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

Covenant love and same sex relationships

Covenant love and same sex relationships ~ the Christian Church’s priorities in understanding marriage

As a recently retired priest in the Church of England who has served in five parishes and a cathedral, I plead that the bishops and theologians of the Church might revisit our Christian understanding and practice of marriage.  Scripture, tradition and reason must release us from a text book mentality by which people are rejected or excluded from the very heart and purpose of the Holy Bible.  For Christians, the Bible is uneven in its texts and history and tone; it reflects our turbulent common life and our changing understanding of God and creation over centuries.  Since the last word of the scriptures was penned, our human experience has continued in this process and the Bible forms a unique and inspired guide to the purpose and practice of our human lives: ‘gospel’ – good news.
The good news is covenant love.  God is relationship and meets us, blesses us and redeems us in relationship.  Rules and laws are the common structures which allow human life to flourish in covenant love – a relationship which always carries the intrinsic risk of mutual trust.
Marriage is not the invention of any one religion or group and within the pages of the Bible there are widely ranging examples of what it is.  However, if it is relationship and trust that define and create marriage rather than biology and instinct, then the Church needs to revisit the Christian interpretation of holy matrimony.  
Jesus redefined the rules of society and religion by the primacy of grace in which all life is transformed by the action of God in his life, death and resurrection.  This is the new covenant: a relationship formed by love and guided by rules, not the other way around. It is radical and revolutionary because love can and does change everything.  It is not trapped and sealed in the past but vibrant and alive in the present and leads humanity into the future.  Looking back over the centuries we can see revolutions in thought and society achieved through science, politics and human goodness and determination.  Our thinking, expectations, assumptions and daily living are radically different from those who have lived before us and the Christian gospel unites us in covenant love which reforms and reshapes humanity in every age.
The world is not hostile and evil: it is God’s creation in which our human lives have interacted and changed it.  Living in covenant with the creator is our human calling and human marriage is interpreted by Christians as a reflection of that union within God himself between the Father and the body of Christ, the Church.  This is much more than biology and nature: it is a sign of the new creation, the relationship of love and eternity in time, in Jesus the living Christ.
Marriage is for the benefit of individuals and society; it is God’s blessing of covenant love forged in intimacy and lived out universally. It is the trust and the bond which produces freedom in this world and speaks of a greater reality beyond our horizons.  Why is this to be denied to same sex relationships?  We, the Christian Church, must not be lazy or cowardly and say that marriage is immutable – because it never has been. Indeed, marriage is intrinsically the union of difference and change through the power of grace in mutual love and commitment.  Please, can we dare to be inspired by truth and love and mercy in the Bible, in the risen life of Jesus and in the Spirit who sets us free?

© Neil Thompson 2017

Metrical Psalm 98

Metre: Common Metre extendedAntioch

Sing to the Lord your heart’s new song
For all his marvels done;
His will declared through ages long –
God saves: our victory’s won,
God saves: our victory’s won,
God saves, God saves: our victory’s won!

To all the world he shows his truth
In Israel’s faith and life.
The age–worn world finds hope and youth –
His peace dispels our strife,
His peace dispels our strife,
His peace, his peace dispels our strife.

Burst out in song O fearful earth,
Make music filled with joy
With singing, harp and trumpet’s mirth
All tears and want destroy,
All tears and want destroy,
All tears, all tears and want destroy.

Clap, clap your hands, O seas and hills
For God is judge and Lord;
The earth is blessed and freed from ills
With love and truth outpoured,
With love and truth outpoured,
With love, with love and truth outpoured.

© Neil Thompson 2016

The kiss of God

Hush.

Stop. Be still.

What is it to be kissed?
Yes, think
...and then stop thinking.

The Christmas birth is the kiss of God.
God takes our humanity – and our lips
– he kisses and is kissed.
Is this real?
Is God in love with you and me?
Is he so close as to touch and kiss?

So many questions but a kiss is a kiss.
It is love and flesh combined.
It lasts yet is gone:
touched, blessed, ravished and set free.

God’s heartbeat is born:
a baby to be loved
and hidden until strong enough
to be kissed in the Garden
and abandoned to the Cross.

What is it to be kissed?
It is surrender – in the moment
and for eternity.

Did shepherds and kings kiss you
O little one of Bethlehem?
Can I?

If I can’t, can we ever be one?

You kiss me till my dying breath,
O love eternal –
use my lips to bring that truth
to life today.

© Neil Thompson 2015

Wind and Fire ~ A Sonnet for Pentecost

The power of nature flows through every day
– it lights and holds each moment’s thought and move
Yet humankind has walked illusion’s way
By making self the point of all to prove.
The winds bring change and life o’er all the earth
And fire ignites a danger rarely tamed;
For we are not the masters making worth
Creation’s life – by us forever framed.
The fiftieth day of Easter changes all
As fire and wind bring power of love by grace:
The spirit burns and blows to seek our hearts
And minds – so meaning’s purpose finds the place
In human wills inspired by nature’s arts.
We live beyond ourselves for evermore
In Spirit’s breath fulfilling every law.

© Neil Thompson 2015

Candlemas ~ A Sonnet

Two turtledoves are offered to the Lord
As firstborn son is given back by Law;
The ancient covenant brings lives outpoured
In simple gifts, the offering of the poor.
Through Temple courts the infant Jesus’ light
Is recognised by Simeon’s vigil eyes
Waiting for God to flood dark Israel’s night
With glory – and with light, the Gentiles’ prize.
Many will rise and fall in God’s new age
As Jesus, God’s anointed holy one,
Brings judgement as foretold in scripture’s page,
Salvation’s grace bestowed in Christ, the Son.
So take the flame of Jesus’ holy birth
And walk by faith God’s gift of days on earth!

© Neil Thompson 2015

A Christmas Sonnet of the Dispossessed

We know the place where Jesus Christ was born
As God took breath and laid his head on earth;
Yet power and people mixed their love with scorn –
And soon the babe takes flight from Bethlem’s birth
Escaping sword and jealous murderous fears
To find a refuge in a distant land.
We learn that joys of love are bathed in tears
As Christ our brother holds us by the hand:
The newly born becomes a man despised,
For living out the truth that conquers loss;
He wanders homeless, humbly – God–disguised –
And brought to shame and death on Calvary’s cross.
So, all displaced by war and want are one
With God – who shares all pain in Christ his Son.

© Neil Thompson 2015

A Contradiction of Sense

God’s Son is born as cattle low
and heaven’s silent trumpets blow:
the Christ arrives in darkest night
lit by love’s invisible light.

We know this story
but is it really true?
It strains our credibility –
thin on facts and
rich in poetry.

The Bethlehem scene tests us:
everything here
asks us questions
and searches us out
for the rest of time.

The smelly stable
Is now a part of heaven.
The munching beasts
and creaking beams
resound the music of the angels.
The flickering lamp
and pale moonbeams
are flooded by
celestial invisible glory.

Here, all human weakness is met;
all pain and loss is transformed:
by this collision
and these contradictions.

This baby takes us to the cross
and the grave
…but does not leave us there.

Christmas overcomes our power
and invites another.
Truth is never simpler
nor nearer:
the silent trumpets sound and
the darkest light streams in!

God’s Son is born as cattle low
and heaven’s silent trumpets blow:
the Christ arrives in darkest night
lit by love’s invisible light.

© Neil Thompson 2014

A Hymn of St Francis

Metre: 87 87 47St Helen

Saint much loved for simple living,
Born with wealth to God repay:
Heard love's call to selfless giving –
Mends God's house without delay.
Holy Francis,
Pray for us, Christ's Church today.

Poor for Christ and rich for ever,
Francis shows what all can be
When our selfish lusts we sever
In God's greater liberty.
Holy Francis,
Clothed in true humility.

Great the love he showed for Jesus –
Rich and poor alike did treat –
In the way our Saviour sees us:
Through the cross all people meet.
Holy Francis,
Marked by love in hands and feet.

Christmas crib he built for seeing
God in Jesus' humble birth;
Time and nature now agreeing
By love's gift beyond all worth.
Holy Francis,
One with God and all the earth!

© Neil Thompson 2014

A Hymn of Gathering

Metre: 76 76 D Refrain 6686 Tune: Wir Pflugen

We gather as God’s people
To be his life today;
We have to be together
To learn Christ’s saving way.
Our failings here forgiven,
New life from God outpoured;
His Church is now made holy,
By Jesus’ grace restored.

God’s love calls each person
To form Christ’s family:
We share his life, receive his food –
Transformed in unity.

We come to God in worship
To give ourselves in love.
We hear his holy Gospel –
Truth coming from above.
The story of our Saviour
Lives here in you and me
To be his love for others:
Christ sets all people free!

The mystery of Christ’s body
Gives every time and place
The promise of his presence:
Hope for the human race.
He needs us to be faithful
As Jesus’ life today;
We ask for strength and blessing
To live out what we pray.

© Neil Thompson 2014