Saturday, December 04, 2010

Advent Hope

Usually on Advent Sunday I obtain a ticket to one of the big services at a college, but this year I was invited to sing in a scratch choir at the tiny 14th century leper's chapel at Bartlemas, an oasis of quiet and green in East Oxfordistan. It was cold, very cold, and the heaters were out of propane for most of the afternoon, so we had to do with body heat, but that made no difference.

The service was organised by a newly-ordained young deacon, a DPhil candiate whom I've known for years. I have the usual mixed feelings: he will be wonderful for the institution, but I hate to see him commit spiritual suicide. For some reason (probably time and money) he has taken the local ministry route instead of going to theological college. For him I suspect this has been a good thing.

In any event, he has almost single-handedly kept this little chapel in use for several years, having an Evensong there at the end of every month. I have always meant to go, but I now live clear across town; it's difficult to get there, and I often forget. But I was very glad indeed that I showed up there on Sunday.

There were about ten of us in the choir, with a fortuitous balance. We sang the traditional responsories at the beginning and the end, and the rest was mostly hymns, but in true English style, the standard was amazingly high and I felt very honoured to be singing in this group—how I miss singing! But most Oxford groups are too high-powered for me; I want something more reflective, and this little group filled the bill.

We rehearsed for a couple of hours I guess—I completely lost track of the time, always a good sign. We went across the way for a break and then came back and took our places in the chancel along the walls and (quite open) screen. The chapel is very simple with an East-facing altar elevated on a couple of steps, a screen, and seating for about 50 in the nave. It was packed out. There was no electric light, only candles that each person held.

There were seven readings, quite short, with silence (never enough for me, but a good step in the right direction). Ben, the deacon, sat in the background to one side of the altar, on the step, like a story-teller who had set the scene in motion and become invisible. When the silence ended after each lesson there was a carol, which everyone sang, the choir in parts. At the end, Ben, always very low-key and exuding silence, said one or two prayers, good ones, and then gave a profound little meditation strung together entirely from key phrases from the Advent prophecies and stories: it was like sitting in an echo-chamber outside of time and space. Wonderful.

How he has managed to stick with it and swim upstream against noise and program and banality I will never know, but more power to him. I mean that literally. If only the institution could recognise that this is the way we need to go. But alas, there are all too few Bens in the world.

The second sign of hope this week occured last night. Unusually for me, I went to an evening event, an open meeting of the Oxford Graduate Theological Society held at Christ Church. In my despair I have deliberately stayed out of the loop. I didn't know what to expect from the theme, which was teaching theology in a secular university, but it was interesting to say the least. Most interesting was the chair of the Faculty who is German, and deeply thoughtful. For the first time in twenty-five years I heard reference to 'sapiential theology'; he even dared use the word 'meditation'. When we broke for groups he came and sat at the table where I was and asked us to introduce ourselves. I said very little except to point out that if he had said what he did when I first came to Oxford twenty-five years ago, he would have been written off, and how grateful I was to see that there is progress in restoring the balance. Again, I wondered how he had managed to swim upstream, but perhaps Germany is ahead of the UK in these matters (it usually is)—and his being a Bonhoeffer specialist explains much.

The graduate students were a good lot. When the clock struck ten, though the meeting was far from over, I slipped out, glad that I had hauled my carcase into the cold and walked the mile down to Christ Church to listen.

Outside there was a layer of ice on every surface, fortunately the crunchy sort, so not too slippery, but no sooner had I reached home and shut the door behind me than the skies opened. I love the sound of rain on the roof; it seemed especially appropriate that the terrible cold had broken just after these signs of thaw in theology. 'Drop down ye heavens from above. . . '

I slept better last night than I have for a very, very long time.


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