshipped in, but even more so here because there is no other gorgeous architectural feature to distract. 

So this Lent I am giving thanks for the beautiful architecture which points to God, but also for the people of God. Both can inspire and bring me closer to God. Pay attention to what is around you and pay heed to where God is.

Bishop Kevin Pearson – and how we get there

The journey north and west to Oban was not for the faint-hearted. It rained, it sleeted, it snowed and it blew a gale. On arrival it was straight to the cathedral for a rehearsal, for yes, dear reader I was to be the Bishop’s Chaplain. What is a Bishop’s Chaplain? I hear you cry. Good question. I’m not entirely sure myself but I took upon myself the role of mothering: hovering; affirming; stroking; cuddling; smiling (and telling him to smile); reassuring; handing hats and sticks at appropriate places; and making sure he looked respectable at all times. (I didn’t have to check his fingernails or behind his ears for that had already been done.)

Now, on to the Cathedral of St John the Divine.  Dear friends in Edinburgh, I think we have a contender for the ‘coldest Cathedral in Christendom’. And they’d had the heating on night and day, I was told. Brr. The rehearsal was fun – even when it wasn’t meant to be. Bishop Mark makes a very good MC. I scribbled my notes – hide behind lozenge, move to Primus’ seat and sit there looking gorgeous, etc – and then off we departed with prayers ascending for the Bishop Elect.

We stayed at the Columba Hotel which was close to the cathedral. (Perhaps not the wisest choice but let’s not get into that.) Dinner that night was at EE-USK at the harbour so we didn’t have to walk far in the Force 10 gales. Wonderful seafood restaurant with real sea water from the harbour battering the windows which added to the ambience. (Not good for smoking outside though. You have to be dedicated to your art to do that.) Can’t recommend this restaurant highly enough. Back to the hotel to have the gales battering my corner windows-with-a-view all night long.

In the morning I had to have a quick jaunt along the high street to purchase a pair of jim-jams, having forgotten mine and my room was as cold as the cathedral. Managed to squeeze in a nice coffee and scone to keep the sugar levels up until the next bun-fight.

Then we gathered in the cathedral and I was told to robe with the College of Bishops in a rather cosy Sacristy. It was a case of ‘get the robes on and get out’. I was given a rather fetching dalmatic to wear which I don’t think made me look like ‘woman in a tabard’ as some do. And you had to fight to get a look in at a mirror so I kept my windswept and interesting hair-do (and was told umpteen times it wasn’t purple enough). Then there was a rather long wait until events began so I had a wee pray for Fr Kevin in the Lady Chapel.

The Consecration itself was gorgeous. Quite solemn, but maybe one shouldn’t have a lot of laughs at these kind of events. By the time Fr Kevin prostrated himself on the floor I was awash behind a pillar. Tears flowing for my wee poppet looking so vulnerable. Then I was nearly squished by a flock of bishops coming out to lay hands upon him, but he emerged unscathed so that was fine. (More tears.) Then he was vested with a rather beautiful pale amethyst ring, with matching stylish pectoral cross, gold mitre, and chasuble with woolly bits. (Don’t ask.)  By this point I was so proud I could have burst.

Nobody fell up or down the Iona marble steps so that was good news. The bread and wine ran out several times at communion and I was commandeering by the lovely Mother Kirstin (Gospel reader) into being a runner keeping up supplies. And soon it was all over – someone said it had taken over 2 hours. On the way out in procession, Bishop Kevin stopped to present a bouquet of red roses to his wife Elspeth and his sister and sister-in-law. (More tears.)  After a long photo call I did manage to find a quiet space for Bishop Kevin’s first blessing. It was very special to kneel in the Lady Chapel with his hands on my head and it made me remember the first time I was asked by someone for a blessing – yes, Fr Kevin my parish priest was the first to kneel before me almost 10 years ago.

The bunfight followed at the Argyllshire Gathering Halls and there were a few speeches. By this time Bishop Kevin had changed into his gorgeous purple cassock with cincture. (These are the details you wanted, yes?) More bouquets. More blethering with colleagues and catching up on gossip.

Then back to the hotel for a wee snooze before we set off once more for the Argyllshire Gathering Halls for the Supper Dance. The Bishop of Lund asked me what this was as she had never heard of it before. I told her – you drink, you eat supper and you dance. She said she didn’t know Scottish dancing but I assured her she would quickly learn – and she did indeed learn when a certain Provost whirled her round the floor for the Gay Gordons. Although I do think Auld Lang Syne completely flummoxed her.  (Oh, and by the way, Bishop Kevin was now wearing a rather fetching purple bibstock and a white plastic skull ring which his nephew had given him.)    A few glasses of wine gave me the courage to ask Bishop Antje for a blessing which she kindly did. Two blessings in a day! Wow.

The evening finished with a wee dram back in the Columba before we hung up our soaking wet clothes and gave thanks that the wind had died down sufficiently for sleep.

Saturday involved a quick shop in the Rogersons Sale before we headed back to the cathedral for Bishop Kevin’s first Mass with the choir and servers of St Michael & All Saints. This time someone had forgotten to switch off the smoke alarm so after a quick swish of the thurible, and during the first reading, the sirens went off. And again. And again. Until all we were left with was a continuous beep. But it did not marr a wonderful service and although I should have been Bishop’s Chaplain again, but didn’t know and was too late, it was lovely to be in the pews.

A drive home with snow and all the rest and a sob that we are leaving him behind. Glorious for Argyll and The Isles – sad for our own Diocese of Edinburgh.

Musings on the Synod

Last night we all wrapped up warm and headed to Embra for the Diocesan Synod. Numbers are usually down for this October one because it usually deals with budgets and money things which I understand is not everybody’s cup of lapsang souchong.  However, of late, whoever is responsible for organising these things has tried to jazz things up a bit.

We begin with worship in the cathedral (the coldest cathedral in Christendom, I believe).  After all, I believe they have good heating systems in Helsinki. For some reason we don’t use the nave altar but the high one, which is lovely and all that, but it means that half the folk get to sit up beside the choir stalls, then there is the choir and then miles away are the remnant. Most bizarre. And now I have to take back all I have said about the same old hymns being trotted out each time. For yes, we had one modern-ish hymn (Brother, Sister let me serve you) offset by a mass setting by Victoria. Lovely though.

Then it is a quick race to Starbucks for a decent decaff and a fag outside and blether to all latecomers.  Then into cosy (yes some churches put their heating on) Palmerston Place church to find out which group we are in.  (This is the jazzing up bit.) Being put into groups does two things. It stops old friends sitting in the same old place and creating ‘naughty corners’ and it means that we meet new people who we might not have had a chance to talk to before.

The finance bit was actually entertaining thanks to our new gorgeous Diocesan Treasurer, the lovely Rachel.  (A party girl, we were told, and not just a boring accountant – and I can vouch for that!) Then Morag and others gave us an amusing presentation on Messy Church. She told us that everywhere she goes people ask her how to get children into church. Her first powerpoint slide suggested ‘Procreation’ but, as she said, looking at the age profile of Synod that might be a bit ambitious. An understatement, I’d say.

Bishop Brian gave us a talk about God and Synod, I think. With powerpoint too. (I was having a bit of trouble with my Blackberry at this point so may have missed some of the finer details.) Perhaps there was something about early church synods discussing the nature of God so we did, in our groups. Our facilitator wrote up our comments and they will be collated later.

This was Fr Kevin’s last Synod in Edinburgh before he takes up his post as Bishop of Argyll & The Isles so we said farewell to him and watched his face as he was presented with a creature made out of empty water bottles (think Messy Church). Every bishop’s palace should have one.

So all in all I think it was a good Synod. Even worth travelling into Embra at rush hour for.

Songs of Praise

As I watched Songs of Praise from our own cathedral on Sunday a couple of things occurred to me.

How come I have never heard them sing anything modern before?  Did Tern TV make them do it?

And as it is officially (and finally!) Christmas we can actually sing some Christmas carols now. Did we get any? No, not one.

I also admit to being a little surprised and delighted that the Church of Scotland is now going in for candles on the altar. Gorgeous.

Festal Evensong rant

OK, so you’ve got a bunch of Anglican Bishops and spouses from the far corners of the earth to entertain for a weekend before they head off to Lambeth. What would you do with them? How would you welcome them?  Send them out to parishes seems like a good idea and I heartily agree. Let them get a taste of how we operate here in the Edinburgh Diocese, and give them a flavour of good Scottish hospitality and good Scottish liturgy. And I believe that they all preached in the places they were sent which is jolly nice too. No problems there then.

Then it seems like a good idea to have a Festal Evensong in the Mother Church of the Diocese to send them off filled with the best liturgy and music that Scotland can offer. Good idea, right?  Was that what happened tonight? Was it heck.

First there was the liturgy – that would be the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book evening prayer. (“But we always use that in the Cathedral”) Yes, that’ll show them Scottish Liturgy at its best. The setting of course was Dyson in D – that well known English composer of the early part of the 20th century. The Introit was Stanford’s ‘O for a closer walk’ – Stanford being Irish but brought up in England at the end of the 19th century. The Anthem was Ireland’s ‘Greater love hath no man [sic] than this’ – Ireland being English naturally, and again from the first half of the 20th century. The final hymn was one of my favourites, Thy hand, O God, has guided, but in the original version which mentions ‘fathers’, ‘men’ and ‘man’ several times. Well we must keep the women feeling included and welcome after all. And then, at last we have something modern – Rutter’s Irish Blessing to see them off which was beautiful but not exactly Scottish, followed by the Voluntary by Herbert Brewer and yes, you guessed it, he’s English and long since dead.

So, basically, they have seen the English Church at prayer. The Cantor was English, prayers were by the Provost, readings by the retired Bishop of Jarrow and an English woman. The choir were made up from ‘Choirs of the Diocese’ (ours wasn’t invited, btw!) and not robed, but they did sing well. In fact, it was all beautifully done but just not Scottish or very inclusive or particularly welcoming to the Bishops who only got mentioned in small print on the front of the pew booklet as ‘attended by Lambeth Delegates’.

Grr. Where’s a Suggestion Box when you need one?

Chrism Mass

At the cathedral this morning for the Chrism Mass and compare bags under eyes and horror stories of Holy Week catastrophes with other clergy. My numbers at Compline though stood me in good stead and I was able to hold my head high as we processed in to our seats. I had presuaded some of my lay ministry team and other Thursday morning-ers to come to this service and they did and happened to be sitting in the row behind me which was nice.

As the service began I thought to myself that it all seemed very familiar. On looking back at a service sheet from 3 years ago I see that yes, indeed, we did sing those exact same hymns. And I still don’t know why Alleluia sing to Jesus is in amongst them. The choir sang Britten’s Missa Brevis which if I’m not mistaken was last year’s offering too. But it was Leighton in 2003. Oh for a little F’n Darke or Mozart.

However, there was one big change this year. Deacons were used in their proper places. Yippee! A deacon read the gospel and many did the chalices, and brought the oils forward. So it seems that my comments last year did not fall on deaf ears.

Then after lunch it was a mad dash across town and into church to create a little Garden of Repose. Not quite how I wanted it but I just didn’t have all the stuff I needed to get different levels. Now I pray that its still in place when we get back tonight and that it all gets lit and doesn’t burst into flames.

We’re in for a long haul over the next few days. But what fun – misery.