Rochester Cathedral: a window onto eternity
Rochester Cathedral: a window onto eternity
O world invisible, we view thee
These words are the opening line of Francis Thompson’s poem In no strange land – a remarkable work written when Thompson was a homeless opium addict and written on any scrap of paper that he could find. There on the streets of London, the poet could see the hand of God all around him and the glory of his presence. Later on in the poem it runs:
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many–splendoured thing.
135 years after the poem was written we are estranged from the many–splendoured thing of God as much as ever. As the Canon Precentor at Rochester I am keenly aware that the language of faith is no longer taught effectively either in families or at school today and consequently much of our worship and even the cathedral building itself is remote and ‘estranged’ from many people’s experiences. Even those more familiar with the Christian story are easily overwhelmed by our contemporary consumerist attitudes in society and read and receive Rochester Cathedral as ‘just another heritage site’.
When you step over the threshold of the cathedral by any of its doors you enter a place infused with God. In our twentieth first century world we encounter a space unlike anything we build commercially or institutionally today. The diffusion of light on stone and wood is unique and forms a special experience. How different this is from the brooding castle opposite or the bustling High Street next door.
In one sense the building has a life and identity of its own: as you step off the pavement at the Great West Doors you descend onto the floor of the Nave but at the same time are embraced by a vista of pillars and arches leading the eye to the Pulpitum steps, platform and screen and through into the Quire and the distant sanctuary of the High Altar. This was our mediaeval forebears’ way of expressing the journey through this life from birth (and baptism) to heaven. Form and function, aesthetics and style, are conceived and executed with a different perspective and for an end in which we are the fleeting subject and not the ultimate object. Meaning and theology are built into the stones themselves as everything in this place has God as its focus and priority. This is a place where the future is as real as the past and the present.
Holy space is utterly alien to our consumer–fuelled materialist anthropocentric society. This building is about God first and foremost and then us – and it involves a re–orientation of our values and the way that we see. So our cathedral is so much more than a heritage museum site, a visitor attraction or even ‘a place of worship’. It is holy space where light and space are contained by stone and wood and glass – and where even time itself is changed in worship from linear time into significant time where the past, the present and the future are apprehended in looking beyond our natural horizons and below the surface of the familiar material world.
The building itself has inherent meaning and articulates the apprehension and practice of faith and hints of life and reality beyond our own language, thought systems and being. The original builders created a cruciform church whose shape is more sacramental than symbolic and where the axis of each part of the cathedral involves the vertical as well as the horizontal. This is revolutionary and challenging to the ways that ordinarily form our human spaces and routines. Holy space is transformational.
Cathedrals and greater churches in our land are currently being asked to draw up a ‘liturgical plan’ in which these issues are thought about, and expressed in a sense of order and vision for each place of worship. The Liturgy and Music Department of the cathedral consists of an extraordinary team of talented and visionary people who through dedication and imagination release a living offering within and through the building. These acts of worship express what the building is through human expression and unite and synthesise our experience of the world as an offering to God who is over and beyond us as well as within and amongst us. So our cathedral is a window onto reality, onto eternity itself. We are defined by statute as “the seat of the bishop and a centre for mission and worship” but there is more beyond these words which I would like to express in three different ways.
The cathedral as theatre
Yes, the building is a stage – where the liturgy, the church’s worship, comes to life in public services. However, there is no audience for everyone in the liturgy is a player and a vital part of God’s drama. It is difficult to realise this experience for everyone, for some really do just wish to be spectators and maintain neutrality and distance. In Passiontide and Holy Week for the past six years the cathedral’s nave has been reconfigured with the square mensa altar in the centre and the seating arranged to form a pathway for Jesus Christ to walk in our midst: we sit facing each other as God’s people, the assembly. God’s drama is played out in the liturgy and involves us as players and disciples in his saving acts.
At other times the ‘stage’ and ‘theatre’ of worship may be less obvious but nevertheless the same involvement obtains and whether we sit and listen or stand and sing and recite we are taken from our individual situations into the drama of God’s action and made one people in God. Music and movement in ritual changes perceptions and values, and enables people to experience the presence and power of God; we are literally transported, taken out of ourselves, into a greater dimension. To enable this, worship employs all of our senses in some way to complement the cerebral and intellectual bombardment of text alone! The Church’s year is punctuated by the seasons of God’s life in Jesus Christ and there is a familiarity and continuity formed by these rhythms of daily prayer, offering and celebration. At the same time God is doing something new for each age and the Church needs to experiment and welcome innovation in order to be a renewed and vital people speaking to those for whom the Christian inheritance is strange and inaccessible.
When I first saw Rochester Cathedral I was perplexed by its divisions and enclosures – the Pulpitum dividing the Nave and the Quire, the four transepts, the Lady Chapel and Crypt. Each of these is ‘separate’ and discrete and it is impossible to experience the cathedral as one big open space. This is truly a gift! At the most basic level it teaches us a great truth: that we can never individually see the whole picture – and God is always mystery – the One who reveals himself and hides himself. For worship and the ‘divine drama’ we have light and space with differing characteristics and qualities that invite us to move or to listen and learn from those in other places. The different ‘rooms’ of Rochester Cathedral are not a restriction per se but an opportunity to be disciplined: to break from our habits and prejudices and so to discover counter intuitive experiences.
The cathedral as community
Who owns the cathedral? Well it belongs to nobody and everybody throughout time. It is bigger than all of us not just physically but conceptually – as a place of gathering and identity. It calls us together as community and offers shelter and purpose in our offering of prayer and praise, welcome and in service. So we are formed as a college of prayer, where every day its members gather for morning and evening prayer and to offer the Holy Eucharist.
This cycle of prayer has two complementary qualities and purposes: the ‘daily office’, Morning Prayer and Evensong, are to do with the sanctification of time: the offering of the day to come and the day past; the Eucharist is the drama of the Christ event which involves the sanctification and transformation of humanity and the world. It is this that makes us a God–centred community to which all can belong and from which no one should be excluded; it is in community that the friendship of God is made real.
The cathedral is thus a place of welcome to the wider communities in which it is set and to the wider world which it is called to serve. It is a place of pilgrimage in which visitors are questioned by God and invited to seek and be found by a love and truth not made by ourselves: a community in which God lives and speaks today.
The cathedral as gateway (to ‘heaven’)
Finally, in this article, I would like to suggest to you the concept of the cathedral as a threshold offering not only peace and refreshment but also challenge and disturbance – locomotives of an encounter with the living God. This gateway or window lifts our eyes from our own preoccupations and limitations into a greater light and dimension. Into this unique and transforming space we need to invite debate and questioning, and the energies of the creative communities around us. The Church has always been a patron of the arts and needs to encourage and commission new art, music and poetry today. This also needs to be earthed by a fearless understanding of God’s prophetic presence in the world, politically, economically and socially. Heaven, God’s Kingdom, is about the divine justice and peace that the world needs to build and experience in the present. Rochester Cathedral is a sign and means of such a process: the stones are the lives of God’s people and the cast of his drama. Francis Thompson’s poem begins:
O world invisible, we view thee,
Intangible, we touch thee,
Unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee.
This mystery is present he cries:
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay–shuttered doors.
Do read the whole poem and remember that the doors of our cathedral are open and always waiting with God’s welcome…
© Neil Thompson January 2016
Spoken from the Heart ~ memorised texts
SPOKEN FROM THE HEART ~ memorised texts
In an age when few people memorise anything – perhaps a pin number and a password or two! – the life of faith is diminished by an over–reliance on the printed word or its electronic equivalent.
People no longer have precious words ‘in their hearts’ learnt consciously and by osmosis – texts that unite us with ages past and people of the Christian faith the world over.
Here is a challenge and an adventure to learn by heart a number of common texts which can enrich our lives, our prayers and our Christian fellowship and worship.
The basis of selection
In deciding what to choose and commit to heart, the following matrix was used:
In many ways this project will work only as the ideas and content are worked out through practice and experience. If too much is asked of people, we will all give up early on in the endeavour – hence the pattern above includes a core element to which is added a supplement and then some prose and poetry.
So the material will try to incorporate the universal into the basic core and then a supplement of seasonal prayers/very simple ‘liturgical acts/rites’ plus some scripture and poetry.
I think we need to start with a really sparse core, a seasonal supplement with a very small personal treasury of prose (scripture) and poetry (psalm verses, canticles verses, poems)
Neil Thompson ~ Easter 2016
The Lord’s Prayer
Common Worship traditional form
Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.
The Grace (2 Corinthians 13)
Silence is kept.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you most humble and
for all your goodness and loving kindness.
We bless you for our creation, preservation, and
all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And give us, we pray, such a sense of all your mercies
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,
and that we show forth your praise,
not only with our lips but in our lives,
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you in holiness and
righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be all honour and glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jubilate ~ Psalm 100
© Neil Thompson 2016
Introit for Roger Sayer
An anthem in thanksgiving for Roger Sayer’s years at Rochester
Sweet music blesses time
And every human soul
It sings of love and truth
And makes all sickness whole.
The strain that dies lives on
As endless is the sound
Of God’s great love in Christ
Whereby the lost is found.
This music claims us all
In every day and hour
All parting, even death,
Enfolded in God’s power.
© Neil Thompson 2013
Introit ~ Girl Choristers' Farewell 2012
INTROIT – Girl Choristers’ Farewell (2012)
Life’s parting ways are born of time
For change and life are one;
Yet God is there at every turn –
As chapters fully run.
In Christ, God shares our earthly days –
No change turns him away:
His love is known in friendship’s strength –
A joy none can allay!
© Neil Thompson 2012
Introit (for the CSA)
INTROIT ~ for the Choir Schools’ Association
Prepare our hearts to sing you praise,
O God, who gives our earthly days.
Inspire our thoughts, receive our prayers:
Bless us with peace amidst our cares.
© Neil Thompson 2012
Metrical Nunc Dimittis
|Metre: 65 65||Pastor Pastorum|
Now Lord, let your servant
Leave this life in peace:
For your word has taught us –
Love will never cease.
Eyes with wonder seeing
In this moment’s rite,
Israel’s promised glory,
Every nation’s light.
Holy people waiting
For Christ’s light to shine:
Temple prayers now answered –
Jesus is God’s sign.
Sign and Son and saviour
Held in Mary’s arms:
Promise for all peoples
Sung in Israel’s psalms.
© Neil Thompson 2012
Introit ~ Girl Choristers' Farewell
INTROIT – Girl Choristers’ Farewell (2011)
Where’er the path of life
leads each and every soul,
God’s love holds us each day
and keeps us safe and whole.
We leave the past to grow
and meet God in the new –
for time brings change and joy
in Christ, protector true.
© Neil Thompson 2011
INTROITS – General
Still, still our lives O God
that we may hear your voice;
help us to greet the holy light
that let’s your world rejoice.
In prayer and praise come near;
transform each passing day –
make us the music of your love
in Jesus Christ the way.
The spinning world finds rest
in peace beyond our powers:
God calms our lives,
he finds our souls
amidst the passing hours.
And so the centre He,
in Christ meets us in prayer:
arousing faith –
eternal life to share.
Timeless Word you live among us –
our friend and saving grace;
receive our love, our prayers, our world,
the needs of every place.
For Jesus Christ, incarnate king,
reigns as the servant Lord –
and calls us all to care and pray
bound by love’s golden cord.
INTROIT – Advent
Broken and flawed are the ways of our world;
Brief are our lives in a universe vast:
Thrown by a potter, by chance are we hurled
From nothing to form, in life quickly past?
Adveni, adveni, O hope of all ages!
Adveni, adveni, from darkness to light!
Speak now to your people in the truth of the pages
Writ by prophet and patriarch blest with God’s sight.
From north and from east, from west and from south
Is gathered the news for the face of the earth –
Here is a song for the lips of each mouth:
God is among us in Bethlehem’s birth!
Adveni, adveni, here’s faith for the fearful!
Adveni, adveni, a light to each nation!
In Jesus is coming the joy of the tearful –
A friend and a brother who is our salvation!
Verses to be sung antiphonally from different stations
Broken and flawed,
A world overawed;
Thrown as by chance –
Word in the stillness
Heal the world’s illness:
Speak through the ages
In Truth’s written pages.
Light in the dark,
Faith for our fear,
Joy for each tear.
Come to our weakness,
Love with its meekness:
Jesus a brother –
God and no other.
INTROITS – Lent
Coldness and stone
Cut to the bone;
Comforts all flown –
Here in our Lent,
With Christ we are spent
And heavenward sent.
Empty our lives and fill each soul
O Lord of Lent and cleansing power;
Receive our prayer and make us whole –
Both now and at our final hour.
For in the Christ all pain and dread
Is shared and made a path of hope:
The stones of want become our bread
So with the tempter we can cope.
Stony strewn Lent and tempter’s snare
Lie within our earthly days;
Face this truth and live Christ’s dare
To find true peace and freedom’s praise.
What can I find beyond all gain
Of pleasure, wealth and glory?
Jesu’s heart of love and pain –
Victor o’er death’s brutal story.
INTROITS – Easter
Alive, alive, alive!!!
God’s love breaks through the tomb
Heavn’s joy for which we strive
Comes through death’s Christ–shared womb.
Alive, alive, alive!!!
In Jesus God restores
What we cannot revive:
The life that Love implores.
On divinity’s air
Holy Easter is born;
It blows through night’s darkness
As passover’s morn.
Now all ills and terrors
are filled with Christ’s breath
As love tramples over
the power of cruel death.
© Neil Thompson