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.
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.
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.
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!