Alan Thurlow offers some comments on the March 2021 edition of New Directions
Life always takes us by surprise. How is it that what was originally intended as a short ‘Letter to the Editor’, commenting about the use of just one single word in an article in the March edition of ND, has managed to turn itself into a full article? I’ll return to that word later.
Tina and I joined Forward in Faith at the very beginning and, since then, I have always been an avid reader of ND. In the early years, like so many of us, I eagerly awaited each monthly edition in order to read the latest article penned by Fr Geoffrey Kirk. I’m sure there must have been others who, like me, nurtured an ambition to meet the man himself by booking up for one of his fund-raising Friday evening dinner parties in Lewisham, but somehow never managed to make it happen. Friday evening was our choir’s ‘long practice’ of the week, and it was not easy for me to be absent. Roll on thirty years or more, and I still look forward to receiving ND. I found the March edition particularly interesting. Coming, as I do, from East London origins, Paul Hamilton’s opening article on All Saints, Horndon, reminded me of that distinctive landmark. I have never managed to visit, but in my early years often saw it through the windows of a coach on occasions such as Sunday School outings at Christmas to see the ‘Sarfend ‘ (= Southend) lights. In addition to my sympathy for the damage caused by the revellers, I was deeply struck by Fr Paul’s account of his vision and ministry in the two parishes he serves, which have such different traditions.
Next came Richard Norman’s excellent exposition on our duty to worship, putting so well into words something that Tina and I feel deeply about. I would add a couple of additional thoughts. First, the importance of the words ‘meekly kneeling upon your knees’, something which retains an important place in Catholic and Orthodox worship but is increasingly lost sight of in our own churches, where today’s ‘feel good’ approach so commonly fails to distinguish between what is ‘entertainment’ and what lifts us to a higher plane where we can encounter God in a mix of meekness and humility. The second thought is to emphasize the importance of ‘church’ as a sacred space. With our culture of ‘multi-purpose’ halls, and re-orderings which put more emphasis on the flexibility of the building for use in secular events than as a sacred space, we are increasingly in danger of losing sight of the numinous. Once again it is the Catholic and Orthodox churches that continue to set the example. This was brought home to me a few years ago during the annual three-day conference of Diocesan Organ Advisers, which in that year was held in the Diocese of Derby. Following the conventional pattern, the middle day took the form of a coach outing to visit a number of churches with interesting pipe organs that were either in need of restoration or had recently had work carried out on them. At each location we listened to a short recital, spent time inspecting and trying the instrument, then had a discussion about the approach we would have taken individually had we been asked to advise, and our opinions about work that had actually been done. The lovely churches we visited were mostly ancient, and all but one were Anglican. Most were normally kept locked, but opened up specially for us when we arrived. Once inside, we took over the building for our own purpose, with no feeling for the fact that it was a church. The last visit of the day, however, was to a Roman Catholic church on the outskirts of Derby. It was a modern brick-built building, lofty inside, and we were there to see an electronic organ, not a pipe organ. When we arrived we found an open church and, as we entered, votive candles were alight on a pricket stand, and several people on their knees, deep in prayer. Nothing was said, but our same group of people instinctively used the building in a totally different way, moving about quietly and speaking in whispers. That says a lot about us, doesn’t it?
But it was a later article – Nigel Aston’s excellent criticism of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell’s entry in the Oxford DNB – which stimulated this response. I can’t claim to have known +Geoffrey well but, along with Fr Gareth Bennett in the 1980s, Geoffrey was one of the Canons of Chichester that I always enjoyed talking with on occasions like the Annual Meeting of the ‘Greater Chapter’, when the College of Canons assembled and met at the Cathedral. More recently, I also encountered Geoffrey on a number of occasions after he moved to Chichester for his retirement. Tina sings in the choir at Boxgrove Priory, so we have a constant reminder of him whenever we walk through the churchyard and pass his grave.
The first point to strike me in the article was the reference, towards the end of the first page, to the ‘effects on ecumenical relations’ of the ordination of women. It brought back memories of a sermon I heard preached in the 1960s at St Barnabas Church, Woodford, in the days when I was in the choir. Our parish priest, Fr Denis Granville Mumby, was an outstanding man. When he preached he would stand at the Chancel step and talk to his congregation, assisted only by a card with some notes written on it. He always spoke in a way that even a young schoolboy like me could comprehend. The sermon I refer to was preached at the time of the Anglo-Methodist discussions on unity, and the message was that, whilst it is always good when people who have argued with you seek to resolve their differences with you, it is more important that we should look to our own differences with those we may have fallen out with, and seek to mend those.
So, finally, we get to the word which prompted me to write. Towards the end of his article, where Nigel Aston mentions the work of our Diocesan European Ecumenical Committee, he writes ‘which had particularly strong links…’. The word should be ‘has’, since the links were there long before Geoffrey Rowell’s arrival and continue to thrive today. Having been privileged to serve on that Committee from the mid 1980s, when it was founded, until my retirement in 2008, I thought it might be of interest to ND readers to learn something about these links.
In 1984, as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the birth of Bishop George Bell, our then Bishop, Eric Kemp, arranged an ecumenical Bell Colloquium in Chichester. Seventy participants attended, including Catholic and Protestant delegates from France and Germany. Out of the event grew an interest in developing some of the ecumenical friendships that had been made through it. Negotiations began towards establishing links with the region of Upper Franconia where, in 1982, Bishop Kemp and Dean Robert Holtby had visited the town of Marktredwitz when planning the Anglo-German Tapestry unveiled in the retro quire of Chichester Cathedral as part of the Bell celebrations. That area of Germany was considered relevant as it includes Flossenbürg, which housed the concentration camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed just days before the liberating forces arrived.
The first of the now biennial exchange conferences took place in September 1985 and was held in a retreat centre near Coburg. This gave them the name of the Coburg Conferences, although the venue has been different on each subsequent occasion, rotating between the four participating delegations. In addition to the Chichester Diocese, the other participants are the Lutheran Kirchenkreis of Bayreuth, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bamberg, and the Lutheran Church of Berlin-Brandenburg. Berlin, then of course still a divided city within East Germany, was included because Bonhoeffer was born there. In the Parish Room at Alt Schӧneberg (where he grew up) is a Bishop Bell Room, with a photo of Bell on the wall. Following the initial Coburg Conference, partnerships were founded between groups within each delegation. Links were successfully established between the Seminary at Bamberg and the Theological Colleges at Chichester and Bayreuth. Sadly these Colleges are now closed, but the links continue as part of post-Ordination training. Direct twinning of some parishes was also initiated, the most successful of which have been St Paul’s, Chichester with Alt Schӧneberg, All Saints, Crowborough with the Lutheran Church at Pegnitz, and Arundel Parish Church with the Roman Catholic Church at Stegaurach, just outside Bamberg. With four delegations, and a conference every two years, each delegation has to host the Conference every eight years.
An active twinning was also established between the choirs of Bamberg and Chichester Cathedrals, a highlight of which was in May 1995, when a service took place simultaneously in both buildings and was broadcast live by the BBC as part of their programme of events to mark the 50th anniversary of VE day. Thanks to sound systems installed in both buildings by the BBC (to enable each congregation hear what the other was doing) the singing was well together, though with only one organ at a time (sometimes Bamberg, sometimes Chichester) being played to lead the singing. Two addresses were given. The Right Reverend Michael Marshall, Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Adviser for the decade of Evangelism, gave the sermon in Bamberg Cathedral, and Dr Wolfgang Klausnitzer, Professor of Ecumenical Theology at the University of Bamberg, preached in Chichester Cathedral. It is memorable how Canon Klausnitzer made special mention in his sermon that, in their area of Germany, there had been no ecumenical contact between the Catholics and Lutherans before the Church of England, in the form of Chichester, arrived to act as the catalyst. The Lutherans from Bayreuth and the Catholics from Bamberg had met their counterparts for the first time in Chichester in 1984 when they attended the Bell Colloquium. The most recent Coburg Conference was held in Chichester in the autumn of 2019. The Chichester choir was due to visit Bamberg again in the first half of 2020, but of course that visit could not take place because of the Covid pandemic..
Readers (and the Editor) may be interested to know that, at the request of Canon Klausnitzer, every three months I have for many years regularly mailed that quarter’s copies of New Directions to Bamberg, where I understand they are much appreciated and which, once read, are retained in their Library for reference.
Alan Thurlow was Organist & Master of the Choristers at Chichester Cathedral from 1980 to 2008 and, on his retirement, was appointed Organist Emeritus.