Rowan Williams is probably the most underrated of recent archbishops of Canterbury. Once I saw him raise an eyebrow, in response to a question at a lecture in the University Church in Oxford. Much of the lecture was hard to understand, but that was a gesture laden with symbolism, almost as if no words were even necessary.
It is not everyone’s idea of a good Friday night out after a hard day’s taxi driving, but a sermon from him is a real treat and so it was I headed off to Saint Michael and All Angels Church in Albert Park in Abingdon.
Doctor Williams was preaching and presiding, but also confirming and dedicating a new set of three bells, as the church celebrated one hundred and fifty years since its dedication.
There was not only all of this, but also an outstandingly beautiful Flower Festival, on a theme of angels, with proper biblically sourced references for the displays. As the result of his sermon, I left for the first time in my life with a clear idea of what an angel actually is. Certainly, the angels who live among us in Abingdon do not wear white cloaks, have wings, nor strum harps all day long.
Saint Michael and All Angels in Albert Park, Abingdon is in what is known as the Anglo Catholic, or “high church” tradition of the Church of England. That is, characterised by choral music and responses, order and ceremony, a liturgical approach to worship and the use of incense and bells, or ‘bells and smells’, to use the colloquial expression.
It is quite different from the low church evangelical, slightly charismatic tradition of church, where I worship on a Sunday. But there is a simple and lucid spoken Mass, offered week in and week out, every Thursday lunchtime, for as long as anybody can remember. And in the middle of a hectic working week, where it is never known where the next five pounds fare is coming from, tradition is important and receipt of consecrated bread and wine brings comfort.
Along with the clergy husbands, Sacristan, Thurifer, church treasurer, cleaner and others, the Church Flower Ladies and Gentlemen are among the unsung heroes of the church, who keep it going day in and day out for generation after generation and here at this particular sacred space in Abingdon, for one hundred and fifty years, since the height of the Victorian era.
Friday night was probably the only Sesquicentennial Dedication Patronal Festival Mass with Confirmation I’ll ever attend in my life. It was laden with symbolism and memories of my own promises, more than half a lifetime ago, to fight against sin, the world and the devil. The language may have been modernised, but the promise and the intent are the same.
And in late middle age, I find myself managing the second two quite well, the first not so much, but still fighting the good fight and still keeping the faith.
As published in the Herald Series on Wednesday, 04 October 2017