Writing this in the last few days of my stay here at Sarum College in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England I find myself wondering if I should write about some of the poems I have discovered, or the books I have read, or the ideas about Church renewal and sacred space I have formulated. Then I realise that to communicate some of this material would take quite a few pages. So I am left wondering, what I can write about from me here to you there. Then I had this thought…………
A few days ago I decided to visit Romsey Abbey. You may be wondering where is that and why visit there?
Before I answer that, I want to take you back 39 years, to when Fleur and I first arrived in New Zealand. Settling into a new country is never easy; indeed at times it is a very painful experience, especially when you know no one in the new land you are now calling home. It is perfectly natural that one compares, what one has left behind to what one perceives is present or not present in one’s new environment. One of the things that I missed when I first came to New Zealand and have been reminded of again while being back in England is a sense of history. Not having my library with me and the College Library is closed at this late hour, but all is not lost, Mr Google helped me find this quote on Wikepedia by British historian E.H. Carr from 1961:
‘History has been described and defined in many ways, but a description I like is “The line of demarcation between prehistoric and historical times is crossed when people cease to live only in the present, and become consciously interested both in their past and in their future. History begins with the handing down of tradition; and tradition means the carrying of the habits and lessons of the past into the future. Records of the past begin to be kept for the benefit of future generations”
One aspect of this description I particularly like is the sentence: History begins with the handing down of tradition; and tradition means the carrying of the habits and lessons of the past into the future. I know in some quarters tradition gets a bad press, indeed some say, tradition is what prevents nations, communities, organisations, including churches, from moving forward, changing and becoming more alive and vibrant. I admit, I used to think like that, but I have changed my thinking. Tradition per se is not the issue, rather it is traditionalism that may prevent new life and vibrancy. I don’t want to get side tracked, for space and time forbid a fuller exploration of tradition and traditionalism – meanwhile I return to history, and ‘the handing down of tradition.’ This phrase offers so much and embodies why I wanted to visit Romsey Abbey.
Romsey Abbey, is situated in the heart of the market town of Romsey. For those of you who like lots of information, I offer you the following:
Romsey is situated 13 Km north west of Southampton and 18 Km south west of Winchester in the county of Hampshire. It lies on the River Test and is one of the principal towns in the Test Valley and approximately 15,000 people live in the town. One of the more famous people of the town is Lord Mountbatten of Burma who was murdered by a terrorist explosion in Ireland on 27 August 1979 and is buried in the Abbey following a State funeral in Westminster Abbey. Romsey Abbey dominates the town and historically the town grew from a collection of buildings outside the Abbey walls, to a village and eventually a small market town.
The original Abbey on the site dates from circa 907 CE (Common Era) and was a centre of worship for a Benedictine Order of Nuns. The religious community grew and the village grew around the community keeping it supplied with produce.
However, this idyllic lifestyle was shattered in 993 CE when Viking raiders sacked the village and burnt down the original church. However, the Abbey was re–built in stone around 1000 CE and the village and surrounding district quickly recovered and became renowned as a seat of learning and education.
In Norman times a substantial new Abbey, primarily designed as a convent, was built on the Anglo – Saxon foundation circa 1130 to 1140 CE. It is this imposing Norman designed structure that dominates the town to this day.
The Abbey continued to prosper, at times having over 100 nuns living in the community. Then at the time of the Black Death, the plague struck the town in 1348/9. It is thought that as much as half the population of the town, which was then over 1000, died as a result and the number of nuns fell by over 80% to 19. This deeply affected the overall prosperity of the Abbey and its death knell was being finally achieved by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.
The Abbey was not demolished, although the community was forcibly dispersed. This was because it had in modern terms a ‘dual use’. It really was a church within a church used by both the Religious Order of Nuns and the townspeople. The area used solely for the townspeople was dedicated to St Lawrence. Four townspeople purchased the Abbey from the Crown for 100 pounds in 1554. Then in a curious twist after it was purchased, the area the townspeople worshiped in was demolished and the current building remains. In 19th Century it was restored to its former glory and it is now the largest parish church in the county.
On the Abbey site, there has been a worshipping community for over 1100 years and within the Abbey itself stands that great Norman Church building; people have worshiped for over 900 years. It remains today a place of prayer and pilgrimage.
Walking round this amazing building, so full of history and presence, I became curious what these stones could tell of past communities of faith. I also sensed the real presence of tradition, the handing down from one generation to another of the sacredness of that place, along with the sharing in acts of worship and the telling of their stories
Leaving the Abbey and walking through the entrance gate into the town, I became aware that I was leaving one place and entering another. I experience the same here in Salisbury. The Cathedral is situated in a walled close, and the four gates are closed each night at 10.30 pm and opened at 7.00am. Now, it is easy to say, well one is the spiritual world of the Abbey and Cathedral, while the other is the secular world of everyday life, pleasure, work and business.
I think this distinction and separation has been the cause of much difficulty in our understanding of spirituality within a Christian tradition and New Zealand is not immune to this influence. This idea of separating the spiritual or sacred from the ordinary or secular produces a dualism which may leave us somewhat feeling schizophrenic. By that I mean, we may feel split in some way, as we place spiritual things in a ‘God box’ and secular things in ‘An Ordinary Box.’ It follows then that the God stuff becomes holy, the secular becomes profane and never the twain shall meet.
I want to demolish this kind of thinking; it has never been helpful and never will be.
We live, move and have our being within the One we name as God. The whole of our lives are embraced within this sacred presence. I came across the following a few weeks ago, alas, I can’t find the reference, but, I know it was not written recently:
God is not so much an object
To be thought or even thought about
Much less discussed endlessly
As a presence to be sought
What a delightful phrase: As a presence to be sought, of course that presence is not reserved solely for the church building, rather it is, wherever we are. A quote I used a few times at St Aidans in our services prior to leaving for Study Leave is this from Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor, were she writes of God being like a ‘luminous web’. She describes this as:
God is all over the place
God is up there, down here
Inside my skin and out
God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them – as if any of these concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationships that animates everything that is
Now that certainly dissolves any idea of the separation of the ‘God box’ and the ‘Ordinary box’. Rather, there is life and God is that life, everything is embraced in God and nothing is excluded.
When I reflect on that, I experience a lightness of being. Life seems to become lighter, less heavy, more relaxed and I discover, and be with God anywhere and at any time.
A poet who I serendipitously discovered while on Study Leave is R. S. Thomas. He was an Anglican Minister and a Welshman. He died in 2000. In one of his poems he has these words:
You are at our shoulder, whispering
of the still pool we could sit down
by: of the tree of quietness
That is at hand.
These words remind me, that there is no place devoid of the presence of the One we may name as God. There is no place that we have to go to for us to be with God and God with us. We are always in each other’s presence, and this requires no more than an attitude of heart and mind in which we may feel our belonging to that mysterious luminous web we may call God. However we may perceive the sacred and the secular there is no separation between, for each is embraced within the Mystery of the Holy.
Now that is a tradition worth savouring and handing on.
I look forward to once more being in your physical presence at St Aidans. Until then you remain within the memory banks of my heart.