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Pentecost 2019

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Sunday, June 9, 2019

Today is the Day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and their commissioning as the community of Christians to preach the Good News. It is a day to remember our own calling – as we, like those disciples, are called and commissioned to be the body of Christ in the world – and also to give thanks for the Church in which we find our place.

Church has always been a place where I felt safe, a place that felt like home. It was somewhere I spent a lot of time, and it was somewhere I went with my mum. After services she would often help tidy up or spend time chatting to people: two things I regarded as deeply boring. Instead of sticking close to her I used to investigate the gaps under the old wooden pews, seeing how many I could crawl through before anyone spotted me, getting dusty and cobwebbed, and frequently getting myself stuck.

It’s one of my earliest memories of church, that sinking feeling of not being able to wriggle my way out; but what strikes me most looking back is the sense of familiarity and calm, even in those moments: the sense of being home. I can still remember the musty smell of the pews, the cold stone floor, the way the air felt laden with prayer and singing. It’s a combination of sensory experiences that I find in churches still now: the same smells, the same feel.

Our early memories shape who we are, so it is unsurprising that our earliest experiences of church would stay with us and would shape our engagement with church in the present. This Pentecost, I asked members of the Cathedral community to tell me about their earliest memories of church, and what has kept them coming back. You can read their responses in full at the bottom of this post and I will reflect on some of their common themes below.

Many of their experiences were very different, for a variety of reasons. For some people those memories are very early: they have been going to church their whole lives, like Eileen who writes: ‘Although my mother was a daily communicant and took me and my brothers and sisters to mass along with her (pre-school), I have no real memories of this time.’

For those of us whose first church experiences stretch beyond the limits of our memory, it can feel as though our engagement with church is rooted in something beyond our understanding. For me it is something as intangible as a feeling that I am at home, for others it is the smell of incense or the chime of bells: some small part of church that reminds them of the bigger picture. But not everyone has been going to church since they were a child: Kizzy’s first encounter with church was not until she arrived in Oxford at 18. Her earliest memory of church is one of un-learning: of letting go of what she expected of church and what she thought she knew about the Christian faith.

It seems to me that many of the reasons people love church now can be traced back to those early encounters; this is probably just as true for those whose feelings about church are less positive. As well as the variety of churches, ages, and contexts, there was such a panoply of different reasons why members of our community have made church such an important part of their lives.

Joseph was captivated by the beauty of the music and continues to worship through his singing, John loved the splendour of the high church liturgy, Paul needed his quiet moment in the candlelight, Eileen the repetition of the rosary, and Clare her quiet space in the empty church at the end of the day. One of the common themes was the church as a place of prayer, even as people articulated this in different ways.

For Alannah, the primary draw to church in the beginning was the people. She writes about Joan, an impeccably dressed woman with a big smile and lots of fluffy white hair, who seems to have modelled some of the patient, parental love of God. So often the life of faith is found in our relationships with the people around us and so many people I spoke to pointed out that church is not just a building, or even a particular congregation, but the whole people of God.

Alannah writes: ‘We each have an individual prayer life, and an individual relationship with God, but it is comforting and affirming to pray in community with others – and it is a humbling experience to enter into God’s presence and share in His grace with those around us’.

Nico’s early experiences of prayer in community speak to this sense of the value of communal prayer: she remembers praying for as long as she needed, content to be joined by others or left to herself, contained by their presence. As the community of believers we have been called since the beginning to be together, to be united in prayer and service. It is so important to remember that the church is more than a building, and that the church is as hospitable and as generous and as loving as we make it. There is a call on each one of us to be the body of Christ in the world as we seek to communally embody Christ ever more fully.

Nonetheless, our interactions with the tangible, physical world also shape us profoundly. We are blessed with many beautiful church buildings, and liturgy which incorporates our sensory and bodily selves. Church spaces can have an impact on us and on our prayer.  When I asked Joseph why he found church a good place to pray, he told me: ‘Here I can hear God’s answer’. 

There are practical reasons why this might feel particularly true: Kizzy pointed out that often churches have quiet spaces, or places where you can light candles, a dedicated prayer room or people there who can talk to you if you wish. These things have a real impact on us, but there also seems something less tangible, something as vital and as elusive as the feeling of ‘home’.

When I spoke to Philippa, whose early experience of praying in church was complicated, she described her love of 24/7 prayer, in which a space is set aside for prayer to take place constantly. Philippa found this experience powerful for a number of reasons: ‘partly it’s about physically entering a space that is set aside; that certainly helps me to go into a different mind-set, but I also remember taking part in one where there was a massive map all over one wall and lots of little tags you could write your prayers for a place and stick it on the place; and that was really lovely because it was a tangible record of people who had prayed in that space, even if you were in there on your own. It’s not just a place designed to pray in; it’s a place where people are praying.’

The Church is called to be a place where people are praying: a community of believers who encourage one another, who laugh together and learn together, who love one another; and the church is a potentially missional space in which we can offer a taste of Christ’s peace, declared at Easter, which offers calm and quiet and a place in which we can feel safe enough to let go, just a little, of the things that weigh us down.

So today let us give thanks for all that God has given us through the church and let us commit ourselves again to responding to God’s call as the Church, in the church, to be the body of Christ in the world.

Pentecost blog responses

Eileen Head, Cathedral Office Manager

Although my mother was a daily communicant and took me and my brothers and sisters to Mass along with her (pre-school), I have no real memories of this time. My own first recollections of church really go back to primary school when we were taken as a class across to the church via the back gate of the school (very exciting at the time).

Being in a group much smaller than a normal Sunday service or even a whole school service was lovely and if felt as though the priest really did know each and every one of us individually. I loved the quiet of the church with the vague smell of incense and the glow from the pricket stand. I loved the repetition of the rosary and its calming effect and, if by any great chance, I was asked to lead a decade, well, that was the best. To this day I love the rosary and find it calms and consoles me.

When I was young, in the Catholic Church communicants were expected to not eat from midnight the night before if receiving communion. On a Sunday my mum would get up and go to the first Mass and dad would take the children to the school Mass at 10:30am and when we got home, Mum had the table set and a full breakfast all cooked and waiting for all of us. Sunday mornings were lovely.

Kizzy Jugon, Christ Church graduate

I was eighteen the first time I properly went to church. It was Freshers’ Week and we got to Saturday evening and I was trying to find out what my friends were planning for the next day. I was not expecting all of them to tell me they were planning on going to church! I just sat there as the only non-Christian surrounded by eight people, the only friends I’d made in Freshers’ week, who were all going to church the next day, so I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to church.’ 

We went to St Ebbe’s which is over the road, and they were the smiley-est people ever. It was nothing like I expected. We sat on chairs not uncomfortable pews, and they started playing guitars and drums and people were putting their hands in the air, people were crying, and I started to wonder,‘Where am I, what is this place?’ And then we had a 45-minute sermon that spoke about Jesus in a way I’d never heard before, and after the service we had free Thai food and we all sat around eating and people praying for each other.

Joseph Denby, Operations Manager

My first memory of church is being about four years old and turning to my mum during the 9.45 Family Mass at my then family parish Catholic church, and asking to never be brought to the service again because I did not like the music. (It was a combination of violin, organ, and vocals.) Mum said the only other available service was the 11.00 Solemn Mass, but that the music was 'very solemn and complicated with a choir and the organ'.

I said that would be perfect and never looked back since.

John Hawke, Christ Church undergraduate

My earliest memory of church, or what I understand to be my earliest memory, was in the church of St Peter and St Paul in Botley, Oxford, where I was baptised. The church is a relatively uninspiring red brick structure of 1958, but the interior is a little more fun, featuring a neat and symmetrical nave and chancel, some pseudo-Roman details, and splashes of red and gold that liven up the otherwise white colour scheme.

When I attended SS Peter and Paul between 1998 and 2005, the worship was quite 'high', under the loving guidance of the Revd Rosie Bates, but this has shifted in recent years to a respectful middle-of-the-road approach. My earliest memory of the place is revealing of the high church order of the day, as I can remember watching the thurifer and the rest of the serving team, all properly robed, formed-up before the service in a little corridor behind the main body of the building. This will probably have been around 2002. I might have been acting as boat boy, but I can't quite remember.

Either way, it's no wonder that I'm a massive fan of incense now.

Paul Harris, Dean’s Verger

Growing up, we lived a short walk away from the large parish church and it was the only place my parents could think of where they could send four kids, all close in age, and get themselves a bit of a break! So we all went into the choir and it wasn’t really my thing. I always used to resent choir practice on Wednesday evenings because there was usually some film on TV and I had to miss the end of it to go to practice. I used to enjoy getting to the bit of rehearsing the psalm because I would then know it was nearly the end!

But because I was a twin and we were both the same height we were both asked to be acolytes on the serving team, and later I got to be crucifer. As I got older I served at evensong on a Sunday almost every week. My friends would all be waiting for me at whatever pub we were going to meet at and it was just my quiet moment – all Anglo-Saxon architecture and candle-light – before I had a raucous Sunday evening at the pub!

Clare Hayns, College Chaplain

Although I didn’t grow up going to church regularly, it was part of my daily life as we lived right next to the little church of St Cecilia’s in Adstock, Bucks. My bedroom window looked out over the graveyard and I got used to hearing the chimes of the bells which rang out day and night. As a child we played a game where we would dare each other to run around the churchyard in the dark and believed that if you turned round 10 times, ran around the graves and looked behind you you’d see your future spouse! Needless to say all it did was terrify us.

My mother had the responsibility of locking the church up each evening and I remember going with her and sitting in the empty nave and enjoying the cool, calm, peaceful space. I didn’t know anything about St Cecilia at that time but I love that I can enjoy the St Cecilia window in Christ Church during our morning College Communion service each Sunday.

Alannah Jeune, Cathedral congregation

I have lots of memories of the physical space of my family church, of the sounds, sights and services, but what has stuck with me most are memories of the people in the congregation. One special woman I remember was Joan. Joan was in her eighties, had a big smile, lots of fluffy white hair and was always impeccably dressed in a matching skirt suit combination. I don’t know why I took to her particularly, but as a pre-schooler I would opt to sit with her during the service, always in the third row, just across the aisle from my parents and sister. She would get me to ‘help’ her by finding the hymns in the hymn book – she must have had the patience of a saint, my ability to read numbers was slow at best! I don’t remember what she talked to me about specifically, I just remember being happy to see her and sit with her, and she was one of my favourite people.

While I was in my first few years of school Joan moved to a nursing home, one that was located just outside the city and closer to her children. My Mum would take my sister and me out to visit her in the school holidays. I was only about eight when she passed away, so our friendship was brief, but one that I’ve never forgotten.

Nico Dwyer, Liturgy Administrative Assistant

I spent my early childhood in American Nazarene churches in which they generally have a small wooden altar at the front where congregants come forward to kneel and pray during each service.

Once, when I was about five or six, I was praying as normal, trying to remember everyone I knew that needed prayer and I finished early. Naturally, I drifted off thinking about other things until suddenly, as the pastor was nearing the end of prayers, I remembered someone else to pray for. And then another, and another. I began to recall an entire list of people that I had forgotten! Of course, the pastor finished his prayer and sent everyone back to their seats to finish the service.

It didn’t even occur to me to leave the altar; the most obvious thing to do was to finish praying. So I did. The service ended, the congregation dispersed, while my parents and the pastor’s wife stood around waiting for me. Eventually the pastor’s wife knelt down beside me to pray with/for me while I kept silently going through my list. It was only at this point that it struck me that maybe this was all a bit odd. I finally finished praying and stood up to go play with the other kids. My parents thought this was some significant moment but they all smiled when I told them I simply had more people to pray for than I’d realised.

Philippa White, Succentor

I grew up going to church and was really keen to be part of things, so when I was about thirteen and there was a particular Sunday when the young people were going to help lead worship I volunteered to lead prayers. I prepared them really carefully, but managed to pray for my friend's dad (who had been hit in the eye with a cricket ball the day before) so solemnly that everyone thought he was really seriously injured - both she and I got into trouble for that! Formal intercessions have remained part of my life - though that experience taught me to avoid specifics - but I have also learnt to value the informal and the charismatic. I love praying in places where prayer is constantly offered - feeling myself being lifted by the prayers of entire communities - and the "boiler room" prayer spaces from the 24-7 prayer movement have been key in my spiritual development.