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Magdalen Chapel

This continues a web diary covering my 2004 Sabbatical.
The beginning of the diary may be found by clicking here.

Thursday, October 28, 2004
Ripon College Cuddesdon, England

Off to Oxford this morning, by bus.

Once in the city, I first did some visiting of stores, looking for “just the right thing” for family back in Canada, then I ate my bag lunch, and entered the Bodleian.

The afternoon was spent transcribing the quotes and references in a 1990 PhD Thesis about the marital activities of the clergy in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. Springboarding from this document, I will later ask to see some of the actual source material.

As I worked away, a man came up and, pointing to my Apple Macintosh computer, said, “I guess we better be careful when we get up, not to sit back down in the wrong spot, huh?”

He gestured towards his seat at another table, virtually in the same relative position as mine, where his identical Apple Macintosh laptop was humming away. Indeed our seats and study set-up were virtual duplicates!

“When you’re going for coffee, how about we go together?” he said.

I accepted, and after another hour of work, “Nick” and I - for I had quickly asked his name - retrieved our “Readers’ Cards” and went across to Blackwell’s Bookshops where there is a very nice coffee shop.

Nick is American - from the State of Washington - a retired university professor. He and his wife are living in Oxford for about six months, and he regularly comes in to the Bodleian to work on a new edition of a history of Oxford that was written in the seventeenth century! Coffee with him was a pleasant friendly interlude - with the added side benefit that Nick offered to drive me out to Cuddesdon should I ever miss my bus!

But I was happy to get back to my studies, and nearly did miss the last bus of the day, so absorbed was I in the fascinating material piled up on my table!

Tomorrow there is a 90% chance of rain, but I’m going into Oxford on the bicycle - and I’m not coming out until well after dark! I hope to attend a 6:00 p.m. “Choral Evening Prayer” at Magdalen College, and then continue working a bit more in the Bodleian. Possibly I will change my mind about continuing in the library ... we’ll see.

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Friday, October 29, 2004
Ripon College Cuddesdon

Finally! Everything has come together!

I had a long session of study at the Bodleian, then attended Evening Prayer at Magdalen College, and spent two more hours in the Bodleian before bicycling back out to the village of Cuddesdon.

The important part is, of course, the study and the worship - about which more in a minute - but it couldn’t have happened without transportation problems being fully resolved.

I rode the bicycle in to Oxford in late morning, and went to a bicycle shop near the library where I had discovered particularly attentive and experienced staff [the shop from which I had rented the bike is just fine, except the person there admits he doesn’t bicycle much!]. In this shop full of cycling enthusiasts, I asked how to make myself as visible as possible in darkness, particularly on the long hill of Cuddesdon Road. There was much discussion and nodding of heads about the various merits of reflecting tape, ‘bibs’ of reflective material, and battery powered lighting.

A staff member picked out a selection of headlights and asked me to go into a darkened back room with him to compare their light patterns and intensity.

In the end, I purchased (and will thus bring back for cycling in Canada) a powerful headlight, and a remarkable little device which attaches to a knob on my backpack and emits a brilliant red gleam visible for miles behind me!

As the rental bike itself comes already equipped with fore-and-aft lighting, once everything is switched on, I am ablaze with light - like an 18 wheel highway transport with running lights on all parts of cab and trailer, a veritable Christmas tree!

I could be seen for miles, and - equally important - I could see! The basic front light on the bicycle really did not illuminate the road ahead of me appreciably when I did the experimental run last Tuesday. The new headlight is extremely bright, and once I was in the deep unlit forest on Cuddesdon Road, I could see ahead very well indeed!

So - my journey back to Cuddesdon tonight was safe - even comfortable and enjoyable. An additional benefit was that at 9:30 at night, there was hardly any traffic, either in the city, or on the pitch dark country roads. Thus it was that even though I avoided the official bicycle path - due to a resident saying it was very “dodgy” at night - the busy Cowley Road thoroughfare was not very stressful to navigate at that hour of the night.

As for the long hill of the Cuddesdon Road? What few cars there were showed great courtesy to the brightly lit lone cyclist, pedalling frantically, then getting off and walking his illuminated bicycle up the steepest part of the hill. They invariably slowed down, and passed me with noticeable care.

Magdalen Tower, Oxford
... as the sun sets, and the time for
Evensong begins
All of which means that I am now able to attend worship in Oxford in the evenings - long after the last bus of the day departs for Cuddesdon.

Which I did with great joy.

There is nothing particularly special in the Christian Calendar about Friday the 29th of October. The exquisite late-medieval chapel of Magdalen College was dark, with candles lighting the reading desks of both choir and congregation. A handful of people were present - perhaps fifteen.

On the stroke of 6:00 PM, the choir entered (men only - boy choristers were not present tonight), and with them the “Informator Choristarum.”

The what!? It’s Latin for, I believe, “Trainer of the Choristers.”

This particular individual happens to be famous. In the 1980s there was a very well known group called “The King’s Singers” - men, who had been trained to sing at King’s College, Cambridge, travelled the world performing both traditional and popular works. They were hugely skilled and yet funny too - mixing the most precise singing with a clowning spirit that often had their audiences in stitches.

One of them was Grayston (better known as “Bill”) Ives. The distinguished-looking, slightly greying gentleman walking slowly in procession as the choir entered the chapel - this Informator Choristarum - had been one of those remarkable King’s Singers!

And the music made by this group of young men was out of this world! Sensitive presentation of the psalm and responses; an exquisite setting of the Magnificat, then an anthem by John Sheppard, Informator Choristarum of the college in the Sixteenth Century!

It was the ideal kind of English church music - because while it was intensely professional, there was also a deep sense of reverence and spirituality. The chapel booklet says, “It is the aim of the Dean of Divinity and the Informator Choristarum always that our services here should be dedicated to the glory of God. Our music is not an end in itself but part of a larger whole. We hope that in the singing and in the silence, in the spoken word and in the beauty of this house of God, you will feel that greater presence, and be blessed by the peace that passes all understanding.”

They achieved this goal for me, without a doubt.

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Saturday, October 30, 2004
Ripon College Cuddesdon

Laundry day - then back into Oxford on The Bicycle for an organ recital, followed by Choral Evensong at Magdalen College.

Everything went more or less smoothly, except that I had acquired a cardboard box for the rack behind the bicycle’s saddle. This was because groceries needed to be acquired in Oxford. As well, I wanted to be presentable in the chapel service, and cycling requires more athleticism than respectability! Indeed, I get so warm with the exertion, that the most comfortable attire is a simple t-shirt (in fact, today I wore my “St.George’s” t-shirt!); but once I have cooled down it is really necessary to wear a few more layers! So a blazer and a turtleneck were stowed in the box on my journey into the city.

I managed to get all that, and my groceries, into the box for the return to Cuddesdon, but there was one difficulty. The box is higher than the saddle, and on the long hill I must dismount to push the bicycle up the the steepest portion of the road. So, when the time came to do that, I knocked the box off its perch!

It was somewhat awkward, let me tell you, fishing around on a darkened hill for an upside down box, and the black bungee cords which fasten it, then trying to attach everything back properly. The bright red beam on my backpack probably confused the drivers as it bobbed about in all directions as I attempted to do this! As well, the headlight of the bicycle pointed this way and that, while I held the box with one hand, fixed the bungee cords with another hand, and with my third hand and my fourth hand tried to balance the bicycle in some semblance of the vertical position!

The cars - and there were more tonight than there were last night - really slowed for this waving light apparition on a darkened country road!

But it was all worth while.

Tonight the full choir was present in Magdalen College - sixteen boys and about twelve men. They gave the best rendition of Wesley’s “Blessed be the God and Father” that I have ever heard. Their sound was “creamy” - seamless - absolutely perfectly blended when doing the quiet parts, and yet vibrant and vigorous and even violent on the dramatic parts. It was wonderful.

I felt absolutely fulfilled and whole - and when the Intercessor asked the Lord to confirm and cleanse and renew all of us in our vocation and ministry - I was personally refreshed and healed by the finger of God. My own commitment, after almost forty years of ordained ministry, was deeply reaffirmed and renewed.

I might add that while there was only a small congregation last night in Magdalen College chapel, this evening the place was packed to overflowing! It gives me hope.

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Sunday, October 31, 2004
Ripon College Cuddesdon

Worship was quite different this morning in the little medieval parish church of the village of Cuddesdon!

This was a day for the congregations of three churches to gather in one of their buildings for worship together. It was to be a morning of Scripture and Hymns of Praise.

The place was quite full - few empty seats. And, interestingly, I knew all the hymns - including some that are highly popular in North American renewal movements - “Give me Oil in My Lamp, keep me Burning” and “Here I am, Lord.”

Remarkable, really: sitting in a Medieval church in the English countryside, and singing - in a group of very respectable folks, and in a very respectable way - some of the most popular songs of Christian Renewal.

The service was not at all bumptious. Indeed in the frequent periods of quiet the presence of some children was really very noticeable! Three in particular made quite a lot of noise - mostly attempting to persuade their parents that they should neither sit still nor be quiet - and I strongly sensed that this was distracting - even upsetting - to the majority of the others present.

Churchgoers these days, on either side of the Atlantic, find themselves in a predicament: on the one hand, they long for another generation to come along and learn to love this wonderful faith and spiritually satisfying tradition, and when a young family with children does come in, they get excited and pleased; on the other hand, should the newly arrived little ones make a dreadful racket, these same churchgoers feel their own enjoyment of the worship being interfered with, and begin to resent the newcomers! In the end, for many it becomes a dreadful inner conflict. They do not want to drive the young family away, and they fervently wish the child would pipe down! So, they sit there in silent suffering - seething and not knowing what to do!

It was amusing to me to find this very familiar Canadian phenomenon in an English country parish!

Actually a medieval English church has two characteristics which can cause the disquiet to be even more intense than in Canada: one - it is made of stone, and the children's sound is magnified, to reverberate vigorously throughout the building; two - it was not designed with any thought of separating little children from the main body of the worship, so there is no escape hatch for the parents - no place to go.

At one point this morning, the harried mother took some of her children outside, leaving the door open and admitting a considerable draft into the church. A lady shortly got up and stomped over, shutting the door with fierce determination!

Oh dear me - how does God put up with us and all our little ways!???

Meanwhile, once more I was put in mind of my researches. In Medieval times, the Mass would not require the silent concentration of the churchgoers. Professor Eamon Duffy gives us a picture of people saying their prayers - whether using the rosary or reading from their own “primers” (manuals of prayers and devotions) - or moving about, or even talking to one another during the service (except at key points, for example, the raising up of the consecrated host, when all would kneel or cross themselves). In such a setting children might be noisy, but no one would take much notice.

However, with the Reformation came a great emphasis on sermons and scripture reading, on all listening attentively and learning from what was going on. Then, the presence of disturbing elements like small children became a problem.

In effect, I was this morning sitting in a medieval church among folks of a distinctly “Protestant” mentality - they were here to hear - to quietly listen and absorb the verbal and musical messages of service and sermon. Children - especially those whose parents seemed to have no ability to control them - were not an asset, but a problem.

In chatting with my friend Nigel afterwards, an image came to mind that made me wonder at its theological implications. Let’s put it in the form of a question: would a parent in the U.K., who believes a child should be happy, and free to express itself in the church, not act quite differently if, for example the children were invited to an audience with the Queen? Would the parent not spend weeks before the great day training the child in its manners, in being respectful and quiet, in short, acting appropriately for the occasion?

What theological theories are driving an attitude which suggests that a trip to a church, to the place where the King of Kings is honoured and encountered, is not the same as - is not even more solemn and important than, say, a visit to meet a Queen, a President, or some other powerful head of state?

I wonder...

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Monday, November 1, 2004 - All Saints’ Day
Ripon College Cuddesdon

“Holy! Holy! Holy!” sing the saints and angels around the throne of God. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus.

There is no doubt that for me the worship in Magdalen College chapel closely resembles a small corner of heaven. The Eucharist tonight was filled with reverence, and with beauty. What more can be said?

After service, I met some of the clergy, and was astonished to find that one was American, and the other a Canadian! Both have been in England so long that, to me, their accents were indistinguishable from any other citizen of the U.K. Locals might be able to tell, of course, but I couldn’t.

The day was really flawless.

Mind you, I seem to have moved the pattern of my day forward - oddly enough just at the season when clocks have been moved back!

It centres around the fact that I don’t get “home” to my flat until 10:00 p.m. at night, and only then do I prepare my evening meal! So, I’m pretty active and awake well past midnight, and consequently sleep in! Then, in a kind of chain reaction, it is at least mid-day before I manage to cycle back into Oxford for another session at the library, another 6:00 p.m. service followed by an hour or two more at the library, and another 10:30 p.m. dinner!

I have also become - in effect - like one of those big-city commuters who uses more than two hours a day in travel! It is after all, an hour each way by bicycle from here to Oxford! Quite a large chunk of the day! I’m glad I don’t do it all year round!

But the U.K. leg of my sabbatical now has all the elements I had hoped for: serious study among the incredible resources of the Bodleian Library, and regular attendance at worship where the music is led by a choir of men and boys.

The bicycle journey back to Cuddesdon tonight was the most calm and pleasant yet - day or night. There was hardly any traffic at all, either on Cowley Road, or in the country lanes. I’m also becoming somewhat more fit - because even though the return trip is almost entirely up hill, I wasn’t utterly exhausted at the end... though admittedly it is a really good feeling to come around the last bend in the road and see the lights of the village! Home! Dinner! A hot shower, a soft chair and a comfortable bed!

I nearly ran over what might have been a badger, on the road leading into Cuddeston. The size of a small dog, the creature was round, and hairy, and grey. It had been standing stock still at the side of the road, trying to be invisible as my brightly lit bicycle approached. It looked like a lumpish outcropping of roadside grass, until, as my front wheel nearly ran over its tail, it couldn’t remain still any longer, and bolted into the hedge. Let’s say both of us - the badger and the cyclist - were surprised!

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Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - All Souls’ Day
Ripon College Cuddesdon

“You should probably arrive a little early,” they had said, so I gave my books and computer to the Bodleian librarian at 5:15 p.m. and pedalled quickly over to Magdalen College.

At 6:00 p.m. there would be a Eucharist in remembrance of all the departed.

Names of deceased members of the college, as well as names submitted by members of the congregation would be read out as part of the evening’s Intercessions. The music of the liturgy was to be Requiem, by Gabriel Fauré.

When I arrived at the college, a lineup had already begun to form outside the closed chapel door. From time to time, a musician bearing a french horn, or a violin, would arrive, and go in. People robed in cassocks came and went.

The line grew longer and longer. Eventually we were admitted, and I found a seat near the chancel stairs. Being alone, I sat in the middle of the row, so people could get in from either end. However, a young man came along, followed by a number of his friends, who clearly wanted to sit together, so I moved to the end, and they all squeezed in beside me.

In a while, there was standing room only in the silent building. The bell in the tower tolled the slow single strokes used at funerals. Then, it stopped, and with a different bell, chimed the hour of 6:00 p.m.

Immediately the congregation rose to its feet, and a procession of clergy and acolytes came up the aisle to the altar. Far away, in the back of the building, I saw the choir and orchestra members take their places on special bleachers arranged for the occasion.

The service reverently combined worship and music, and once more I was transported into the throne room of Heaven. As promised, the Dean of Divinity read out the names of the dead - from founders and benefactors dead for hundreds of years, to members of the college who had died in 2004; from great and famous scholars, to the ordinary family members of persons present. I myself had submitted some names from my own family, and found it deeply gratifying to hear them read out in the long long list of “those whom we love but see no longer.”

Gorgeous, concert-quality music; and yet... a devoutly celebrated service of Christian worship. One of the highlights for me was to realize that the vast majority of this huge congregation was coming forward to receive the Sacrament. They had not merely come for a concert - they clearly appreciated and desired the spiritual element of the occasion. Indeed, the entire row of youngsters that had filled my pew went up with manifest sincerity.

After the service I went back to the Bodleian, and stayed almost until closing time. The bicycle journey home was without incident, though it was really strange to be eating my evening meal at 11:15 p.m.!

On entering the flat, I noticed that a paper had been slipped under the door sometime during the day.

It said, “Rev’d Tony Harwood-Jones, our visiting scholar from Canada leaves us next week after his sabbatical stay. On Monday 8th November at 8pm, there will be an informal reception and seminar to say farewell to Tony - wine and snacks provided. This will be an opportunity to chat informally, but also to reflect on Anglicanism in a Canadian context, and look at one or two other issues that impact upon the Communion as a whole...”

Attached to this printed notice was a handwritten note from the principal inviting me to preside at the Eucharist on Monday as well.

Needless to say, I was extremely touched.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2004
(Commemoration of Richard Hooker, Doctor of the Church)

Ripon College Cuddesdon

No cycle journeys today.

I had planned for some time to take it easy after so many late nights in Oxford, but there was now an added impetus to re-connect with the college here! Evenings at Magdalen College and very late dinners in my flat meant that I had not in fact eaten among staff and students for five days.

I went to Martyn Percy, the principal, and thanked him for the remarkable and unexpected evening planned for Monday, and asked whether I was supposed to make some sort of formal presentation. As it ended up, we agreed that he would “interview” me for about half an hour, but he also accepted my offer to show, via “PowerPoint” some pictures of Winnipeg, and my parish, and indeed anything else illustrative of the church in Canada that I might have in my computer.

Well, having “opened mouth, inserted foot,” as it were, I thus spent much of the rest of the day preparing a presentation!

Dinner with the student body turned out to be quite different from what I had anticipated! I had known long before coming here that there were at least two other full-fledged theological colleges in, or near to, the city of Oxford, although I did not know their names, or where exactly they were located.

At any rate, once per term, staff and students from three colleges deliberately have an evening together - one third of the membership of Ripon College stays here, and members of two other colleges join them for worship and for dinner. The other two thirds of our faculty and student body go to the other colleges in the same way.

Unbeknownst to me, today was the day for all that to take place, so I ended up sitting at dinner with staff and students from “Wycliffe” college, and from “St. Stephen” college, an unexpected bonus for my immersion in the world of U.K. theological training!

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Next: “Taking Stock
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