Monday, 14 March 2022

10. Oxford: Magdalen College Choral Evensong and St Aldate's 10am Service: March 2022


Last weekend we visited Oxford on two sunny spring days.  Saturday was the last day of Hilary Term, students returning on 24th April for Trinity, so, perhaps, there was something of a ‘demob’ happy atmosphere in the streets!

On Saturday evening, at 6.00pm, we attended Choral Evensong at Magdalen College.  The chapel, both inner and anti-chapel, was packed and we were fortunate to sit alongside the choir in this utterly beautiful, candlelit setting.  Throughout the fifty or so minutes we were able to follow the service in a clearly presented booklet that contained both the ancient words and rubric instructions telling us when to sit or stand.

Of course the language was quite specifically ancient, almost five hundred years old.  This liturgy was put together during Cranmer’s time, an Archbishop of Canterbury who wanted the nation to pray in English and hear the bible read extensively in ordinary services.  What may sound archaic to us today was revolutionary in the 1540’s!  What is still so wonderfully apparent is the sheer amount of scripture in Evensong, with both the singing of a psalm and readings from both Old and New Testaments.

On Saturday we heard the choirs of Magdalen College and the Consort of Voices, that is a collection of girls from other colleges. This meant there were no less than 36 in the combined choir and what a clear and strong lead they gave.  Youthful voices have a very specific and inspirational beauty about them.

Maybe the packed nature of the service had something to do with it being the final occasion of term, along with the last outing of the old organ, due to be replaced by a brand-new instrument over the next few weeks and months.  Yet, it was clear that for many worshippers that evening this was a deeply moving service into which they entered with immense sincerity.

It was odd to learn that no services will be held in the chapel until Maundy Thursday.

Maybe for me the most uplifting moment came in the final hymn we sang together: Abide with me. As a packed chapel combined with a large choir the music simply soared, especially in the final verse with a stunning descant.  I felt my voice break with a certain unforced emotion, glad to share such a truly beautiful moment in a glorious setting surrounded by so many young people.

On Sunday morning we attended one of four services being held that day at St Aldates, opposite Christ Church College.  This is a flagship Evangelical Anglican church.  Today in England 40% of Anglican worshipers would describe themselves as ‘evangelical’ along with 70% of current ordinands.

We could not have wished for a warmer and more sincere welcome from everyone.  I suppose we knew exactly what to expect because St Aldate’s website is so informative and its weekly webcasting so professional.

After a brief welcome by the young rector, before we went ‘live’, we stood for some twenty-five minutes of worship led by the band.  These six singers and musicians filled the chancel area and were heavily amplified.  I knew just one of the songs and enjoyed their musical leadership of it.  It was interesting to observe that probably half the congregation joined in enthusiastically, some using all the body, whilst about half simply stood without singing.  In truth the amplification was such that the contribution of the congregation hardly registered any extra decibels anyway.  I was left pondering what is to me a new phenomenon, that some (and these were younger people) are happy to be led in song rather than sing themselves.

It was lovely to see so many children present.  We were told by our neighbours that students usually attended the evening services, so the 10am was very much for young families.  The children and early teenagers left after about ten minutes and there must have been way over 100 of them going to their own dedicated time.  How wonderful to see such a ministry flourish in a city centre.

Indeed the service was, basically, attended by ‘first half of life’ adults.  Anyone over fifty was in the minority – and that, surely is the inverse of what we find in most churches.

There was, at various points in the service, quite an emphasis on giving, especially as the previous week was the church’s Gift Day.  With 38 full time members of staff and a budget of £1.6m this is a church that needs a very committed congregation.

The sermon, on the theme of praying in a time of war, was beautifully and thoughtfully delivered by St Aldate’s Pastor for Theology.  It was brilliantly crafted, and although it rather left the question (perhaps understandably) unanswered as to what happens if prayer doesn’t stop a war, it was clear that in those 25 minutes many helpful and insightful truths were shared with a congregation eager to listen and learn.

There was around 400 of us at the 10am service and there were three other services that day.  Later, on Sunday, I glanced at the webcast and saw that over 700 had tuned in.  St Aldate’s ministry is clearly a great blessing to thousands of people, many of whom are young and at the start of their faith journey.  It is a church with a real sense of love for Jesus Christ at its centre and a deep desire to serve the city of Oxford. 

So, what do I conclude from our forty-eight hours amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford?  Well, in a sense Magdalen had the aura of Canterbury about it, whilst St Aldate’s was probably more Glastonbury.  The amazing thing is that both churches, so diverse from the other, belong to the same denomination: The Church of England.  And therein probably lies a great strength, that such diversity can be accommodated and used so positively to reach out to different types of people.  Yet, at the heart of both expressions this weekend I felt a deep sincerity, based in a desire to honour God, that I found inspirational.  I also discovered that 20-year-olds (all be it not the same ones) can and do enjoy both Cranmer and Stuart Townend!

Thursday, 3 March 2022

9. Greyfriars Church of Scotland, Edinburgh: February 2022


During our February half-term break in Edinburgh I attended the 11am Sunday service at Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town; a church made famous by its association with Greyfriars Bobby, the tale of the dog who refused to leave his master’s grave in the kirkyard.

Scotland, at least on February 20th, still had the Track and Trace policy regularly in force, so I duly gave my details to the very welcoming young man at the church’s reception.

Greyfriars was the first church to be built in Edinburgh after the Reformation.  Therefore, unlike St Giles Cathedral just a stone’s throw away, it has never had a previous life as a Roman Catholic church.  Today it is beautifully maintained and has, in recent years, been ‘re-ordered’ with the installation of a circular Communion Table, behind which the grey robed choir sit, and to the other side the congregation is seated.

Nothing much happened before 11am, but as the hour chimed so the bible was brought in and placed in the pulpit, followed by the entrance of the minister as the organist played the opening voluntary on the splendid new instrument installed in the gallery.

Being a Church of Scotland service, we began with a Welcome and Call to Worship.  In truth, I was entirely at home as the liturgy was basically the same we use at AFC.  It reminded me of just how much Amersham Free Church reflects the worship traditions of The Church of Scotland.

Greyfriars has a very well maintained and informative website, so I had ‘seen’ the service many times before.  I’ve also had the delight of listening to its minister, The Revd Dr Richard Frazer on both the Sunday and Daily Services on BBC Radio 4.

The welcome I received was very friendly and the hymns were carefully chosen (although I was surprised by the lack of volume coming from the congregation, who seemed to rely heavily on the choir leading the worship).

For me, I confess, the most inspirational part came in the sermon.  The minister’s style was gentle yet authoritative, he took his theme from scripture and worked hard at applying it to life.  He preached a brave sermon, full of integrity, warmth, balance, and insight.  Richard Frazer is a gifted preacher, and it was a real privilege to hear him.

Greyfriars was far from full that morning.  Indeed, I attended this service having just come from an earlier one at St Gile’s Cathedral that was equally empty.  Maybe Edinburgh just has far too many churches for the dwindling numbers attending.

On Sunday morning, at Greyfriars, I attended a service where every word, in both liturgy and sermon, had been thought through with such meticulous attention and care.  The city is blessed to have such a fine church and such an inspirational minister.  Indeed, if it were my city and home, I would be in my seat every Sunday at Greyfriars at 11am, thankful to God for such a community of faith.

14. St James', Piccadilly, London: 19th June 2022

 It’s a weird sensation to be in central London having an al fresco coffee on a Sunday morning because there is hardly anyone about!  Well...