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Philippa White, Succentor, Assistant College Chaplain, and School Chaplain

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Behind the scenes header image


Philippa White, Succentor, Assistant College Chaplain, and School ChaplainEmily: Your job title is very complicated! What do you actually do?

Philippa: The first part of my job is ‘Succentor’ which, is a medieval title for the Precentor’s assistant. My job is to help him to make sure that all the liturgy and worship in this place runs smoothly. As Assistant College Chaplain I’m assistant to Clare Hayns. I work with her with those students who worship in the Cathedral in its role as College Chapel.

And then the third part is being the School Chaplain. It means that I am pretty much the only person amongst the clergy who sits across all three aspects of the foundation: Cathedral, College, and School, across the road on Brewer Street. Because the Choristers attend the school as boarders, it’s a role that flows quite naturally out of my Cathedral role, supporting the worship and music. But I’m not just Chaplain to the choristers, I’m Chaplain to all the boys in the school, so I do assemblies for them two or three times a week and I’m currently running confirmation classes for some of the year seven boys.

Emily: What was it that attracted you to this job?

Philippa: All the different aspects were a large part of it. I did my curacy in two parts: half time at a parish church on a local council estate and half time at Lincoln Cathedral. In those four years I learnt to love Cathedrals and church music, and I became really passionate about what Cathedrals can offer.

They are places of stability, where the rhythm of the daily offices goes on, and so it’s a bit like a monastic community. Because of the role Cathedrals have in dioceses and in cities, the cathedral can be and ought to be the praying heart of both of those things.

Philippa preaching during her curacy at Lincoln CathedralAnd on top of that, most Cathedrals are tourist destinations. So you have people who are coming in as tourists - and that gives you such an opportunity to demonstrate to them the beauty of holiness. And to say: the building you’ve come into isn’t a stately home, it isn’t a museum, it was built to the glory of God and it is a praying church; it is a worshipping church; and we have something that we think is important enough to give our lives to.

We have the opportunity to catch the imagination and perhaps leave people just a little bit more open, a little more…thoughtful, I suppose. People who come as tourists don’t necessarily leave as pilgrims, but certainly my hope here is that because people have visited Christ Church they go away feeling just a little more positive about God.

I also really liked the idea of being a College Chaplain. It’s a really interesting opportunity to be the priest for a whole lot of people who don’t necessarily have faith or come to church. It’s what the parish system was set up for: as the priest you would be the person who knew everybody in the parish, who was with them through all the events of their life and saw them in and out of church. That’s not an opportunity parish clergy have in the same way, but as a Chaplain you do and that’s exciting.

Philippa and her husband Ed with the Bishop of Lincoln at her OrdinationEmily: How about even further back – how did you work out you were called to the priesthood?

Philippa: The beginning came through other people, actually. From the third year of my University degree onwards, there were several people from different aspects of my life, saying ‘Have you thought about being ordained?’ and at the time the answer was ‘No!’ By the time several people had said this to me the answer became ‘No: maybe I should.’

After I graduated I moved to London to work as the Office Manager for an architectural firm and I started worshipping at an evangelical church in south Tottenham. It was really interesting church; I had gone there mostly because I had got lost on the way to the church I was trying to find my way to my first Sunday in London!

At this point I started to move from ‘Other people think I should be ordained’ to ‘Well, maybe I should be ordained.’ But I really liked my life the way it was. I thought, ‘I’m going to have a life first, I’ll do it when I’m forty.’

That’s where I was when suddenly out of absolutely nowhere I heard words for the first and only time, and the words were ‘If I call you when you’re not settled it’s because I want you to settle in my service.’ It was a shock because it meant I was going to have to completely re-evaluate what my life was looking like, but it was pretty amazing.

Emily: You’ve said you’re involved with the liturgy and worship and we’re at the beginning of one of the busiest weeks in the liturgical year!

Philippa: Yes we are, and I’m really excited.

The Paschal Candle, by whose light the Exultet is sungEmily: Tell me why you enjoy Holy Week?

Philippa: Well, although I grew up as a Christian, I didn’t grow up in churches where Holy Week was something we did a lot with. But when I was 14 my mum was ordained, and she served her curacy in a church where they did Holy Week in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and one thing they really did do was the Easter Vigil. [The Easter Vigil takes place at dawn on Easter Sunday or during the night before and it takes us from Holy Saturday into the first service of Easter] My sister was baptised at that first Easter Vigil in my mum’s curacy parish. And nobody sang the Exultet but we said it, and I thought it was the most beautiful text I had ever encountered.

So the Exultet has been really special to me since I was 15: the combination of my sister’s baptism and experiencing the Easter Vigil for the first time, and then this absolutely glorious text about the entirety of creation rejoicing in the Resurrection and this being something that changes the fabric of the world…it was an experience I’ll never forget.

Emily: And you’ll be singing the Exultet at our Easter Vigil this year!

Philippa: I can’t wait! I have done it every year since I was ordained, except the year I was on maternity leave, and I love it a lot! I love the whole of Holy Week because you get that sense of walking with Jesus.  Especially when you have the whole of Holy Week being preached by one person like we have here, in Canon Foot.

Emily: Why should people come and experience Holy Week for themselves?

Philippa: The drama of the liturgy in Holy Week is more than anything else in the year; it’s very directly related to the Gospels; and it’s very directly about entering experientially into the cosmic drama.

And not only that, it gives you a connection to what people have done for centuries. We know that in the earliest Christian communities you’ve got people celebrating Easter and doing it with this very dramatic style. There’s something very powerful about that.

Reflection in the pond in Tom Quad: Mercury and the Cathedral SpireEmily: One final question! You’ve been here eight months now, what makes this place special to you?

Philippa: I was really struck by something I heard from a child who’d been here on a school visit, who said: ‘The thing I really love is how the Cathedral is hidden in Tom Quad like a jewel.’ I loved that. Because it’s really hard being so tucked away where people find it hard to find us, and in the middle of a College whose needs we also have to respect. It reminded me of The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas: ‘I have seen the sun break through/to illuminate a small field/for a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the/pearl of great price…’

Another thing that I think is really special is that this is a praying community: we gather every morning for Morning Prayer before the day’s work. I’m not always able to be there because I have to drop my son off at nursery, but on those days I say Morning Prayer on my own in the Latin Chapel, praying for all the communities of which I have been part and for this community in particular. By that time the probationers are practising, and that’s important too: it’s about the life of this place; about this being a place of ongoing prayer, ongoing worship, and ongoing hospitality.