Sunday 15 March
There were five services as usual in Chester Cathedral today. I preached at the first three on ‘The woman at the well’ linking it with the famous Stephen Broadbent sculpture in the garth in the centre of the Cathedral. Jesus gives us the ‘water of life’: the physical thirst of Jesus on a hot day was an opportunity for him to speak of spiritual thirst to the woman who has had ‘five husbands’.
We took away the railings so that communion was received standing to avoid touching the rails, we gave communion in one kind, we rearranged the chairs to allow for social distancing, we shared the peace with a small bow and we used hand gel before touching the chalices.
The congregations were unphased by the changes: there were fewer in number than usual but they were positive and encouraging as they departed.
All public services of worship were stopped. Evensong was live streamed with the residential canons leading and the usual choir singing but no other congregation. A sculpture of the Last Supper by Peter Barnes was brought carefully into the nave using boards to roll it down the steps. The sculpture is created using letters and numbers from computer keyboards and stands solemnly at the end of the South Transept as though it belongs there.
The Refectory, shop and falconry were closed. The Refectory was emptied of food and drink: staff went home. The heating in the cathedral was turned off. The nave furniture was cleared and the west and southern doors were flung open welcoming in the sunshine and inviting visitors to come in to see, to pray or to light candles between 10.30am and 4pm. Morning prayer continued with only clergy in St Anselm’s Chapel behind closed doors. The two cleaners worked tirelessly to ensure all surfaces in the nave were continually wiped down. One canon ensured that all volunteers would be kept in touch through the telephone and I undertook to ensure the congregation would be kept in touch through the pastoral team. Evensong was with live streamed with clergy and lay clerks only.
Office staff made plans to work from home. Computers were fixed to enable staff to link onto the cathedral server which proved to be a challenge.
The organ recital was recorded and played in the cathedral at the usual time of 1.10pm. Visitors wandered through the Cathedral enjoying the open space. One said, ‘It’s wonderful to have the cathedral open, it feels like a sign of hope’
Staff in the cathedral met virtually in order to keep in touch. I introduced a prayer to be said at midday at the cathedral door which could be heard outside as well as inside. We were warned through twitter not to make it into ‘a gathering’. With the Director of Music playing the organ, I recorded some poetry and bible readings to be played during holy week. It was both strange and beautiful to speak into a large, empty cathedral and hear the grand organ playing to only those who were recording.
This has been a week like no other in the life of the Cathedral. There is a sense of loss and grief at a dispersed community. A community which is working positively and generously to make the best of difficult circumstances.
A cathedral is a place of prayer for all, a place where, as TS Eliot says, ‘prayer has been valid’ and Chester Cathedral has had a praying community since 1092 to sustain it in its daily life.
The daily office where we pray for the world, the diocese and the city continues to be said in the small community of clergy in the sacred space of St Anselm’s chapel. As we livestream the services, a real, yet virtual congregation, joins the few clergy and musicians, along with the community of saints praying and worshipping God together.
Humanity has an extraordinary ability to adapt and change for the purposes of God. It seems that nothing, not even a virus, can prevent the people of God praying and honouring God.
Canon Jane Brooke
Vice Dean and Canon Missioner