The Calendar - 2023
Individually and Collectively - ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here - Botanical Gardens -The Church Floor - Scientia and Sapientia - A Wreathe
- Low Sunday -
Neverwhere and Everywhere -Love Unknown - The Word in the Flesh -
Anniversaries 2 -
Thaxted - Forty days and forty nights -
Lent - Periodicals - Midwinter Spring -
The Presentation of the Lord - Ronald Blythe (1922-2023)
Individually and Collectively
At Pentecost, they say, the church was born. Not at Christmas, nor Easter, nor the Ascension, nor even the Annunciation, but at Pentecost. History began again. The Incarnation is the completion of history as told through incidents and intentions in the Old Testament. T.S. Eliot used the word Satisfactory to describe it, not in the sense of sufficiency but fulfillment. For people who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah history has not ended, but for us the world changed in the 52 days between Good Friday and Pentecost. The kingdom had come, not of the world but in the world. Jesus’s message is fundamentally about a community. Love God and love our neighbour, everything else springs from this. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to all the community, not just a selected few leaders. The Acts and St Paul’s letters describe the capacities or gifts, each distinct, given to the Christians to make the community whole. It was more than the sum of its parts. The image given is a body, corpus in Latin. We use its verbal derivations every day. We even have a corporation, administratively distinct from the rest of us, sometimes categorically, as a result of history. Curiously, perhaps, we did not use self- words, self-awareness, self-assurance, and so on until about the 13th century. And since without words there is no thought, it seems our individuality became emphasized relatively recently. Of course, the Reformation, especially the Protestant concentration on an individual’s salvation, emphasized the personal, often strictly. The Enlightenment – the success of knowledge born from demonstration or experiment – symbiotic with the Reformation, similarly emphasized the individual and their particular insights. I think, therefore I am. We separated personal responsibility and community responsibility to develop our liberal society and make the individual the focus of our common life. It was a way to make our worldviews simply lifestyle choices. We eliminated meaning. Secularism we call it. Peter’s preaching was not about the individual, it was about the community, because that is where we find meaning. Recognize Jesus and join us, he said. It can be the other way around. His witness was to offer a community with remarkable gifts, and a desire to work out the challenges of the day. Dietary restrictions, for example. The governing principles were simple. Love God and love our neighbour. They are universal and they are local. They are as difficult and as easy then as now. But they can become …… entirely Satisfactory.
‘Tis good, Lord, to be here
Listen to an audio version of ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here read by Chris Burn
Joseph Robinson’s unaltered words in our Transfiguration hymn 167. The Transfiguration, as close as Jesus came before the Resurrection to His Ascension. We celebrated the Ascension at Evensong, our most familiar office; more contemplative than busy Mattins and less final than Compline. At that time, the fever of life may be over and our work done. It used to be one of the last activities of each day, when light came from the Sun and little else. Things changed mightily with the electric switch. These days the light lingers into the time that was our darkness as we hurtle through space towards the solstice. The twilight lengthens beyond the soft evening, no longer cut short by the cold. We came to Evensong to worship in spirit. Worship tends to be familiar, for if it is novel our minds are preoccupied as we move from one apprehension to the next. Evensong has stood the test of time. We sit, we stand, we kneel. We listen, we sing, we speak, we pray. From time to time, we dream as light flickers in the windows, as music flows through the air, as words set off our imaginations. And we wonder. Wonder what is going on; wonder about the stories we hear; perhaps be struck by wonder. The miracles and Transfiguration were matters of awe. The Ascension is a matter of wonder. We know what happened next on Earth, but in Heaven? Religion would be stale and lifeless without wonder, without uncertainty, without mystery. There are many springs at the moment, each in its own way wonderful, individually and collectively. And some of them are taking root in our little church. ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here. From Malcolm Guite:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place,
As earth became a part of heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted,
He took us with him to the heart of things,
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and heaven-centered now, and sings;
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light;
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
- Ascension Day in Sounding the Seasons (2012)
Listen to an audio version of Botanical Gardens read by Chris Burn
It is spring and gardening has returned. Our domestic gardens are mainly ornamental, but in some food and a few herbs grow. In George Herbert’s day, gardens were a principal source of medicine, and even today some of us prefer herbal remedies to biochemical technologies. Botanical gardens, like those in Burlington, are scientific places. The earliest that is still in its original location, at Padua, was laid out in 1545. The Rev. John Stevens Henslow (1796–1861), Professor of Botany at Cambridge from 1825, moved its garden to the present site in 1831, the same year he recommended his student Charles Darwin accompany Robert Fitzroy to South America on H.M.S. Beagle. His wife talked him out of going himself. Henslow was very interested in collecting and cataloguing, naming the plants he found in and near Cambridge and organizing them in their classifications. Without a name we cannot identify anything, including ourselves. Naming nature was one way of praising God, something Henslow was keen to do, bridging his professions. Organizing the species was thought to be part of recognizing the divine structure that underlies the world, one that had been present in the first garden at Eden. Every garden has a gardener. Henslow created the new garden because he wanted to display parts of the Creation and he knew time was needed to study plants and trees. Some of the trees standing now on the Mount of Olives were there with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There is theology in botany. Every spring we know the creation is unfinished because we see it begin again. Neither Henslow nor Darwin thought a voyage would shake Christianity, but it did. To its foundations. Some aspects of botany, such as the species, we then thought were permanent but now we know are transient. Henslow was offered the parish of Hitcham in Suffolk in 1837 and moved there two years later to live out his life in the rectory. He kept his professorship. He found a rather unhappy village and set about doing something for it. By the time he died there was a good school, sports clubs, allotments for vegetable gardens, and business initiatives that transformed life in the area. He found some sedimentary deposits with abundant coprolites (fossil faeces) and convinced two of his farmers to harvest them and turn them into phosphate fertilizer. Their successful business, founded in 1843, lasted until 1995. He took his village on railway outings, the most well-known being to his Botanical Garden in Cambridge by 247 parishioners. When he died, on May 16th, he was buried in Hitcham churchyard, and they erected a monument in the church. It cites Job 29: 11 - 13. He was ahead of his time, looking after the environment and his community.
11 When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me:
12 Because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him.
13 The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me: and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy.
The Church Floor
Listen to an audio version of The Church Floor read by Chris Burn
We take the floor for granted. Our floors are of wood or composite materials or carpets that do not conduct and keep our feet warm in winter. Only in domestic bathrooms and commercial kitchens do we lay tile. In warmer lands there is tile in the kitchen and other rooms, to keep bare feet cool. Tile and bricks are made from clay, just as Genesis says we were. The tiles in a floor are commonly the same shape but may show different characteristics. Malcolm Guite recently wrote about pamments, terracotta tiles made from local sand and clay near his home in Norfolk. They contain “imperfections”, shining pieces of quartz or even intricate, tiny fossils. And those that are made by hand have other minor irregularities, and yet to form a flat floor the angles at the vertices of each tile must multiply by a whole number to make 360 degrees. There are rules to bind them together. In the end all the tiles go into making one floor, and each individual piece is no more important than any other, but when one is missing there is a hole in the whole. All a bit like us, really. George Herbert renovated, more accurately reconstructed, the church of St Mary the Virgin at Leighton Bromswold including a tiled floor. A wall now holds a memorial to Hugh Brawn 47th Battalion (Canadians) killed at Passchendaele in October 1917. Hugh binds a village to a new country. Herbert’s other church, St Andrew’s at Bemerton near Salisbury, also has a tiled floor, this one in black and white. Its patterns lead from the door to the altar, where Herbert was buried. Often in his poems we find metaphorical connections between this world and the divine. Perhaps the best known are in the purpose and meaning of windows to provide sight lines into another world. A man that looks on glass,/ On it may stay his eye;/Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,/And then the heav’n espy, from The Elixir, our hymn 496 that unfortunately omits this verse. In The Church-floor, he identified characteristics upon which the Church is built. They are, of course, human, but not imperfections or irregularities. Sometimes we think of them as gifts. Herbert knew his Church was not a building but a people.
Mark you the floor? That square and speckled stone,
Which looks so firm and strong,
And th’ other black and grave, wherewith each one
Is checker’d all along,
The gentle rising, which on either hand
Leads to the Choir above,
But the sweet cement, which in one sure band
Ties the whole frame, is Love
Scientia and Sapientia
Listen to an audio version of Scientia and Sapientia read by Chris Burn
Scientia is Latin for knowledge and sapientia for wisdom. More commonly we hear of Sophia, the Greek for wisdom, a feminine phenomenon. It is one of the root words, with philia (friendship love, also Greek), for philosophy. The Hagia Sophia is the great mosque of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, restored to its original function in 2020. It was created from a cathedral of the same name. Orthodox Christians make much of the Word being Wisdom from the beginning. Perhaps they have been less concerned about gender in divinity than the western church has been. There are three categories that our education system is meant to distinguish: information, knowledge, and wisdom. Knowledge, derived from information, is what we know to be true. There is a fine line between some knowledge and belief. Last week, on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple had information but it was the breaking of bread that turned it into knowledge. These days we have lots of information, but much is contested and so then is knowledge. Fortunately, the knowledge upon which we build our faith has changed little outside the realms of our personal experiences. It seems as though it is up to us to create or discover knowledge, using the rules of inquiry most formally presented in science, hence her Latin name. That is what the disciples did; they saw with their eyes and they believed. We hear much about the Resurrection regarding our knowledge, contested in the realm of Reason. Reason is one of the Greek meanings of the Word. Wisdom is more elusive. The author of Proverbs knew that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9: 10) - fear, here, meaning respect not fright. We normally think of wisdom in terms of insight and the making of judicious choices. It cannot be taught; it needs experience, so is more easily described in poetry than prose. Like our own experiences of the Resurrection. Malcolm Guite’s sonnet O Sapientia reflects its many dimensions. The Resurrection was an event, but its meaning appears through Wisdom:
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken;
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Nor break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of being, always grounding me,
My Maker’s bounding line, defining me:
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.
- From Sounding the Seasons (2012)
Listen to an audio version of A Wreath read by Chris Burn
Sometimes it is tempting to think that we are independent individuals. In fact, our society is built upon this premise. But just before Easter, I saw geese again beside the river and last week I heard the dawn chorus for the first time in a long while. Signs that we are now on the flight routes of thousands of birds, great and small, whose paths are invisible ecological threads binding our hemisphere together. Even as far as Antarctica, the seasonal destination of Arctic Terns. We are not independent in space. The same holds for time. We are not the only ones who count, as G.K. Chesterton observed: Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. Here in church, tradition plays a greater role than in many places. It is its rhythm that matters. The circling year carefully knits together many phases of our Lord’s life, now in the period of especial praise and wonder about His resurrection. George Herbert’s Christianity was an interdependence with the Lord. O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine, / And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine concludes The Altar, the first of his poems inside The Church, later titled The Temple. A Wreath follows The Elixir (Teach me, my God and King) in his book. The Wreath is a continuous series of word strands, each binding one line into the next. It describes the interweaving of our response to Jesus’s resurrection with His presence. It is like the conversation on the road to Emmaus, the disciples wondering why their companion was so strangely familiar. The Wreath is circular, and the last line echoes the first, just as for the disciples, whose eyes were opened with the breaking of bread, things fitted into place, and their life could begin again. In principio erat verbum - In the beginning was the Word. The Word had a new beginning at Easter, to be praised and revealed in a way never seen before. We are woven together with the Word in the warp of space and the weft of time.
A wreathed garland of deserved praise,
Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,
I give to thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live,
Wherein I die, not live: for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to thee,
To thee, who are more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity.
Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know thy ways,
Know them and practice them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give thee a crown of praise.
Listen to an audio version of Low Sunday read by Chris Burn
The name Low Sunday contrasts the second Sunday of Easter with the High feast of the week before. In some parts it was the day the newly baptized changed into more seasonal colours from the white they wore all of the week before. Often it is the Sunday we hear about St Thomas and his need for evidence of Jesus in His human body to believe the Resurrection. Evidence-based reasoning is commonly considered superior to ideology and is regularly cited, condescendingly, as the antithesis of religious faith. The trouble is that it is based on what has happened, not on what we want to happen. Arguments over climate change focus on evidence and its interpretation and have been adjusted in light of experience during the last 20 years, for instance. John Polkinghorne (1930 – 2019) physicist and priest, one of the brightest lights of the early 21st century, defined natural science as the construction of well-motivated belief. On that basis he advocated for the friendship, even partnership, of science and religion. His position was, fundamentally, that we have provisional, imperfect knowledge of the natural world and the cosmos but persons of intellectual integrity will always maintain coherent worldviews consistent with our observations until new evidence causes them to revise their ideas. We know of scientific beliefs, subsequently discredited, that were widely held and even the basis of public policy, such as eugenics. But the vast majority of scientific work concerns reconciling observations with existing theories, usually by testing summary statements of the theories against observations. Noticeable progress in science occurs when claims (hypotheses) that seem to be incompatible with our ideas, or outrageous hypotheses, are supported by our observations because then we have to revise our worldview. That was what St Thomas was doing, testing an outrageous claim by his friends, that Jesus had risen, against the evidence. It changed his worldview. My Lord and my God, he exclaimed. Normally, the story is told to illustrate Thomas’s weakness. We interpret Jesus’s words Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe as an admonishment to Thomas. But it can only be read that way if taken literally and narrowly. Very few of us have seen Jesus in His body, but we see signs of Him all around us when we look for them. Faith seeking understanding - Fides quarens intellectum – was how St Augustine put it. John Polkinghorne would ask us what is the motivation for our faith? Just being told is not enough. He would have expected us to reply with a degree of innocence and with experience.
Neverwhere and Everywhere
Listen to an audio version of Neverwhere and Everywhere read by Chris Burn
One of the poems by Les Murray in our collection for Lent considers the events and forces of history that never happened. They are things that might have happened if the world had turned out differently. They are in Neverwhere, a land that has much more in it than our world ever will. A land where potential is snuffed out by contingency. Murray was specifically wondering what would have happened but for the church. We will never know, of course, because those things did not happen. It makes accounting of the value of the church difficult. Perhaps we are not meant to do that. There was no church on the first Easter morning. Just demoralized and distraught disciples, of whom some women, because of love, went to tend to His body. We know they had an unexpected and marvellous encounter, and the others did so too in the following days and weeks. Then the disciples, uneducated, disorganized, and impoverished began to change the world. They had no apparent resources or might, no administrative experience, no powerful personal networks, no theological prowess. They all said they had seen Jesus risen and had met Him in a new way a little while later. And some new disciples, like St Paul, saw Him too, and so have others, in different places the world over. And the persecutions began. Only St John died of old age, we think, the other disciples martyred because they could not deny what they knew to be true. The church grew from a rudimentary and powerless beginning to spread throughout the world. Gamaliel, the wise councilor, warned his colleagues (Acts 5:38) to let the Christians be: if this work be of men, he said, it will come to naught. But if it be of God you cannot overthrow it. Many think the Resurrection is in Neverwhere. But our experience and our history show it is Everywhere.
Then rise, all Christian folk, with me
And carol forth the One in Three
That was, and is, and is to be,
By faith, the shield of heart and mind,
Through love, which suffers and is kind,
In hope, that rides upon the wind.
- 16th century German
Translated A.H. Fox-Strangways
Listen to an audio version of Love Unknown read by Chris Burn
Samuel Crossman’s poetic lyric My song is love unknown is inseparable from John Ireland’s tune Love Unknown. The haunting verse is an unforgettable part of many Passiontide services. Each time we realize it is the next hymn there is almost a ripple of anticipation in the congregation. A short meditation on the hymn opens Diarmaid MacCulloch’s monumental History of Christianity to summarize the focal point and mystery of our faith. During the Commonwealth, Crossman was the dissenting parson of Little Heney, a village on the eastern border of Essex marked then and now by the River Stour. The border is shared with Suffolk. It is the country of the artist Thomas Gainsborough. Further downstream, the river flows past Dedham, in the heart of the landscapes painted by John Constable. Crossman served at Little Heney until 1662, and his church is now gone. His poem first appeared in 1664, so he must have spent time in and around the village working out his rhyming scheme and the voice of Joseph of Arimathea that brings us the verses. He would have meandered along the lanes that still traverse those parts, now almost too small for a car, but then muddy and bounded by hedges. The paths and tracks would have been suitable for quiet thinking, necessary in those troubled times. Crossman had George Herbert’s poetry at hand; he took some phrases from him and modelled his first line on Herbert’s Love Unknown, not one of the poems we read often these days. It is a dream in which the poet’s foul, harsh, and insensitive heart is treated through washing, softening, and unsettling it. It is a dream of rejuvenation effected by the ever-attending love of God.
The Font did onely, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick.
Almost exactly opposite Little Heney, on the east bank of the Stour, is the Suffolk village of Little Cornard. It gives its name to the tune composed by Martin Shaw for the Advent hymn Hills of the North, Rejoice! The two hymns, attached to two banks of the same river, mark the beginning of our Redemption and its focus. Love unknown in its abundance, presence, persistence, and perseverance, waiting to be revealed.
The Word in the Flesh
Listen to an audio version of The Word in the Flesh read by Chris Burn
Discussion about each poem in our Lent poetry series has been led by three people, one who read the verse, one who opened the conversation, and one who presented a reaction to Rowan Williams’s comments on the piece. The discussions following these introductions have been supportive, peaceful, and reflective. Almost all of the poems have been new to our eyes, but one, Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi, was familiar. That poem opens with a quotation from the Nativity sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes at Whitehall in 1622. Eleven years earlier the text for Andrewes’s Nativity sermon was from St John (1:14): And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth. Andrewes quotes the Latin Et Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis …plenum gratiae et veritatis. He points out that (while in English, dwelt can be singular or plural,) the Latin habitavit is singular. The Word and the flesh were not two things, they were one. The Word was not cloaked by the flesh, the Word was not hosted by or in Jesus’s body, it was the same thing. It is difficult for us to grasp, accustomed as we are to separation of our minds from our bodies. I didn’t mean to do that is a common denial of responsibility. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am – separates us from our environment as well. Last Saturday (March 25th) was the Feast of the Annunciation. It was when the Word became flesh. It is a moment of joy, rather different from Lent. Most identify its date as nine months before Christmas, but some believe it was chosen, after calculation, as the date of the Crucifixion, tidily completing the circle. Much of our post-Reformation preaching has attached our bodies to our sins, but in Holy Week the body is the focus: for adulation; for weeping; for anger; for embalming; for anxiety; for death. Each at a specific place: the streets; the city; the temple; Bethany; Gethsemane; Golgotha. Nevertheless, the events are drenched in faith, hope, and love. The best poetry conveys truth, likely in ways we have not recognized before:
Listen to an audio version of Anniversaries 2 read by Chris Burn
Sir Christopher Wren died just over 300 years ago in 1723. We remember him primarily for St Paul’s Cathedral, an icon that survived the blitz undamaged. Its then prominent, shadowy dome against the night sky an image that helped to sustain a nation in its darkest hour. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice – if you need a monument, look around you – is inscribed beneath the dome and on his tomb in the crypt. St Paul’s is not alone. Wren, not originally an architect but an applied mathematician, designed 51 other churches in London all rebuilt out of the ashes and rubble of the Great Fire of September 1666, only a year after severe plague. They both depressed the economic prospects of the Restoration, so that St Paul’s could only be reconstructed after it was made beneficiary of a tax on coal. Twenty-three of his churches still stand, survivors of the blitz that took 19, and various other attempts to pull them down. He strove to design a perfectly symbolic church fusing arrangements for listening to preaching, so fervently emphasized by the Puritans and Presbyterians, with the sacramental Anglo-Catholicism of the Restoration that gave us the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The view of the pulpit and altar are equally unobstructed. There is commonly a cross in the building’s plan and baroque fascination in his ornaments and gilding along with open space and high ceilings. His congregations looked up and looked forward. They were in places designed for the beauty of holiness that left the austere Commonwealth behind. Wren served six monarchs and their foibles as Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, but had begun as a scientist, being elected President of the fledging Royal Society in 1680. There was no artificial separation then between science and religion. He was born in a rectory and his uncle, Matthew Wren, was bishop of Ely. He held that mathematics conveyed truth and he became expert in geometry. His ecclesiastical architectural colleagues included Robert Hooke – who identified elastic properties of materials – and Robert Boyle – an early exponent of thermodynamics. All three came from a tradition that looked for the laws that govern the universe as the handiwork of God. They thought about why the natural world is structured and intelligible rather than simply dismissing both as fortunate coincidences.
Listen to an audio version of Anniversaries 1 read by Chris Burn
Anniversaries are the way we mark time, bound as we are into its cyclical trajectory. Days are ubiquitous, weeks govern our routine, months are stepping stones, but years dictate our development. The church’s everlasting year is packed with anniversaries, some of which are ingrained in our own lives. They can be as much cultural as clerical. Our own anniversaries are agents of memory. The first anniversary of a loved one’s death is especially difficult, more so than the week before or a few days afterwards. It is the unit of time that does it, reminded as we are of a loss that seems to have become complete. There is no turning back the clock, and yet it always returns to the same point. Our digital clocks treat time as an arrow, suggesting that once it passes it is gone, but our traditional clocks – analogue is their adjective now – treat time as a cycle. We need cyclical time in order to start again, a particularly Lenten practice, forgiveness being at the fresh beginning. But we also need it to share anniversaries across generations, friendships, and cultures. Historical anniversaries may be occasions for celebration and, with the passage of time, analysis. This year is the 400th anniversary of William Byrd (c. 1540-1623). He is a common visitor to St Bart’s, most recently on Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent. We listen to his polyphonic anthems and services as they were composed and originally sung, edited only slightly. His art lifts our worship, uncloaked by later development of his craft. We do not adjust his music to be more popular or fashionable. Literary, visual, and aural art endures unchanged while science is rapidly adopted and extended. Byrd began in the new Anglican church but in the 1570s became a Roman Catholic. Under Queen Elizabeth, priests were martyred, but lay people largely only fined for recusancy – avoiding attendance at their parish church. Byrd took a risk in following his conscience, but I expect his genius, well known to Elizabeth, saved him, along with payment of his fines.
Listen to an audio version of Thaxted read by Chris Burn
Last week I visited Thaxted Parish Church with Martin Rose, our former parishioner. It was built in the English Perpendicular style during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its original 14th century rafters form a high ceiling, with beams supported by angels. The first vicar on record is Thomas, but the list didn’t indicate when he started his incumbency. The second was William, vicar from 1314. John Puysaunt, appointed in 1546 served Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, staying in his living through all those oscillations. There was a Puritan vicar in the Commonwealth, James Parkin, who replaced an Anglican and was himself expelled in 1662 when the church returned to the good old way. Gustav Holst lived in Thaxted and composed The Planets there. Holst and the Red Vicar, Conrad Noel, began the Thaxted Music Festival in 1916, bringing choirs and orchestras to the church, into which over 1300 people can be packed. Noel was Vicar 1910-1942. He flew the hammer and sickle and the Sinn Fein tricolour in the church until a consistory court told him to stop. Frightening gargoyles decorate the outside, their mouths being conduits for rainwater that they pour away from the foundations. The walls are of flint stones held in mortar, but on the inside they are whitewashed. There is little stained glass, but many, many, small clear panes in the main windows and a clerestorey, flooding the place with light. Anyone can see the angels, watching us from on high. The memorial listed over 40 men, including three pairs of brothers, who had served in the Great War and did not return. There were faded poppies and hand-sized crosses for each of them. Too many for such a small town. Noel would have consoled the families, doubly deprived of their sons and the ability to bury them. In the 1970s, Peter Elers came out and then blessed the union of two women. It is a progressive place. Jacquetta Hawkes’s astonishing, poetic account of the geology of Britain, A Land, mentions: Britain without volcanoes or Alps or forests, is in general a gentle and domesticated land that seems to be wholly under our control. Yet it is not really controlled. Lie awake at night even in our composed Britain and think about how the land about you is changing every hour, as surely as your own body and as irresistibly. As Martin and I bent over almost double to leave through the medieval door and enter the evening twilight, I thought we could substitute church for land, and not just in England. The tune of our hymn 575 is Thaxted, composed by Gustav Holst.
Forty days and forty nights
Listen to an audio version of Forty days and forty nights read by Chris Burn
Forty days is a biblical time frame. Forty days and nights of torrential rain floated Noah’s ark; forty days on Mount Sinai gave Moses time to receive the commandments. There are forty days between Christmas and Candlemas, and from Easter to the Ascension. And, of course, Jesus’s sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism lasted 40 days. This is the principal model for Lent, with its forty days, excluding Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day. As Easter moves around, so does Ash Wednesday. We practice 40 days, but they are figurative. The period may have been literal in some cases, but the key is that the length is sufficient to effect a transformation. There is a before and an after. During Lent there is time for us and for things to change. Preparation for Easter is a purpose of Lent. A time for self-examination, penitence, and study. Self-denial is popular, but if practiced merely as a hiatus, a temporary interruption, then there is no difference before and after. Significant change occurred in all of the biblical 40 days; the world began again after the deluge wiped it clean and the animals came out two-by-two. In the Early Church, Easter was the most common day for baptisms, the sacrament that acknowledges membership in the Christian community. Before you were out; after you are in. It is a profound change for which everyone underwent preparation. Nullius in verba is the motto of the Royal Society of London, Take no one’s word, or as I heard recently, Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe. Becoming and being a Christian is a decision and path we must reach for ourselves, though sometimes the journey is bumpy. We can all renew our baptismal vows at Easter, quietly or with a flourish.
Now is the healing time decreed For sins of heart and word and deed
When we in humble fear record
The wrong that we have done the Lord.
(Latin, before the 12th century, from Exeter Cathedral)
Listen to an audio version of Lent read by Chris Burn
To Kingston, our Kingston, with its everlasting limestone academic halls, church bells, and an unusual climate. A ubiquitous carpet of green grass and last year’s unraked leaves covered the ground. Isolated mounds of dirty snow and ice crystals were the impoverished remains of formerly grand piles or drifts. Lent is from the Old English lencten, meaning spring. It follows our reading of the Transfiguration, a pivotal half-way point in the gospels. In the first full week of Lent we commemorate George Herbert (1593–1633). He was born in Lent (3 April), married in Lent (5 March), and died in Lent (1 March). His legacy is the poetry that set a standard for the spiritual verse that succeeded his. It was published late in the year of his death (1633) and has not been out of print since then. It is a witness to the primacy of love over theology, and the poetic imagination over analytical thought. Poets are primarily observers, who see beyond the visible spectrum. A man that looks on glass, we sometimes sing, On it may stay his eye; / Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, / And then the heav’n espy. Lent is time set aside for reflection on ourselves and our condition. It should not be hurried. It used to be preoccupied with sin, the evil we practice and participate in, however unintentionally or unavoidably. Herbert’s witty sonnet Sinne (I) describes all the rules, practices, and activities we may take to protect ourselves from sin, and Yet all these fences and their whole array / One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away. Herbert knew our fallibilities but urged us in his poem Lent, although We cannot reach our Savior's purity; / Yet are bid, Be holy ev'n as he. / In both let 's do our best. Returning on the train with its comforting, poetic rhythm of muffled eighth-note couplets, we arrived twenty minutes early, announced often with palpable pride by the running crew. Spring is early in Kingston and perhaps will be here, but Lent is on time.
Listen to an audio version of Periodicals read by Chris Burn
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament showeth his handy-work
Psalm 19 (BCP), 4th Day, Morning Prayer. Caeli enarrant
We used to take periodicals, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. They were especially welcome on long winter evenings when it was blowing outside. We would read and listen to a ticking clock. Not any more. Now we have the internet, its immediate news, analysis to fit our palettes, streams of entertainment, and precise, atomic time. The dailies have evolved with technology, but many periodicals have gone the way of letter-writing, overtaken by Zoom and Whatsapp. When they were around we would dive into them, heading for a favourite writer or cartoon, knowing where to find it. A friendly neighbour gives me his Spectator and I pass it on in turn, once a fortnight if the mail is regular. We value good writing and good argument, and we needn’t agree with it. For many of us the Bible has become a periodical, with a weekly or, perhaps, monthly visit. Very few attend daily Mattins or Evensong, where the Lectionary winds its way through the New Testament twice a year and the Old once. Instead, we hear the carefully selected weekly readings of years A, B, and C, and barely touch its breadth. Unpalatable passages come up only occasionally. Accidently, I imagine, the Psalms are repeated more than most of the Gospels. In 1662, the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer kept the translations of Myles Coverdale printed in England in 1537. We retained them again in 1962. It is a musical language, rhythmic and carefully scanned, in places genius. Dominus regit me – The Lord rules over me – we receive as The Lord is my shepherd. The original Preface of the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, described how important it is to read or hear the Bible daily. It needed saying to the backsliders of the day. Archbishop Cranmer insisted on the revolutionary notion that we should hear the Word in our own language. He laid out a scheme – a Calendar he called it – to transit the scriptures once a year and the Psalms every month. The readings were lessons, to be absorbed. It would be ambitious to read the whole Bible in Lent, but not the Psalms. We could follow a pattern that has been continuously woven every month for nearly 500 years.
O how lovely are thy dwellings, thou Lord of hosts!
My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord:
My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
Psalm 84 (BCP), 16th Day, Evening Prayer. Quam dilecta!
Listen to an audio version of Midwinter Spring read by Chris Burn
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)
This week, on Wednesday, came our midwinter spring. It was hardly tinged with fire. That we experienced last week at 30 below. Cold that gnawed, and burned our cheeks or ungloved hands. Eliot visited Little Gidding in May 1935. He imagined the transitory blossom of snow on the hawthorn hedges foretold their white blossom in May. Voluptuary sweetness, he called the spring blossoms. At choir practice this week, the snowbird tenors promised to desert us en masse, bound in their separate ways to their midwinter springs, travelling in space, not time. Other birds will vault over the North Atlantic and land in balmy Europe. The hardy will be left behind. Some places we visit will be as we imagined, others will not. Most will have changed, perhaps only a little. But the thin places - there we will be at home. Familiar views, familiar smells, familiar stone and familiar wood, all at familiar angles. Only the graveyards adjusted with a few fresh stones. Eliot said that at Little Gidding It would always be the same. He knew much of Nicholas Ferrar and delighted in George Herbert, both integral to the tiny chapel of St John where Ferrar worshipped day and night. Our hymn tunes sometimes transport us too. This week it is Cwm Rhondda, to the valleys of south Wales with their rugby and their rain. The Methodist revival took hold there and chapels flourished. There was lots of singing.
We could do with a revival or something to overcome the overbearing administration of our little world.
We must not fall into the dark; we must rise to the Light. Pray for us all, wherever you go.
Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord
Listen to an audio version of Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord read by Chris Burn
This week was Candlemas, February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas. It marks the end of the Christmas season and focusses on Mary, mother of Jesus. There are six feasts for Mary; the next is the Annunciation. Oddly uncharacteristic of Lent, it marks the start of a new world order. We have two classic images of her: a new mother, just delivered of her Son, and the Queen of Heaven. The accounts we have span her pregnancy and her presence at the Crucifixion. We rarely touch on her home life. Yet both St Matthew (13: 55-56) and St Mark (6: 3) name Jesus’s four brothers and mention that He had sisters, the language suggesting at least three (all His sisters, says St Mark, not both). We do not contemplate her teaching or showing Jesus how to be God in a human body. God has no hands but ours, and He chose hers. She must have taught Him all the usual habits, to eat up His dinner and to comb His hair, and then the others, to be open and receptive, discerning of the Word, to listen and to pray, and to live by love. All this as one of at least eight children in the household. Perhaps Joseph helped too; he probably did. St Matthew recognises him in the large family. And perhaps Jesus helped with those who arrived after Him. Can you imagine he didn’t? Could you imagine Him as your brother? At Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, Mary and Joseph met Simeon, who recognised her baby and gave us the Nunc dimittis. He had seen the Messiah. He could depart in peace. Candlemas is a day for those who have just come into the world and for those who will soon leave it. It is a time to remember those who look after us, even if now from a distant shore.
Ronald Blythe (1922-2023)
Listen to an audio version of Ronald Blythe read by Chris Burn
The Calendar is back, but in mourning. Ronald Blythe, 100 last November, has gone to God and to join his friends and neighbours. His weekly diary from the rural Suffolk parish of Wormingford, published for 25 years in the Church Times, inspired The Calendar. His national stature, though, was from Akenfield (1969), the oral history recounting village life between the wars. It illuminated a different world, perhaps a foreign country where so much of what we take for granted – health care, spacious housing, sufficient food, central heating, cellular telephones, electric light – was unavailable; horses pulled the ploughs. I, born in 1959, had no idea. He went on to a prescient account of old age, The View in Winter, published in 1979 well before we became concerned about the elderly. But it is the Word from Wormingford column that many people looked forward to each week. It fused together rural life, a literary heritage, and the church year. Not piously, but observantly, accepting time’s passage in the long scheme of things. He knew those now in the churchyard are as much a part of the world as those we meet in the street; and those whom we can read are as alive among us as our friends on the coffee rota. He notices an aircraft overhead before the early morning twilight that reminds him of the Epiphany star moving brightly and deliberately to its rightful destination while the January frost is as Coleridge saw it outside his window: The frost performs its secret ministry/Unhelped by any wind. The best summary description of permafrost I’ve ever read. Then, at 8 on the dot, the sunrise cascades over the barn roof like a fireworks display, yet still another little boy lies sleeping, as intellectuals as well as ordinary folk peer down at him. A young clergyman writes an Epiphany hymn in his son’s exercise-book. It is “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning”. It is Bishop Heber in 1811 but it could be any one of us looking on our child or grandchild.