One of the striking things about church life in England is the number of churches. There are countless villages and each one has it’s own church. They are small and sturdy buildings centuries old, usually with cemeteries surrounding them and an ancient history of ministry to the people and families of those villages. The Church in Bredgar where I celebrated a family Eucharist on April 19 is such a church.
One of five churches under the care of Canon Smith (who preached at St. George’s the same day ) it is also recorded in the Domesday Book. In 1066 William the Conqueror inventoried everything in the country down to the last building, person and animal!
In there Diocese of Rochester alone there are over 400 churches. By comparison the Diocese of Newark has about 110 churches for roughly the same geographic area. As we just celebrated our centennial, it’s hard to imagine a church which has celebrated its millennium! The congregation was very warm and gracious to us - my parents flew over for an extended weekend and a wonderful visit. They were very enthusiastic in their family worship and show a strong team work. Five churches sharing the services of one priest have to be creative and independent, and they are!
That afternoon I preached at Rochester Cathedral. Created in 604AD on land given by king Ethelbert and rebuilt in the 14th century it is the second oldest Cathedral in England. Walking around history is wonderful. The music was absolutely beautiful and the Cathedral staff was also very welcoming. It was a thrill to preach to a congregation of regular attendees and pilgrims as they settled in the large choir stalls.
Rochester and Canterbury are very different in some ways architecturally and with different histories and influences. But each is also a contemporary Cathedral. These are not museums or crypts although they have elements of them. In Canterbury and Rochester priority is given to the worship. Sections of them are closed to tourists during worship by a set of uniformed ushers that are rather formidable. Pictures are not allowed during the services - though I did manage a couple video clips I’ll try to post! They are work sites since all bildings are in constant need of repair and upgrade. Scaffolding and the sounds of hammers, drill and saw fill the air as an earthly counterpoint to the angelic choirs inside!
In Canterbury the nave also housed the Archbishop’s lectures, and concerts during Holy Week. The many chapels are used for daily prayers and Eucharist. The day after the glorious Easter celebrations the chairs in the nave were removed and stacked while preparations got underway to receive hundreds of Diocesan youth for an event that included rock concerts, talks and break out groups in the chapels. I saw the Archbishop change hats (figuratively) from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Bishop of Canterbury overseeing the arrangements and getting ready to greet the youth.
I learned that the Cathedral in Rochester is used similarly. In fact as my parents and I were leaving after Evensong, a saxophone concert was starting in the nave. If we didn’t have to get to the airport we would have stayed!
It was both a surprise and yet obvious that these buildings are still living into their ministry. Although they contain shrines, they are not shrines to the past. They are living, breathing places of worship and ministry. Contemporary and ancient expressions exist side by side as they always have. What was a modern update in the 14th century is still as ancient as pilgrims will consider 21st century updates in another few hundred years.
Cathedrals use height, light, darkness and detail to point to God. The soaring pillars and archways draw our eyes and attention heavenward in awe. Light emanates from huge windows illuminating the sculpted and illustrated word of God, thereby illuminating the spirits of God’s people. Shadows and darkness draw our quiet selves into contemplation and prayer. There is no detail too extravagant or unimportant. Just as God created the world in its infinite, unique variety, so the cathedrals reflect the joy in small wonders of perfection seen and unseen by human eye.