Completely unrelated to what I am writing about today, I would like to start with a thank you for your messages of support. I will be going into hospital on Friday – to be honest I’m a little nervous (actually very) because I’ve never had to have an operation under general anaesthetic before, but I am optimistic that this should solve the haemophiliac problems with my nose. I am so grateful for all your continued prayers and well wishes – it will be a tough week but hopefully I am on the mend!
I was asked to share these reasons by one of the Canons at the Cathedral where I have been a congregant most of my life. More than anything I thought that in this season of Lent, this would be a good way to reflect on life at the Cathedral, and my journey of faith, as well as reflecting on what it means to be part of the Cathedral community years ago, and today. I hope that in sharing it, you will have cause to reflect on why you stay where you do when, after all, there are a million other places where you could go. What does your community mean to you? Why does it make you give thanks?
1o reasons why I stay and worship at the Cathedral should seem easy, perhaps I should be able to think of 100s, even 1000s of reasons why. But for some reason it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It made me ask myself a question I have hidden away from in the past year. To be honest there have been many times when I wanted to be anywhere else but the Cathedral. Yet every time I stayed in bed, purposefully avoiding being at the Cathedral, I felt guilty for not being there and suddenly I wanted to go. Something still draws me back.
1: The Cathedral was a place where I grew up. Perhaps not quite so much as the 5 children know who live in Cathedral Close, but still to a considerable extent. I first went to the Cathedral in 2006 and then again in 2007 to sing evensong with my local Church choir during the summer. But we must have started going to the Cathedral regularly in 2008, when we knew that my brother was going to be a chorister, and he came a probationer in September 2009.
9 years is a long time to be in one place, and I can see how I have changed over that time. I am now 17. I am a completely different person to the 8/9 year old who cried at least once a week because she had to be at the Cathedral 3 days a week. I was selfish, I wanted to go home. I thought people who came to visit only wanted to see my brother in the choir. I would never be allowed to sing, because all the girls’ days off were the boys’ days on. It wasn’t fair.
But now, I can see how much I grew up, from having to do sticking and gluing prep in the back of the Cathedral to the shock of the Stewards and Virgers, to revising for my GCSEs and AS level. I often wonder what the walls would say if the walls could talk. How they have seen me grow. The stories of me being told off for skipping down the transepts, or for sneaking in before Nine Lessons and Carols to nab a seat. If their eyes could play a video of my childhood, I would see the immature girl become the strong teenager that (I like to think) I am.
But even without the testimony of the walls, I can pretty much link each notable moment or change in my life to a time when I was at the Cathedral. I think that’s pretty special.
2: The Cathedral will always be a special place to me, because it’s the place in which I was confirmed, the place in which I first truly found God for myself.
On 31 March 2013, I was confirmed by Bishop Christopher Hill. It wasn’t just the day, surrounded by friends and family, that was important, but the whole process of leading up to confirmation, and attending classes. I learnt what it was to be a Christian, what things actually meant, and truly began my journey of faith. It was a process which helped me to discern what I believe in, and a period which will remain a key one in my life until the day I die. Whenever I doubt, I think back to that process of learning, and take out my Confirmation folder (yes, I still have it), and look over the things we talked about and learnt together. Remembering that gives me a renewed hope and purpose.
The service itself was the Easter Vigil service, which I am looking forward to going to this year for the first time since Confirmation. It celebrates going from darkness to the light of the resurrection of Jesus, quite literally, with the service beginning in blackness, and the light suddenly dawning. This darkness was also the end of my childhood doubts and fears: the light was the hope and promised peace that anyone who believes feels. It was a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice so that we might all live purged of sin, forgiven. And that’s what I remember feeling when the Bishop put his hand on my head and confirmed me – my darkness seemed to disappear for a moment. For me, no service could have better accompanied my confirmation.
Furthermore, I was confirmed alongside one of my current teachers, though I doubt that he remembers me from then! I understood that whether teacher or pupil, old or young, we are all one in Christ – our faith brings us together despite our differences, a message that still is important to my beliefs today.
3: The Cathedral is a place that is fundamentally full of friendship. Despite factional warfare and guerrilla overhearing tactics, blended with a touch of snide remark, at the heart of the community life is the value of friendship. And arguably, the Cathedral could not run without such friendship, people willing to give up time to serve as volunteers together.
A tiny proportion of the community I cherish at the Cathedral are actually my age, and the ones who are my age are distant, up in the quire, or behind a cross. In fact, most of my Cathedral ‘friends’ would not consider themselves so, and would probably rather be seen as role models. Indeed, in today’s world, saying that most of my ‘friends’ are over 80 would probably draw some suspicious enquiries. And as much as I would love more people my age, it’s not going to happen in a heartbeat, and most teenagers would not actively seek to be friends with someone whose favourite subjects are Latin and Ancient Greek… So over time, perhaps as a result of once being a lonely 9 year old at weekly evensongs, I have grown a fondness for these elder members of the community. I like to think that I contribute to their (and let’s be honest, my) weekly social outing to Church. But at the heart of it they are just friends, people who like a natter, a cup of tea, a gossip, and who’ll buy you are bar of chocolate when you start crying. Good people whose kindness makes your world work the way it should. Good people who teach me how to tread the path.
4: Music is really important to worship, and forms part of the core foundation of the Cathedral, in my eyes anyway. After all, I first came to the Cathedral for music, and J’s music made me stay.
Through the extended chorister network I found a bunch of choir mums who would take me to the TESCO Costa between dropping the boys off for rehearsal and the Ash Wednesday service, for example, and a community of families who were going through the same pressures as we were, or who’d been through it before. They would chat to me when I was left in an almost empty Cathedral late at night, waiting for my ever ‘helpful’ brother to clear up every last sheet of music he possibly could, whilst craving the sausage casserole which by now was most definitely cold in the oven. People who’d been through it and knew that I would get used to it eventually, with whom one day I’d be playing cards at Chorister Cricket, or decorating biscuits at the winter fair. A sub community inside the whole Cathedral family.
And as much as I used to be incredibly jealous of my brother for getting to sing in the choir, I had a little chance myself. I was part of the Surrey Songsters, and I wore my t-shirt with pride. We, a small group of maybe 6-10, would meet after school on a Friday, and would perform termly as part of the Cathedral’s musical outreach programme. I think I was part of the first, and probably last group of Songsters, a group which didn’t survive more than a few years. But it gave me a bit of confidence, and a tiny splash of vocal training which helped when having to do a music scholarship interview at age 13, in a scary unfamiliar school chapel, never having really sung solo.
But what about now? Does music at the Cathedral still make me stay? Well yes to be honest – as my Mum frequently says, once you’re used to that amazing standard of music, and that commitment to aiding worship, it’s incredibly difficult to head off down to the local parish and have to face John Rutter on repeat, a host of screeching sopranos, a few dodgy tenors, and the bass that fell asleep on the back row. To have to face ‘hymns’ like Shine Jesus Shine or I the Lord of Sea and Sky. They have their own beauty, but for someone growing up surrounded by mellifluosity (another word to add to the dictionary)it’s not quite the same.
5: The Cathedral is where I discovered what I could do as a Christian. I discovered that everyone can find a role, their place, in the community no matter how old they are or where they come from or what they look like. It’s by far not always easy, and I’ve had my fair share of struggles in the roles that I take on. Comments such as ‘I don’t know why they let someone that young do that’ are whispered behind my back, but I still hear them. I have been called ‘incapable,’ ‘too young’ and ‘unwanted.’ But I mostly carry on: there are no distinctions in faith, and each one of us is as capable as we want to be. I usually live be the rule: don’t let someone tell you that you can’t just because they don’t want to accept that you can.
I became an official reader under the guidance of Nicholas Thistlethwaite, our last Precentor, after having read the 6th lesson in the Christmas Day Nine Lessons and Carols service for 3 years on the trot. Let’s face it – which other ‘member of Sunday School’ is going to be around in the Cathedral on Christmas Day afternoon except a chorister sister (in the days before resident Canonical children of the appropriate age). Though I am not currently a very active reader, I read about 3 times a year for 5 or so years. I am still on the list but after my experience at Christmas I feel like I’ve lost the desire to share the Word.
In November 2015 I became the Cathedral’s youngest Steward, although I have still never taken the official oath (I don’t think it really matters). Stewarding puts me on the front line, so to speak, being the face of the Cathedral that people first see as they enter. A welcoming smile, a polite enquiry, a reassuring word, a helpful direction. Whatever we can do to make people more at home at the Cathedral, and to facilitate ease of worship, even if that means taking them to the loo, or picking up grotty tissues from the floor after the service. And the best part? Either the wiggly hot air blowing snake that warms the area (mind you, just that area) where the Stewards’ table is when the rest of the building is frosting up, or in the days pre-scaffolding, the Stewards room, called familiarly the Room of Requirements. Everything you could possibly need is down there, and it keeps on going and going and going, right to the depths of Stag Hill, for the 9 year old trapped inside me, anyway.
6: The role I play and the experiences I’ve had in these different roles lead me on to my next reason. From these days of service and the emotions I’ve felt alongside them, the Cathedral has helped shape my beliefs and motivations and ultimately has given me lessons from which I have learnt to be the person I am today.
I don’t believe that anyone should be ignored on account of their age, but equally I know that it happens all the time. I’ve learnt not to get rattled by it, to accept it to its face, but challenge it in my heart. I know that no one should be seen as incapable, no matter who their are or what their individual needs are, and I’ve learnt to cater to these needs to make everyone feel welcome. I’ve learnt to be strong, to challenge what I see, to form my own opinions. I’ve found the confidence to speak out when I don’t think something’s right. I’ve learnt how to read people’s hearts and not just their words. I’ve learnt what it is to be loved, and supported, and upheld. I’ve learnt to work with people I never thought I could work with. I’ve learnt to be honest, and to share my opinion when it’s required, but equally to keep my thoughts to myself when they’re not wanted. I’ve learnt to be patient, sitting in the car for an hour before services. I learnt not to provoke my parents, and what consequences were – believe me, you don’t want to be thrown out of the car to walk round the Cathedral 20 times in mid-November when the wind is roaring and the constant driving rain turns you sodden. I’ve learnt to listen. I’ve learnt that it’s ok to laugh and equally ok to cry. I’ve learnt what it is to be an adult. But ultimately, I’ve learnt what it is to lead a God driven life. And these lessons give me the motivation to be the person I choose to be, and the person from whom others may choose to learn these lessons. A person who can make other feel equally supported, loved, and upheld, who can see a value in everyone just as people see value in me.
7: The Cathedral is a centre for teaching and learning. Although I don’t study RS and never profited from school visits etc. to the Cathedral, I take from the Cathedral my own sense of learning. It is the place where I receive my only spiritual guidance and teaching.
Though sermons once played the most important role in the service as the time in which I could get out my book and delve into some other world while some dreary man was jabbering on about Simeon, the sermon is now the most important part to me in drawing lessons from Scripture, and making astute links between this passage and the world that surrounds us. Teaching and preaching help me to discern where I stand, to view current affairs with newly opened eyes, and to see God all around. I am now able to make my own links between the Scripture I read and the world I live in. More often than not I learn something new each time I open my mind to listen. Sometimes it changes my opinions on something in a way I never thought it could.
In this way, the Chapter at the Cathedral have all played an important role in my spiritual development through the years. From confirmation lessons, to BOB, sermons and phone calls, the Chapter have helped me to see things differently, and to see God and the wonder that is found in Christ and faith in my own life. I don’t think I will ever be able to see an Easter egg in the same way, or bake bread without remembering a glorious summer’s day of biblical baking and pick-up-sticks. Sometimes even when I didn’t think I could find God anywhere, they have helped me to find hints of his love, or to think in a less constricted way. It seems so easy as a teenager to close your mind and to give yourself over to doubt and fear, to shut yourself out from God, but Chapter have taught me that it isn’t as easy as it seems. God always seems to find me again, even if it takes a chat to help me see it, that, in fact, I never lost faith. I will never be able to thank them enough for the lessons they’ve taught me, and for the life’s worth of teaching, reassurance and guidance they’ve given me in my 9 years.
8: You’ve probably never been to our Cathedral. But it is a masterpiece of architecture, with high arches and a ‘honey bathed golden interior.’ It is plain, but so full of colour at the same time. It has slippy floors with underfloor heating (when not covered in warping wood) and it used to always feel warm. Whenever you came in from the bitter world, the rain, ice and snow, it was a little haven. When the sun shines, it strikes the arch at the crossing, creating pillars of golden splendour, and light through the stained glass creates the most beautiful paintings on the blank canvas of the walls. In the darkness, the candles flicker in the windows, beckoning in the wanderers. Even now, in the iciness, it is hard to forget the comfort and the warmth the building once offered, and will again one day soon.
If you sat in the nave, and closed your eyes, the gentle hum of traffic would gradually disappear and it was silent. A space for peace and reflection, for quiet prayer and gentle tears. A place that laughed alongside you, and smiled when its people smiled too. Space to be, where you could just think and hear your heart beat. Space to grieve, praise or pray. Whatever you needed, the building gave it to you. It was the perfect place for anyone and everyone who needed it.
Though this warmth is quite noticeably absent at the moment, and the everything seems to be carrying the burden of scaffolding, and the pillars weep, and inside the infrared heaters and metal makes congregants feel a bit like battery hens, it has a certain beauty. And though it is hard to find that silence there once used to be, there are whispers of what the future will hold. I know that I for one can’t wait to find that warmth again.
9: For me, the Cathedral has always been a place that opens doors. There are so many times where I have felt down about something or another, as you can expect over the 9 years. Often, having gone to the Cathedral I grasp a new perspective on things, and whether I’m being unreasonable or not. A few times, just as I thought a path was coming to an end, I found a new one to take. It has given me hope when I thought the world contained none.
From the age of 11 to 13 I was bullied at school and I became very withdrawn. I lost all confidence that I had, and I wasn’t good enough at anything. I wasn’t valued because I wasn’t clever enough, I had to drop out of the swim team, I wasn’t a size 0 and I wasn’t musical enough. I was average, above average even, but still not quite good enough. I remember summer 2013 I came top of my year in the end of year exams, and I was due to receive a prize at speech day. The week before, I showed prospective parents around my school, and when they asked about bullying at the school, I was honest. The prize was taken away from me. No one told me why, though later I was told that it was because I had presented the school in a ‘bad light.’ I thought it was because I wasn’t good enough anymore. Even top wasn’t good enough. Prize giving was held at the Cathedral, and when I wasn’t present my Mum spoke to Paul the Virger, asking that she might be able to sneak in – her seats, too, had been removed as only prizewinners’ parents were allowed to come. With the connections we had at the Cathedral, this was no problem. The next time I saw Paul, he gave me a big hug, and told me how much he knew I was valued, and not to believe school, and that he would always support me. I hope he knows how much I appreciated that. I started crying. Because I knew that I had to get out of the hole I had found myself in.
I haven’t gone back to being the confident and sassy child I was aged 10. Performing, still, is something I find daunting, and I get incredibly nervous because I know that people will be judging me, and they might see my failure. ‘I might never be good enough’ is a thought that I am only now overcoming, and it has plagued the majority of my teenage years. But time and time again, the Cathedral, staff, chapter and community have opened doors for me, to help me see that I am valued and turn my failures into building blocks to make me stronger. They have given me books, so many hugs and tissues, chatted to me, and made me see that I have a place. They gave me hope when at aged 12 I would cry on the way to school every day. The Cathedral became my place, where I was valued for who I was. I didn’t have to achieve a quota, or fit a stereotype. I could be me. Still, mentally when I need a place to escape to, to calm down, to quell nerves, or to find confidence, I place myself in the middle of the nave, the West doors shut to the stormy world, staring up at the East window where the light shines through, and the pure dove gleams.
10: If you’ve made it this far, then you’re a champion! I wouldn’t be surprised if you had got bored halfway through. And I hope this last reason, as stupid as it is, will make you smile. It feels a bit stupid, but it has to be said. The Cathedral’s chocolate brownies are quite literally the best I have ever had. Although I am currently ‘taking up’ not eating puddings or snacks, Cathedral chocolate brownies will definitely be my weakness.
To be honest, it was always the shortbread biscuits that took my heart, in those days where everyone in the family had to be given a biscuit to keep them going in between Eucharist and Matins. But recently, the shortbread biscuits have lost their softness, and the Cathedral has outsourced some of their produce, so we are faced with slightly condensated and soggy bakewell tarts. So I turned to the chocolate brownies. Awfully awfully bad for you. But there you go. Sometimes, after getting through Byrd 5 part mass and James MacMillan, you need an oozy chocolatey treat. I am looking forward to 45 days time when I will probably get my next – they are to die for.
So there are my 10 reasons, though it probably felt more like 10000. I know that one day, fast approaching, I will fly off into the world, and I will leave my people’s Cathedral far behind me. I will leave the community behind, and the chocolate brownies. The Chapter will find new places, lead new lives, and a whole new lot of choristers and their families will grow up like I have. And to be honest, I’m quite excited to leave it behind, and all the memories too, and join a new community, and find 10 more things to be thankful for there. But the Cathedral will always remain a mental haven for me, and will be my Pandora’s Box of childhood memories, all centred around a rather ugly building on the top of a windy hill.