An Abbey, Cathedral and Minster … and Little Gidding

Monday 9 July 2018

It might be turning into a routine, swimming in Loweswater after evensong, on Sunday evenings. Well, obvs, a summer routine …

Yesterday evening was just as glorious as the previous Sunday – the water inviting, the mountains surrounding. In the pub afterwards we had a pint of Loweswater and a bowl of plum crumble. ‘You’ve been swimming too. There’s been quite a few this evening.’ Said the bar attender as she took our order. ‘Not sure.’ She said in response to Peter’s encouragement that she should go after work. ‘It’s not so romantic when it’s just you.’ The water was dark, less playful, this time. I took the odd mouthful as I swam, to taste its depths.

Between swims in Loweswater, much had happened in the week. I’ve travelled all over the country, and worshipped in three of the most prestigious churches – an Abbey, a Cathedral, a Minster. I’ve also been to Little Gidding, which has its own contribution to make to the spiritual wealth of this nation. All a good distance from Workington.

Last Monday saw me heading south to stay at Westminster Abbey with Jane, to be there for Viv’s consecration as Bishop of Bristol on Tuesday at St Paul’s.

Jane is Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret’s Church, which means she is often in and around the Houses of Parliament, at the heart of government. She chairs the Westminster Institute, which fosters engagement between the Church and public life. I’ve asked if Full of Character can be launched there when it’s out.

On Tuesday morning we went to Morning Prayer in the exquisite St Faith’s Chapel. ‘It used to be a store room’, she said. Built as part of the development from 1245 by Henry III, your eye is captured by a large feminine form above the altar, carrying what looks like a chart or table. ‘Who was St Faith?’ I ask Jane. ‘No one really knows. It seems she was martyred on a girdle’. Now the painting is lit beautifully and the walls resonate with prayer.

We look around Poets’ Corner, and bemoan the lack of women there. Where’s Dorothy L. Sayers? Rose Macaulay? Iris Murdoch? Jane told me of a series of lectures, Excellent Women, they’d held here, in Poets’ Corner, to celebrate Anglican Women Novelists from Charlotte Bronte onwards. There’s a book of this title, edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell, that’s coming out shortly, to be published by Bloomsbury.

We wandered over to see the memorial stone to Stephen Hawking – “Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking, 1942 – 2018” – between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Then off to St Paul’s in a taxi, with cassock, surplice and red stole. Before the service, the Dean and I caught up with family news under the shadow of John Donne. This memorial belongs here, the only stone to survive the Great Fire of 1666, that destroyed the 17C St Paul’s. I love it – just as I love John Donne. His fascination with death and dying, and life and love.


Paula Gooder was there to preach. She invited me to Birmingham to talk of being a freelance theologian.


Then the service began in the cool of Christopher Wren’s great St Paul’s. It’s not a building I get on with, somehow. It performs itself too ostentatiously.

Paula preached on Doubting Thomas, and how he didn’t really deserve his nick name. The acoustic in St Paul’s is notoriously hard; and it was not always easy singing the hymns.

We sat as we were reminded of the role of the Bishop.


Then hands were laid, rings blessed and given, and crooks received. Viv explained later that hers was made of the last oak to remain from the 1984 fire at York Minster.

Some clergy can’t switch off. Someone in earshot provided a running commentary on the service to his neighbour all the way through.

I was left reflecting on the Church as the means of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament – the real presence of Christ in bread and wine – and how lacking in reverence we are, so often, in our worship; how little we prepare in silence to receive. Anglicans are so good at chatting, at making light, at being messy. I’m sure we would have more impact if we took it all more seriously, more formally. The Church as the means of God’s grace, through Word and Sacrament. A Church that bears the weight of holiness, in its worship and practice. At Mirfield we were in silence before the service – a deep well of communion, as hearts and minds become still before the Lord. I miss that.

The weight of holiness lightened with joy, of course.

Here’s Viv, on the steps of St Paul’s.


Here you see her crook and ring.


And then to Lambeth for lunch.


The chance to catch up with old friends over excellent food in the marquee.

Rachel was there. I haven’t seen her since she was a priest in Manchester. She’s now married to Mike – who was also a priest at that time in Manchester.  It was a delight to see them both again and hear their news.

John and I fell into an animated conversation about the Lakes and his familiarity with the fells at the head of Borrowdale. He spoke of his wife’s death of MS, some years ago now, while he was with his small children in Borrowdale. How there was nothing to be done, but walk and spend time with them.

The Dean of Bristol is absolutely delighted that Viv has been appointed.

I walked to the Tube with Bishops Frank and Alison and we talked all the way. Euston, and the train journey home.

Wednesday morning, and great Cathedral number three, as I travel the train to York.


Twice a year the cell group I belong to meets – in December for the day at Westminster Abbey, and overnight in York, at the time of General Synod.

Cell groups often establish at Theological College, and many continue with the same membership for decades, each with their own pattern of meeting. I’m not sure how long this one has been going, but it evolved to include me about four years ago. The members take about 40 minutes or so each to talk through the priorities, concerns, hopes and fears of their life at the present, and listen with emotional intelligence to each other. A meal out at a restaurant in York that evening, and we talk of the bishop’s ring, made of amethyst – traditionally, to signify no drunkenness – following the injunction in 1 Timothy, chapter 3, verse 2, that bishops be sober. We enjoy that. We talked of mitres, and how they should be worn; how ridiculous they look when worn on the back of the head. Of moves and transitions, and the state of the world and the Church.

Morning Prayer on Thursday is in the Zouche Chapel, and to my delight I’m accompanied by stained glass birds.





The scaffolding beyond is a nice reality.

We see the East Window, revealed in May after 12 years of scaffolding to enable repairs.


The website says ‘All 311 stained glass panels were removed from the 15th-century window, which is the size of a tennis court, in 2008, so York Glaziers Trust could begin the mammoth task of restoring the fragile masterpiece.’

The space below is waiting for new furniture, to pull it all together as a glorious place to be and to worship. We examined the marble altar that used to stand against the great East wall. What to do with it? It belongs there, but perhaps not as an altar any more.


The Cell Group talked of our future pattern to meet. I’m now the only Northern member. Previously we’ve tied it into General Synod, meeting in York. They all said they’d be happy to come to Workington. I’ll have to hold them to that.

Home on the train – through Durham, to Newcastle, and then across the north, through Hexham to Carlisle, and onwards around the coast, through Dalston, Wigton, Aspatria, Maryport and Flimby, in time to spend time with Theo and Hsuan, and to listen carefully to their views on the football. There’s a big match coming up on Saturday against Sweden, I gather. We watch it, when the time comes. Or at least, they head off to a pub in town, as we don’t have a TV, and Peter and I see the highlights, drifting in and out as I work at way at the garage, and Peter chops up an old chest of drawers for firewood.

Our new chickens are now settled enough to be allowed out to free range the back garden.


They are Wyandottes – so will look rather glorious when they are mature. One of them is a cockerel. That could be fun.

And in the Lady Chapel at St Michael’s Workington, the cock crowing in the St Peter window.


A bit late in the day when I return from York on Thursday, I prepare my report for the Little Gidding Trust AGM, which I chair.

It’s a long drive across the A66 and down the A1, on Friday, to get there – but a good meeting. We’re making progress as we oversee the properties and improve their quality as homes. That’s been the main priority of the last year. Soon, we need to turn our attention to developing the place further as the spiritual resource it needs to be. The T S Eliot festival happened there this Sunday.

It’s a great place to visit. After all those wonderful Cathedrals, a delicious taste of tranquillity and peace that leaves its enchantment long after you’ve left.


One thought on “An Abbey, Cathedral and Minster … and Little Gidding

  1. Lorna Atwell

    Why don’t you offer to do the diary page of The Church Times? I am enjoying reading this rather more than some of their efforts; you write well.

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