Caravan Through the Cathedral / “Threshold” Service at York Minster

- Stephen Burns / York, June 24, 2018

The cavernous York Minister is the gracious container for this creative regular (monthly) liturgy known as “Threshold” (https://yorkminster.org/whats-on/event/threshold-2018/ ), a lovely fusion of traditional style and emergent sensibility. About forty people of all ages—from teens in their family groups, through backpacker-student types, through to seasoned citizens, attended, and we were led by a group of young songsters from the Ebor singers (http://www.eborsingers.org ) and three young people—two women priests and a lay man—who, whilst one presided, shared the preaching. There was no way to tell how many of the congregants might have been regular locals and how many visitors, though backpackers carting rucksacks gave the clue that there were at least some visitors (like myself) present.

CARAVAN THROUGH THE CATHEDRAL

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On arrival, congregants were invited to wait inside the door before then being beckoned together to seating in the west end of the nave where a small group of choral singers opened with the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, perhaps standard fare in this bastion of choral tradition, and likely not the first time it had been sung this day— as the Threshold service at 7.30 in the evening was the fifth act of public worship on this day, after morning celebrations of holy communion, matins and evensong—the latter of which was sure to have included song of Mary as it is a staple of Anglican forms of evening prayer. These earlier services would each have had their own style, some perhaps little changed over decades, and in some cases perhaps very close to forms used for centuries in this historic building. Notably, though, Threshold, while featuring the gorgeous choral singing of the Ebor songsters and many traditional markers, brought much creative verve to the making of eucharist. 

York Minister has a significant recent history of promoting emergent worship among its liturgical repertoire. It is featured, for example, in bishops Mary Gray-Reeves and Michael Perham’s The Hospitality of God, on “emergent worship for a missional church” (London: SPCK, 2010, pp. 9-10) and its current iteration of creative liturgy is now facilitated by a team involving among others Catriona Cumming (the succentor, with whom I spoke after the service), who are supported by a culture in the cathedral at large that encourages their experimentation.

The service began with the greeting of peace—“The peace of the Lord be always with you”[1]—and informal greetings among the worshippers. We were then told that in the Christian calendar today—June 24–marked the birthday of John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus, and so that would shape the service. We were also informed that the service would be one in which over the next hour we would move throughout the building, both together in procession and at liberty in open space later in the service. 

Interestingly, immediately following the peace and welcome, the presiding priest led the congregation in the opening exchange of traditional eucharistic prayer [2], known as the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”), before continuing with praise of God, before we heard the first scripture reading of the evening, read by the lay man who then followed the reading by offering a brief reflection. Taking his cue from the Hebrew scripture reading of the day (Malachi 3.1-6), he said that just as in his day John the Baptist had prepared the way for Jesus, now in our own time and place, preparing the way for Jesus fell to us. Then as the singers led a song, on “preparing the way of Christ” (I had never heard the song, but recognised the tune as a familiar Taize chant), the congregation was invited to follow the choirsters as they walked as we processed to the centre of the vast building where another reading, this time from the New Testament (Luke 1.39-45) followed, then another choral piece by the singers (“Ave Maria”) and another brief reflection, this time by the presider. She made some interesting observations in her brief talk: that there are not many stories in the Bible where two women meet and talk with joy about what God has done for them, and that neither are there many Bible stories that listen in to what pregnant women have to say. But the gospel portion she had read did both of those things, she noted, before linking her thoughts to John the Baptist’s ministry of shining light towards the coming of Jesus, with Jesus and John the children carried by the pregnant women talking with joy of God’s work. Once more, the Ebor singers then led the assembly to another place, the entrance to the “high altar,” where a further reading (this time Luke 3.1-17) followed and the succentor led a reflection, ending her brief talk with a gentle  invitation to repentance.

While “the sermon” in this service was being dispersed around the service, more unusually so too was the eucharistic prayer—which is usually a discreet unit prayed over the gifts of the table. In this service, the prayer—taken from the Church of England’s liturgical resources, the CofE being a church that centrally authorises some texts for prayer [1]—had begun at the west end, and was now continued at this third place of gathering, with bread and wine having being carried from place to place as we were led around the building by the singers. At this third place of gathering, the presider led aspects of eucharistic prayer—the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) and Benedictus (“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”) and institution narrative. Between the Sanctus and Benedictus, however, was both a traditional hymn (“Hark the glad sound! The saviour comes…”) and an act of penitence and absolution. And during the institution narrative, when Jesus’ so-called last supper is recalled, because we were still on the move, and there was to be another station, when the presider spoke of the cup of wine which gospel stories tell of Jesus sharing with his disciples, she held a decanter of wine rather than a cup/chalice full of it.

All this led to another very interesting feature of the service. Before the eucharistic prayer was completed, the assembly was invited to disperse for personal prayer, either to find a place to sit anywhere in the vast building or to walk between the stations which had been set up around the building and around which we had so far throughout the service already gathered. So back in the west end was a table focused on the Hebrew prophets, laden with honeycomb, and cards about prophets “who told people to get ready” along with invitation to reflect on “the people who have gone before you in preparing the Way of the Lord.” At the second station in the centre of the building there was a station focused on the meeting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with Elizabeth, the mother of John. Here two mirrors had been set up facing each other, with invitation to read Malcolm Guite’s poem “The Annunciation.” At the third station, at the entrance to the high altar, there was a focus on the baptism of Jesus—a lengthy blue cloth stretched around the floor to depict a river, and a prominent key portion of the gospel text that had been proclaimed—“This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased” with a question for reflection, “What is God calling you to do, or do without?” 

For the fifteen minutes of open space, some people meandered around the building between these stations, or otherwise wandered to look at the magnificent glass work all around as it speckled light across stone floors and walls in fading sunshine, while others simply found a place to sit down and be still. After fifteen minutes, a bell then rang to summon the assembly to the chapel under the far east window where, once we were gathered, the eucharistic prayer was completed, and communion was shared, after which members of the assembly were finally sent out on their way. 

CELEBRATING THRESHOLD

For readers unfamiliar with traditional forms of eucharistic prayer, my description of the prayer at Threshold will perhaps have already been quite baffling. And even for those familiar with traditional forms of eucharistic prayer, the “dispersal” of the prayer at stations around the building may be unfamiliar. I had not encountered this myself. I found it intriguing—and in the way it was done in this service, agreeable. Indeed, I found numerous things to celebrate about Threshold:

—the blend of traditional and emergent styles of worship. This carried the no doubt majority “traditional” style of worship at the cathedral into a more experimental mode in thoughtful and invitingly-led ways.
— the songsters whose sounds were quite extraordinary, and the leaders’ style and tone which conveyed a warm formality. Again, both the song and the tone I imagined to be in continuity with other services in this building, such that Threshold was not an incongruent imposter into the liturgical repertoire of the minster, but rather an open and creative expression of a style which suits and serves well in a huge space, with a long history, and whilst a regular congregation, always with large numbers of visitors, never able to close in on itself. 
—the very fact that Threshold’s context amidst the diverse forms of liturgy throughout the day at the minster, each with their different cultures and moods, means that together there is vibrant attempt at diversity, to include difference, and so to enact the minster’s strap-line vision: “inviting everyone to discover God’s love” (https://yorkminster.org/worship/ ).
—the stational nature of the liturgy and the freewheeling open space, both of these things being strong features of emergent worship which were grasped to good effect at Threshold.
—the dispersed sermon: three voices rather than a monologue—which is all entirely in keeping with options in the Church of England’s liturgical resources [2], of which this was a good model.
—the dispersed eucharistic prayer, an interesting way to structure the whole service, though it would perhaps be somewhat odd to those familiar with “regular” eucharistic prayer in the Church of England, albeit not necessary strange at all to the more and more percentage of the British population who could not be expected to be familiar with traditional forms of Christian worship. So it’s a serious question to ask, after observing that the prayer was not prayed in its traditional form, “so what?” I enjoyed wondering who appreciated/questioned/noticed/knew/cared that just one prayer from Anglican eucharistic rites had in this service given shape to the whole event. 
—the open space stations were creative and inviting. I especially appreciated the intriguing use of two mirrors to depict the annunciation. The facing mirrors reminded me of both a visit to the Leeds Armouries the previous day in which mirrors had been used at ground level to enable sight of multiple weapons above visitors’ heads, while here viewers were directed to luminous colour and light all around, and also of the way that mirrors are used in Mormon temples, facing each other so that when persons stand between the mirrors their image goes back and back in an intimation of eternity.

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THRESHOLD CURIOS

Alongside these appreciations, Threshold also threw up some curios and questions, at least from my perspective:
—the order of service suggested that each reflection by the three preachers would be followed by silence, but in fact silence was almost completely absent. There was abundant opportunity for stillness, and a lovely sense of space, reflective and beautiful aspects to what went on, but never actual silence. So I was curious to return to my hotel and read the minster website to discover that another creative expression taking place at the cathedral through summer were evenings when the building was open simply for long periods of silence (https://yorkminster.org/whats-on/event/silence-in-the-minster-3/ ).
—structuring the service around eucharistic prayer is quite a sophisticated thing to do. I very much welcome the experiment, though I did wonder at points along the way how accessible or otherwise it might have been to some participants. However, people  very evidently joined in with singing, processions, open space, and so far as I could tell, all also responded to the invitation to communion. No one seemed at all perturbed by difference from a “norm,” if of course the worshippers on this occasion had other norms in other times and places. 
—I understand that not every Threshold service is a communion service, so presumably eucharistic prayer does not pattern every event in the way it did on this occasion. Other creative patterns might then be at play. As an experiment, shaping the entire event around a eucharistic prayer was a fascinating and enjoyable act of prayer, but as a standard I think might lose something of the integrity of eucharistic prayer as a single whole, not a series of pieces. 
—the presiding style at table, while artfully pitched for pace and tone, tended away from a contemporary Anglican approach in which the presider would adopt an orant posture throughout the whole prayer, without manual acts—picking up bread and wine from the table—or further actions that would single out supposedly “special” moments in the prayer. Our presider picked up both bread and wine—and, in fact, because we were not yet at the place at which we shared communion, the wine was still in a decanter. Not only did she pick up the gifts of the table, she elevated them, and span crosses over them at different points. What we saw was an embellished ritual enactment of the seventeenth-century Book of Common Prayer overlain on the contemporary texts of Common Worship. These actions are not necessary in Common Worship and indeed they are discouraged by the proposals for eucharistic celebration by the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation [3]. Arguably, they may be considered apt in an ancient building in which liturgies would have proliferated such actions. Well, perhaps again, “so what?” I wondered what a more contemporary enacted theology of consecration might have brought to the event.

CREATIVE ENGAGEMENT WITH EMERGENT ETHOS 

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Where much emergent worship, in Anglican and wider contexts, has tended to adopt an ethos of following what is known as the “ecumenical eucharistic ordo” (a strong and intentional patterning of gathering around word, in sacramental celebration, and towards a missional sending out) but enacting this pattern with a looser approach to authorised texts, the Threshold event playfully throws a spanner in the works of that emergent trend. At Threshold, the ecumenical eucharistic ordo was indeed in place, but creatively “funnelled” as it were through a single, albeit central, prayer—eucharistic prayer. And, notably, every word that was voiced in prayer at Threshold was an authorised text from Common Worship. (Of course much of Common Worship’s eucharistic provisions were also missing.) Rather than following the emergent trend towards common shape with perhaps extemporised or non-authorised texts, Threshold showed how much creativity can be brought to praying authorised texts and selecting and interacting with authorised texts in the shaping of Christian ritual. The event put me in mind of a statement that stands at the introduction of one of the Church of England’s prayer books, and which Threshold had very effectively captured and enacted: “…preserve the proper continuity with the past, but with freshness. Liturgy is not something we ‘make up,’ nor is tradition a musty past to be left behind by modern pioneers” [4].

Coda: though I didn’t notice any sign at the minster itself saying as much, when I looked at the website, I was pleased to find a clear welcome of same-sex couples: “Same sex couples will receive a warm welcome and affirmation at York Minster” (https://yorkminster.org/worship/life-events/sex-civil-partnerships/  ). Going on to explain that while at the moment unable to marry same-sex couples, the statement went on to stress the minster’s commitment to “developing ministry” to such persons. I have not noticed such affirmations on other websites of other English Anglican cathedrals (though I hope they are there), and while the bishops bumble away at how to get themselves on the right side of the gospel with respect to the LGBTQI+ members of the church and world, at least York seems to be making good on its own commitment to “inviting everyone to discover God’s love,” in which the full inclusion of all human persons, of whatever gender, is a signal test of our times.


[1] On this occasion, the prayer was Prayer B from Order One of Holy Communion (https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/holy-communion#na ) using the extended preface for John the Baptist (https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/festivals/birth-john-baptist )
[2] https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/new-patterns-worshp/planning-worship/service-word
[3] https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/IALC-Dublin-Renewing-the-Anglican-Eucharist.pdf
[4] Lent, Holy Week and Easter (London: Church House Publishing, 1984), p. 2.
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York Minster - The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York: see website and schedule of services

All photos by Stephen Burns, June 2018 - click to zoom slideshow below